‘Quality of life’ is a progressive value

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 18, 2006]

Several recent news reports have focused on a debate involving the costs and benefits of enforcing San Francisco’s so-called “quality of life” laws against homeless people for minor offenses such as panhandling, sleeping in vehicles and carrying open containers of alcohol on city streets.

Illuminating though the debate may be, it is also emblematic of a now commonly recognized shorthand that has increasingly ascribed to the term “quality of life” a narrow — and decidedly illiberal — meaning.

Beginning as far back as a generation ago, the defining conflict around which San Francisco politics typically organized was “downtown interests,” generally pro-growth and more conservative, versus “neighborhood interests,” characterized by a slow-growth approach toward development and progressive politics. Inherent in advocacy for the latter has been the fight to preserve the unique character and economic accessibility of the many diverse neighborhoods we San Franciscans call home.

Over the years, of course, neighborhood activists have frequently found themselves at odds with well-funded proposals for freeways, gentrification efforts and development projects. But at its core the cause was defined less by what it opposed than by its staunch support for the continued vitality of our neighborhoods — for our “quality of life” as residents.

In much the same way that the national religious right managed to lay exclusive claim to “family values” (as if liberals both lacked and despised families), somewhere along the way neighborhood activism has seen “quality of life” hijacked by those who would have us believe that our societal well-being is solely dependent on punishing panhandling and public intoxication. The problem with this semantic hijacking is that it has both robbed neighborhood activism of what it has rightfully stood for, as an affirmative value, and put progressives in the unenviable political position of seeming to oppose “quality of life.”

It’s time to reclaim “quality of life” as a progressive value.

As city attorney, one of my responsibilities is to litigate cases where irresponsible businesses and individual scofflaws consistently refuse to comply with building, health and safety codes.

These aren’t superfluous regulations from overzealous bureaucrats, but vitally important state and local laws intended to protect residents, businesses and neighbors from potentially life-endangering threats such as fire, structural collapse and disease-bearing pathogens. These laws also intend to protect neighborhoods from public nuisances such as accumulated trash, loitering and vandalism that, left to fester, can communicate a powerful message to gangs and drug pushers that law enforcement is failing the neighborhood.

These are serious laws, and our responsibility to enforce them is a quality-of-life imperative I take very seriously.

Earlier this year, I worked with District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty and representatives from a broad cross-section of city and state agencies to expand our “Neighborhood Rescue Team” model in San Francisco’s Western Addition, lower Haight and Hayes Valley. The model replicates a successful initiative we launched two years ago in Bayview-Hunters Point, working with District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, to more effectively address neighborhood nuisances by bringing together inspectors from the various agencies responsible for enforcing health, building, fire codes and other state and city laws, for coordinated inspections of properties where neglect, mismanagement and even deliberate lawlessness threaten neighbors’ quality of life.

This summer, my office obtained a tough court-ordered civil injunction and monetary penalties against one of San Francisco’s most prolific graffiti vandals, sending a clear message to other would-be “taggers” on a scourge that visibly diminishes the quality of life of too many San Francisco neighborhoods. It’s a crime that victimizes city taxpayers, whose dollars clean up the malicious vandalism, as much as it does Muni passengers forced to commute in defaced vehicles that are often vandals’ favorite targets.

Last month, I sued an illegal dumper for using a Bayview-Hunters Point street corner as his own personal garbage dump — ditching carpet and assorted debris on at least 23 occasions over a period of nine months. My hope is to demonstrate convincingly that using city streets to dump trash is, in fact, vastly more expensive than the fees one would pay at a lawful waste-disposal facility.

For the neighborhood residents and local businesses that have been forced to endure this ceaseless cycle of squalor, this was unmistakably a quality-of-life issue.

Later this year, I hope to obtain San Francisco’s first-ever civil gang injunction in an effort to augment city efforts to stem the rising tide of gang-related violence plaguing our neighborhoods.

Civil gang injunctions, which have been used with remarkable success in Southern California since 1980, involve civil lawsuits against gang members to prohibit conduct that constitutes a public nuisance — including loitering, blocking traffic, trespassing and conduct associated with drug trafficking — with violations punished by civil penalties and jail time. Gang injunctions can be an effective new tool for law enforcement in San Francisco to intervene and disrupt illicit gang activity early, before it reaches the level of felony crime and violence.

The truth is that tackling problems that negatively affect San Franciscans’ quality of life has been the primary motivation for a great many of my efforts as city attorney.

I haven’t sued a single homeless person yet.

The difficulty with misidentifying “quality of life” as a set of issues strictly related to homelessness is that it both overstates the relative detriment of a single problem, and vastly understates the multitude of important ways in which we can effectively improve our societal well being. At its best, and in its fullest meaning, “quality of life” is a progressive value that doesn’t deserve to be as narrowly defined — or as politically loaded — as it is.

Dennis Herrera is city attorney of San Francisco.