A UN expert weighed in on San Francisco's controversial homelessness tax, arguing that billionaires should be willing to give up some of their wealth.
- In a recent report, UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha said San Francisco's homelessness crisis was a "cruel" violation of human rights.
- The city is set to vote on Tuesday on a controversial ballot measure that would tax the city's largest corporations to fund services for the homeless.
- Many billionaires, including Square CEO Jack Dorsey and Zynga co-founder Marc Pincus, have come out against the measure, arguing that it unfairly targets their companies.
- Farha praised Salesforce chairman Marc Benioff's decision to support the tax, arguing that more CEOs should be willing to surrender their wealth to help the homeless.
San Francisco billionaires are warring over a controversial ballot measure that would tax the city's largest corporations to fund services for the homeless.
In late October, Salesforce chairman Marc Benioff came out in support of the measure, known as Proposition C, claiming that homelessness was an even bigger threat to his business than a "small tax."
"This crisis reminds us that business does not exist in a bubble," Benioff wrote in a New York Times editorial. "Companies can truly thrive only when our communities succeed as well."
If Prop C is passed on Tuesday, it would raise taxes on gross annual receipts — or total income, before subtracting costs or expenses — for the top 1% of large corporations in San Francisco. These taxes could garner an additional $300 million for programs like mental health services or shelter beds for the homeless. Half of the funds will also go toward the construction and renovation of 4,000 affordable homes.
Both Square CEO Jack Dorsey and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison worry that the proposition unfairly targets businesses that are much smaller than Salesforce.
According to United Nations Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha, the city's lack of taxation is "part of the problem."
In January, Farha went on an unofficial mission to explore homeless encampments in San Francisco and Oakland. There, she encountered disturbing sights of rats digging through mud and streets littered with trash, feces, and discarded needles. The conditions prompted her to label San Francisco's crisis a "human rights violation," equal to some of the poorest parts of Delhi and Mumbai.
"Since I've been rapporteur for the last four years, I've had three experiences that shook me to my core," Farha told Business Insider. "One of them was in San Francisco."
Because Farha sees housing as a human right, not a commodity, she said it's up to the government to solve the problem. Under international human rights law, governments are required to take reasonable steps to address human rights' need using the "maximum available resources." That includes proper taxation, Farha said.
"Cities and states and national governments have less money than they used to," she said. "They need more money, and the only way they can get more money is through taxation."
"People always say, 'Oh we're going to build our way out of the housing problem,'" she adds. "But it's not always that there isn't [housing] stock. It's that the stock that's available is being eaten up by investors right, left, and center."
Though Farha doesn't point the finger exclusively at tech firms, she does feel they should be willing to surrender a small portion of their wealth.
Benioff's editorial in the Times, she said, was an example of that. "I find it very helpful that he's come out [in support of a homelessness tax]," she said.
While some have criticized the tax as an attempt to throw money at a structural problem, Farha said money is critical to identifying and addressing the root causes of homelessness — namely, a lack of affordable homes.
"Money is part of the equation here," she said. "Political will is part of the equation, too."