San Francisco mayor defends city's reputation, argues 'hard decisions' must be made for progress

"We have to keep working towards solutions," London Breed said.

November 19, 2023, 9:57 AM

While San Francisco's struggles to rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic are well known, as images of tent-lined sidewalks, empty downtown storefronts and broken car windows become all too common sights, Mayor London Breed says she has not lost hope -- and that progress is being made.

"When people are coming to San Francisco, they are surprised that things aren't as bad as what they thought they were," Breed told Martha Raddatz in an interview at City Hall for ABC's "This Week."

"Are things perfect in San Francisco? No they're not. Are they perfect in any other city in the country or in the world? No, they are not. But we continue to work aggressively at it in order to solve some of our most pressing problems," Breed said.

The city last week hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, marking the biggest gathering of world leaders in San Francisco since the U.N. charter was signed there in 1945. Breed said she saw the conference as an opportunity for her city, which has long held strong economic ties to Asia and served as an American "gateway" to the region.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks with ABC News' Martha Raddatz at City Hall.
Julia Cherner/ABC News

"Our relationship with China has been important because of the people who not only live here, but also the people who conduct business here," Breed said. "We're really excited about the opportunity to build on the economic prosperity that we know can exist when those relationships are solid."

The conference came at a critical time for San Francisco, which has struggled to recover after COVID shutdowns intended to limit the spread of infection and death from the virus.

Breed acknowledged San Francisco's reputation was affected by the lockdowns at the start of the pandemic three years ago, but she said that the public health choices were life-saving.

"San Francisco shut down first, and we got a lot of attention. At first it was very negative, that we would shut down San Francisco to deal with a global pandemic, and eventually we saw that we saved so many lives from the decisions we made, and then San Francisco was a leader during COVID," Breed insisted.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks to the press prior to the arrival of President Joe Biden at San Francisco International Airport for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit in San Francisco, Calif., Nov. 14, 2023.
Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters

She also referenced the scrutiny the city frequently receives, including from conservatives who seek to paint it as a failure of liberal politics. (Breed and many other San Francisco leaders are Democrats -- and have been for decades.)

"We are used to the kind of attention that we get, sometimes not necessarily fairly, but we are committed to dealing with the challenges that exist here," she said.

At the same time, the city's economy has shifted as, post-shutdowns, major companies withdrew from in-person offices that were a local staple.

Breed said empty offices didn't tell a complete story about her city and that going forward, areas like downtown had to be adapted to be more than just retail.

"I think that sometimes people equate the vacancy rate for office in downtown with what's happening in San Francisco, but San Francisco has created a number of new neighborhoods where people want to be that’s unlike what downtown has been," she said.

Breed, who was first narrowly elected mayor in a crowded 2018 special election, insisted San Francisco is seeing progress thanks to her administration's homelessness and crime policies.

While law enforcement data shows San Francisco is not nearly among the country's most violent cities per capita, it has grappled with poor public perception and higher rates of property crime. A Gallup survey from July found that barely half of Americans said they rated San Francisco as safe to live in or visit.

Breed told Raddatz that things are getting better.

"We have since 2018 helped over 10,000 people exit homelessness in San Francisco," she said. "When you look at the data of what is happening with our crime numbers over the past five years, they are showing a decline, especially with car break-ins, burglaries and other challenges that people are talking about."

Still, Breed has faced some criticism in recent months for her proposal to mandate drug screenings and treatment for welfare recipients, with recent headlines alleging a "swing to the right."

"Do you think you're coming down too hard on this?" Raddatz pressed.

Breed said it wasn't her idea alone.

"What is important to note here is when I put forward the legislation in order to require treatment for people suffering from addiction, if they want to receive general assistance from the city, this came from people who are former addicts themselves, who felt that San Francisco was not being as aggressive as they should have to help people get clean and sober, especially in light of the number of people who are dying from drug overdoses on the streets of San Francisco every single day," she said.

"I'm willing to do what's necessary in order to save lives," Breed added. "No, it's not always the popular thing to do, and this is not about right or left. This is about -- do we want to save lives, or do we want to continue to do things the same way we've done them? And I'm willing to take the kinds of risks necessary in order to save lives just like I did during COVID."

ABC News' Martha Raddatz sits down with Mayor London Breed at San Francisco City Hall.
Nathan Luna/ABC News

A lifelong San Franciscan who was raised by her grandmother in public housing, Breed said her background makes her uniquely positioned to deal with the city's challenges.

"I grew up in the most challenging conditions of the city and lived over 20 years of my life in public housing in the midst of the crack epidemic that destroyed our community, so I've lived in these kinds of conditions," Breed said.

She lost her sister to a drug overdose, and her brother is serving time in prison for involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery.

"In my community, that was normal. It wasn't just my family that suffered a lot of challenges. It was everyone I lived next to," Breed said.

"Growing up in poverty, I didn't want to live like that for the rest of my life," Breed told Raddatz. "I felt that there was something better. And, fortunately, I was able to go to college. But that didn't happen for everyone that grew up around me."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed discusses challenges facing her city with ABC News' Martha Raddatz at San Francisco City Hall.
Nathan Luna/ABC News

Despite the challenges San Francisco faces, Breed said she holds steadfast optimism about its future.

"The thing that gives me hope is the fact that finally some of the policy decisions, some of the financial investments, some of the things that we've been working towards are working," Breed said.

"You are optimistic and you are doing things and you're making changes. But people see what's happening," Raddatz said, noting a "degradation" over time -- and concerns about homelessness or what it's like to walk out on the streets.

Breed responded that San Francisco is not the only city experiencing such challenges.

"The difference is how we are handling it here," she said, going on to tout a controversial initiative in which police detain people who use drugs in public and then try to get them sober.

"We have made the courageous decision to make arrests of not only people who are dealing drugs, but people who are using drugs. We're getting help from the U.S. attorney's office, from the Drug Enforcement Agency, from our federal and state partners," Breed said. "That is really helping us to make an impact on our streets. That has not happened before. The kinds of partnerships that are helping us deal with the challenges of San Francisco are finally starting to show a difference on the streets of this city."

"At the end of the day, yes, we have problems," she continued. "I'm not pretending that we don't. But we can't just throw our hands up. We have to keep working towards solutions. And we have to be prepared to make the hard decisions to get to a better place, and that is what I have done."