Ideas that work: a plan for a new San Francisco

With its own public bank, San Francisco could begin to fund and promote more community-centered forms of economic development
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OPINION San Francisco is a city of tremendous riches and problems — a locus of wealth, inequality, innovation, creativity, and sometimes stifling resistance by political and economic power brokers. It's time to break through. We have the ability, and opportunity, to create a whole new set of economic, social, and political relationships between people and government. On everything from municipal banking, to Muni reform, to public-controlled sustainable energy production and community-driven budgeting, we have a flood of ideas from thinkers and activists across the city.

The Aug. 14-15 Community Congress at the University of San Francisco will focus on turning those ideas into a political platform the city can implement. Last week, we described the vision; this week, we offer some proposals that will be discussed at the event; following the event, others will be posted at sfbg.com.

The event runs Aug. 14 from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. and Aug. 15 from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. at USF's McLaren Conference Center. For information, go to www.sfsummitcongress.wordpress.com. (Karl Beitel and Christopher Cook)

1. A MUNICIPAL BANK

San Francisco is rich — it has $16.1 billion in assets, with a net worth of $6.5 billion, according to the city treasurer. With a little maneuvering and political will, roughly a half-billion of that money could be devoted to creating a municipal bank: a fiscally solvent, federally insured economic engine that would invest in community development projects serving underfunded activities and endeavors, providing significant economic and social benefits to the residents of San Francisco.

With its own public bank, San Francisco could begin to fund and promote more community-centered forms of economic development. Worker co-ops, for instance, could get loans for projects that are socially beneficial and economically viable. The bank could also help generate new homegrown industries that produce both revenue and social value to the city. This would help democratize the city economy, giving financial muscle to community-based projects and neighborhood-serving businesses.

Over a period of three to five years, a modest portion of the city's liquid investments can be transferred to create to the new bank. The bank could use this pool of capital to extend low-interest, long-term loans for projects located in San Francisco. The bank would offer a full spectrum of retail banking services, such as money market accounts, to attract additional deposits to supplement funds from the city.

A municipal bank has potential to grow into a major economic force in the city for financing community-centered development. With the right up-front commitment from the city, the total asset portfolio of loans and other investments would grow far beyond this initial public investment — representing a significant infusion of loan capital into currently underserved segments of the credit market in San Francisco.

The municipal bank would be a member-owned, federally chartered, and federally insured credit union. It would engage in rigorous vetting of loan applicants. But because the bank would not run as a profit-maximizing enterprise, loan officers would explicitly consider projects in light of their economic viability and potential contribution to the economic, social, and cultural well being of San Francisco.

Priority could, for instance, be given to loans for affordable housing development and community economic development.

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