Mayor London Breed is sworn in as San Francisco's 45th mayor by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, this city's 42nd mayor. Pool photo by Gabrielle Lurie, S.F. Chronicle.

“If London Breed is right, she’s intimidated by no mortal creature,” crowd is told. This city’s problems, however, are not mortal creatures.

[dropcap]Twenty-four[/dropcap] hours ago, Civic Center Plaza was a desolate swath of land ceded to men and women sleeping during the day or, perhaps, shooting up. Twenty-four hours hence, it’ll be so again. But today was different — and not just because a bank of porta-potties was on site.

The weather was perfect for Mayor London Breed’s swearing-in; the perfect accompaniment to what was, for many of the emphatic supporters gathered here, a perfect day. The only overheated element, in fact, emanated from the podium when opening invocation speaker Rabbi Beth Singer stated that Breed’s ascent to City Hall Room 200 was a “sign from God” and “the answer to our prayers.”

Well, that’s a novel way to describe the election of a mayor in a mid-sized American city — in a contest featuring tremendous amounts of outside spending and decided by a scant couple of thousand votes over a former rabbinical student.

But that’s neither here nor there. Today’s inauguration — and, really, most any inauguration — is about looking to the future, not the past. And yet we’ve never had a mayor like London Nicole Breed. When Breed talks, people listen. And that’s due, in large part, because of her past. Breed’s past is going to account for a lot of San Francisco’s future.

Breed, we are told, writes much of her own speeches. She has to: So much about them is deeply personal. Former Mayor Ed Lee, for what it’s worth, also grew up in a large, impoverished family in public housing. But he did not make it the foundation of his public persona. It was one biographical detail among many.

But if Lee, who died at age 65 on December 12, chose to talk about these things at his inauguration, no one would have been the wiser. In January 2016, perhaps for the first time in recorded human history, Lee was booed to the point of incoherence during his third swearing-in. The handful of unruly protesters were the only element, however, that distinguished a tired and pro-forma affair. That wasn’t the case today. Make no mistake: A great deal of the powers-that-be and check-writers-that-be who underwrote Lee underwrote Breed. A great deal of the City Family power structure that orbited around Lee is orbiting around Breed. But, today, a new mayor talked about “changing what’s normal” in San Francisco. And people listened.

And, wisely, today’s event was held out of doors, meaning a handful of loudmouths couldn’t take advantage of City Hall’s serene acoustics, and commandeer the proceedings.

[dropcap]By[/dropcap] the time Breed — the city’s first African American female mayor — reminded the crowd that she grew up a world away and just down the block, she was the third speaker to do so. She then went on to say that she would do the things she’s said she would do all along: Take on this city’s intractable housing, affordability, and homeless quagmires.

These are not just city problems, but national problems being experienced in this city. The Rev. Amos Brown today praised Breed during his introduction by saying that “If she’s right, she’s not intimidated by no mortal creature.”

The crises of housing, affordability and homelessness are not mortal creatures.

Building more housing, as Breed has pledged, is not something a mayor can pick up a hammer and go and do. Reforming sclerotic city processes is a start, but that’s harder than a few changes at the top: Development professionals tell me the major holdups aren’t activist neighborhood groups or demanding commissioners but the institutional dysfunction of waiting six months to get a planner assigned to your project and two years to get a hearing. Then, after you’ve fixed the Planning Department, you can begin working on the Department of Building Inspection. And, for good measure, the Fire Department.

These are neither easy problems to remediate, nor easy accomplishments to run on — and Breed is up for re-election soon, in November 2019.

Breed today, pushing her signature — but legally challenging — proposal of safe-injection sites, said that it’s not enough to merely sweep drug-users off the streets. She wants treatment on demand. And everyone applauded. How could anyone do otherwise?

And yet, per conversations with several City Hall players, “progress” on homeless issues turns out to be a malleable term. “The Coalition on Homelessness would have you believe that San Franciscans are very concerned with what happens to homeless people,” said one longtime city politico. “But I think the average San Franciscan just wants to see an improvement in street conditions.”

“Homelessness” and “Quality of Life,” it seems, are seen as somewhat interchangeable terms among political professionals.

With San Francisco’s inhospitality now an international story — needle-and-feces filth porn has been featured on even Russian propaganda sites of late, supplementing the local paper of record — the pressure is to act quickly and, most important, demonstrably. Breed is, again, running for office. And providing the homeless with housing — providing anyone with housing — is a lot harder than shunting tents off the street.

Our new mayor will, this Saturday, be hosting a day-long policy summit. As a means to put all of her supporters in one place, impart upon them the mayoral imprimatur, and keep them active ahead of an imminent re-election campaign, this is a smart move. As a means to burnish the mayor’s thin policy credentials, it’s patronizing both to her and to the general public. You don’t become a policy maven in an afternoon. And, to be frank, that’s not the only way to be a good mayor.

Breed is viewed as an intelligent, serious and policy-curious person — which is more than can be said for some denizens of City Hall. Not every mayor needs to thrive on whitepapers as did Gavin Newsom (whose effectiveness in this job is a matter of extreme debate).

Our new mayor doesn’t have any tools at her disposal to combat this city’s problems that Lee did not — and is, additionally, burdened by the need to begin running for office in just a few short months.

But London Breed’s lived experience — that life story we have heard so many times — gives her gravitas and authenticity. She can make asks others can’t and take stands others would not.

Breed can, in short, push the manner of solutions she chooses to push and be the type of mayor she chooses to be. If she chooses to combat “homelessness” rather than just “quality of life” — she can do that.

If Breed truly purports to change what’s normal around here, the clock is now ticking.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. I would like to know from Mayor Breed how she plans to “solve” the homeless crisis and balance that with NOT encouraging more homeless to come to SF. Breed referred to a homeless survey many times, tried to spin the issue as these are mostly SF residents that suddenly fell on hard times through no fault of their own. If she read this survey she would discover about 70% of the homeless never paid for rent or mortgage in their entire lives. She looks at this as a static homeless population of about 7500. Also not true. About 20,000 homeless pass in/out of SF each year. How will she “solve” this problem without encouraging and incentivizing more of that 20K pass throughs to stay and collect benefits? She never talks about this. Ditto any other SF politician. There are about 30K homeless in the SF Bay area. Again, how to work this issue without becoming a magnet for homeless people. Does she strive to make SF the #1 quality provider for homeless in the USA? This is a matter that should be attacked on a regional basis. If someone pitches a tent in SF city limits why does that mean they are rendered benefits within SF city limits where such services are quite expensive. Work with all the counties where this is a problem and set up regional centers for assistance. Finally, the homeless issue as well as all quality of life issues has to serve the needs of regular families that live here, work here, pay for their own upkeep, and simply want clean and safe streets. They need compassion as well.

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  2. “Our new mayor doesn’t have any tools at her disposal to combat this city’s problems that Lee did not…”

    That’s not a good way of understanding the issues and challenges.

    For instance, the current “tool” heading up the Planning Department, Director John Rahaim, is a perfectly likable guy, but he has not been a leader when it comes to getting housing approved and built — in fact, he has been largely a “get-along-go-along” personality, wholly lacking in vision and initiative and rather feckless overall.

    Mayor Breed, if she’s serious about getting housing creation going, needs stronger leadership at the Planning Department.

    Accordingly, first and foremost, she needs to appoint a new Director of Planning who will be a vigorous advocate for housing and who will get things done.

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    1. Karl —

      Thanks for the readership. But this exact point was discussed in the column. “Fixing” the Planning Department requires a lot more than a change at the top. And even if Planning could be quickly and expeditiously fixed, then changes would still have to be made at DBI and even the Fire Department (which has quite a say in transit affaris and city planning due to the totally reasonable concern that fire engines need to be able to safely navigate the city).

      That said, I would not be surprised to see John Raiham step down, along with several other department heads — as I discussed in an earlier column. In addition to arguably being a merited change, it also buys time for an incoming mayor facing a rapid re-election campaign to make replacements of this sort and then claim time is needed to get up to speed when pressed on persistent problems.



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      1. Joe — I now better understand and agree with your assessment. Thx.

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