Ed Lee worked to help low-income residents in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee - January 18, 2011
Gene X Hwang San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee - January 18, 2011

As mayor of San Francisco from 2011 to 2017, he ushered in several bold housing programs that continue to make an impact today. Lee led major efforts to transform the city’s distressed public housing projects, pass a $310 million general obligation bond to build more affordable housing, and launch a Small Sites Program, an acquisition and rehabilitation program that preserves small multifamily properties as permanent affordable housing.

“What made him different was not his commitment to affordable housing but the size of that commitment,” says Olson Lee, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, who held various roles under five mayors. “Of all the mayors I worked with he was the one with the greatest commitment. That commitment is reflected in the dollars, the new programs, and his desire to fundamentally change the housing experience for extremely low-income households living in public housing, which required the commitment of political capital.”

Mayor Lee unexpectedly died after suffering a heart attack in 2017. He was 65.

He grew up in public housing in Seattle and became a civil rights attorney. As a young intern with the Asian Law Caucus, he represented residents of the Ping Yuen public housing complex in San Francisco as they initiated a rent strike against the city’s housing authority for better conditions.

He later held several key roles with the city, including head of the Human Rights Commission, public works director, and city administrator, before being appointed mayor after Gavin Newsom was elected state lieutenant governor in 2010. Lee then won elections in 2011 and 2015.

During his time in office, Ed Lee was instrumental in implementing HOPE SF, a local program created to revitalize several of the city’s most distressed public housing sites. Lee was also critical in the city’s decision to take a portfolio of 29 public housing properties through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, a move that allowed for the properties’ rehabilitation and long-term preservation as affordable housing.

Olson Lee recalls a meeting with the mayor to discuss going ahead with the massive $2 billion effort. “We said, ‘Mayor, if you touch it, you bought it.’ And, he said ‘What’s the point of being the mayor if you can’t make change?’ ”

As the city’s top official, Ed Lee took responsibility for the city’s housing authority when it was struggling with a series of long-standing problems and facing the possibility of receivership. In exploring the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) public housing resources, including RAD, he traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2013 and met with secretary Shaun Donovan and HUD leaders. “He said, ‘I intend to get this straightened out,’ and discussed his plans,” recalls Patrick Costigan, a senior adviser to Donovan at the time. “He couldn’t have been more clear that he was taking charge and that it was very important to him, the city, and its public housing residents.”As a result, the housing authority began to right the ship. It avoided a federal takeover and, remarkably, preserved all of the city’s public housing for the future.

Like many other mayors, Lee often appeared at groundbreakings and grand openings for new affordable housing developments. What was unique was that he genuinely enjoyed being there, saying at senior housing communities that he hoped to reserve a spot for himself. He often told corny jokes and peppered speeches with “Go Giants” if it was baseball season.

Two years after his death, his legacy continues.

“He transformed affordable housing for extremely low-income people in the city,” Olson Lee says. “I think the city of San Francisco and the residents will forever be indebted to Mayor Lee.”