Ed Lee became mayor as San Francisco emerged from the Great Recession into a boom phase rivaling the Gold Rush that first put the city on the map.
Both supporting and containing the excesses of the tech explosion became a central theme of his seven years as mayor. Lee was an unabashed supporter of bringing jobs and tech companies to San Francisco, which he called the Innovation Capital of the World. He oversaw years of dramatic growth that transformed the city’s skyline while also sending real estate values to stratospheric levels.
He also tried — and some say with little success — to tame the boom: higher rents have pushed San Francisco into a housing affordability crisis.
Lee, 65, died early Tuesday, hours after he collapsed while shopping at a supermarket near his home. The issues that he grappled with remain largely unsolved. And as San Francisco residents grieved the sudden loss of Lee, they were faced with the question of how economic forces in the city would change without him at City Hall.
Lee was able to navigate the political waters in part because he rose to power as a community activist and attorney who fought against unlawful evictions.
Constantly talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” Lee championed what became known as the “Twitter tax break,” a cut in the city’s payroll tax that persuaded tech companies to make home a seedy stretch of Market Street or stay there. By the time of Lee’s death, San Francisco’s new tallest building, Salesforce Tower, which replaced a malodorous bus terminal, symbolized the city’s turn in fortunes.
Yet the success in a turbocharged economy led him to focus on “housing, housing, housing” in his second term. Middle- and working-class tenants have departed San Francisco as property values have risen and as developers have sought to convert rent-controlled apartments into condominiums for the wealthy.
In 2014, Lee unveiled a plan to build or rehabilitate 30,000 housing units by 2020. Just in September, Lee said that more than 17,000 units have been brought online, and of those, 35% are permanently affordable.
There have been disagreements about the mayor’s approach. He successfully campaigned against tenants rights groups’ efforts to impose tighter restrictions on short-term housing rental services such as Airbnb. While crediting Lee for working to renovate public housing, Supervisor Aaron Peskin added that the mayor was sometimes more focused on adding market-rate housing instead being laser-focused on affordable housing.
“San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides. And it’s all about land, and you don’t have that many land opportunities in San Francisco. So if they all become multimillion-dollar condos, it means, by definition, you’re pushing working-class people and poor people out,” Peskin said. “And he was less enamored of those arguments than one would’ve thought he might be, as a civil rights and housing activist back in the day.”
That said, even some of his vocal critics on housing policies said his background as a tenants rights advocate sometimes made him a key ally, such as in efforts to reform or repeal the Ellis Act, the state law that allows owners to evict tenants in rent-controlled units to redevelop the property into condos.
Edwin M. Lee was born on May 5, 1952, and was the son of immigrants.
Lee grew up in a Seattle public housing complex before his father, a cook, and his mother, a garment worker, built a modest home. As a youth helping with deliveries from the family restaurant, he had listened to hostile customers berate his dad with racial slurs.
“It was an awakening,” Lee told The Times in 2015. “ ‘Why do we as people take this?’ ”
After attending Bowdoin College in Maine on a scholarship, he relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated from the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley and as a young lawyer, joined the San Francisco Asian Law Caucus. In 1978, he helped organize a rent strike by residents in Chinatown’s decrepit Ping Yuen public housing project after a young woman was raped and killed there.
He “fought against discrimination, working on the front lines to keep tenants from being evicted,” said London Breed, acting mayor and San Francisco supervisor. “He was, from the dawn of his career, an advocate for the powerless, a voice for the overlooked.”
Lee also was active in supporting garment workers and raising awareness of the slaying of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man whose fatal beating in Detroit by two white unemployed auto workers helped galvanize Asian Americans to fight for civil rights.
In 1988, then-Mayor Art Agnos hired Lee to run a whistleblower program, followed by a stint heading the Human Rights Commission, where he pressed for fair hiring practices for women and minorities. Later, he became public works director and city administrator.
When then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor in 2010, Newsom sought out Lee to replace him as an interim mayor appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Lee resisted.
By then, Lee had gained a reputation as an affable, humble, low-key bureaucrat, known for his chunky mustache and corny jokes. As city administrator, he somehow sidestepped the city’s pitched battles between moderate liberals and more left-leaning progressives.
“He did not always deliver a soundbite, or carry the room with unspoken charisma. Flash never mattered to him,” Breed said.
He said he would serve as interim mayor for only one year, until Newsom’s term expired. But later in 2011, he changed his mind and decided to seek a full term. Among those who pushed him to do so were former Mayor Willie Brown, the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was said to have persuaded him that San Francisco needed him.
Lee managed to overcome other hurdles in San Francisco. He managed to craft a sweeping law to retrofit about 5,000 earthquake-vulnerable wood-frame apartment buildings in the city, a policy goal that eluded his predecessor.
Lee leaves a legacy as the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States. San Francisco was once the center of anti-Chinese sentiment, fostering anti-Chinese riots and attacks on Chinese-owned businesses.
Lee’s election was a milestone for San Francisco’s influential Chinese American population, many of whose ancestors came from China to San Francisco during the Gold Rush era but faced decades of ugly discrimination by both other residents and the government.
“This is where the Chinese Exclusion Act emanated — the Bay Area, it came out of San Francisco,” Newsom said. “To right that wrong, in such a substantive and symbolic way, to have him ascend to this position and to handle himself with such grace and devotion … what an extraordinary thing for the Chinese community to have someone like Ed Lee to break that barrier.”
Lee collapsed while shopping with his wife at his local Safeway supermarket Monday night, KTVU-TV reported, quoting an employee at the store who said it was not an unusual time for Lee to be there. The station said the mayor was smiling before he collapsed.
He arrived by ambulance at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center shortly after 10 p.m., said Dr. Susan Ehrlich, the chief executive of the medical center. He was pronounced dead at 1:11 a.m.
“There was a deep sadness. I can’t even explain,” said Rev. Norman Fong, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, who left a prayer at Lee’s hospital bed shortly after his death.
“We’re losing a hero. A Chinatown hero,” Fong said.
Lee is survived by his wife, Anita, and his two daughters, Brianna and Tania.