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San Francisco Foundation CEO: 'We Need To Have A Higher Aspiration Than Going Back To Normal'

A Bay Area economic recovery should go beyond going back to normal, nonprofit leaders said during Bisnow's weekly Bay Area webinar Thursday afternoon. 


As the first region to implement shelter-in-place orders, the Bay Area has taken as sustained a hit to its economy as anywhere in the U.S., and not far behind its six-county decree was a statewide stay-at-home order that has since caused California's unemployment rate to skyrocket.

Since March 7, the state has processed over 3.5 million unemployment claims, its Economic Development Department said Thursday. Nearly one in five workers in California have been left jobless by the coronavirus epidemic and accompanying economic slowdown, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.  

Moreover, the slowdown has also exacerbated pre-existing issues within the Bay Area's economy, San Francisco CEO Fred Blackwell and others said Thursday.

“Sheltering in place in Palo Alto, or Piedmont or Sausalito is very different than sheltering in place in a place like the Tenderloin," Blackwell said, speaking alongside Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman and Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. CEO Don Falk.

“Recovery conversations should not be about how we go back to normal," Blackwell said, echoing affordable housing developers who spoke in a Bisnow webinar the prior week. "We need to have a higher aspiration than going back to normal."

Falk, chief executive of an affordable housing developer himself, said he agrees.

Clockwise from top left: Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. CEO Don Falk, San Francisco Foundation CEO Fred Blackwell, Bisnow West Coast Vice President Michael Guimond and Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman

"We've spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between housing and health and between health and homelessness, and this crisis has made that clear, really, to the whole world," he said.

Blackwell said the situation is sparking momentum in the state legislature for housing reform. A sweeping housing bill authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat representing the 11th District, failed again this year, but other housing bills have passed and given wins to housing advocates in recent years. 

Another shift in the Bay Area's status quo is happening in the office sector, Wunderman said. 

"I think there's going to be some impetus to support some people telecommuting," he said, predicting a change to "the nature of commercial real estate."

"A lot of the commercial real estate has been driven by a few companies that have grown like weeds," he said. "Strategically, if they see things differently as a result of this, that set of companies can have a profound impact on what happens in commercial real estate."

One such company, Google, may have recently given a sign of things to come, reportedly stopping talks on plans for over 2M SF of office space throughout the Bay Area. 

"In some ways, the pause button might be a nice button to hit," Wunderman said. "When we make the comeback, how do we want to come back?"