S.F. Voters Say Yes to Restoring Hotel Tax Funding for Arts and Culture

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Members of the Compton Transgender Cultural District community gather to commemorate the anniversary of the Compton Cafeteria Riot in 1966. Cultural districts will receive funding from San Francisco for the first time as a result of the passage of Proposition E. (Courtesy of Sister Roma)

San Francisco voters have overwhelmingly come out in support of a measure that will boost the city's arts and culture scene. Artists and arts organizations are among those that have suffered at the hands of gentrification and the skyrocketing rents in San Francisco in recent decades.

But a sweeping three-quarters of voters approved Proposition E, which seeks to dedicate 1.5 percent of the base hotel tax — a 14 percent tax levied on hotel stays in the city — to support arts and culture programs. The city estimates this could add more than $15 million in funding over the next two years.

Prop E posters appeared all over the city, including on the side of beat-up vans, like this one.
Proposition E posters appeared all over the city, including on the side of beat-up vans like this one. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"San Francisco voters have clearly spoken and said that keeping artists in our city and keeping our neighborhoods unique and special are important investments for public dollars," said San Francisco's director of cultural affairs, Tom DeCaigny.

The cash injection will support a number of existing and new initiatives. These include providing operating support to nonprofit arts groups of all budget sizes, increasing funding to the city's cultural equity endowment, and allocating funding for the first time to the city's cultural districts.

"I am incredibly excited to finally have funding for the Compton
Transgender Cultural District," said Honey Mahogany, a San Francisco drag performer, queer rights activist and executive director of the district, one of a growing number of areas in the city to have received official designation as locations of distinct cultural identity and importance.

"What this really does is it helps build capacity for cultural districts by guaranteeing a stable source of funding so that the core needs of the district can be met: The rent can be paid, staff can be hired and the work of the district can truly begin."

Proposition E isn't a brand-new piece of legislation. Rather, it restores an allocation originally created in 1961 to support the city’s cultural industries. The move turned San Francisco into an arts and culture-funding trailblazer for several decades.

But starting in the early 2000s, owing to financial issues, the city gradually reduced the hotel tax funding allocation for the arts, ultimately repealing specific allocations altogether in 2013.

A couple of years ago, a coalition of more than 30 arts and homeless service organizations came together to try to restore the hotel tax funding allocation in a joint measure. But that bidProposition S failed to attract the necessary support from voters in the November 2016 election.

This election, more than 100 cultural organizations across the city of all scopes and sizes united to spread the word about Proposition E.  And unlike Proposition S, the new measure garnered the support of the city's entire Board of Supervisors.


"The two-thirds majority vote is difficult for anyone to achieve," said Mahogany. "So I'm really proud of this coalition, that so many different organizations were able to come together to support this cause and get to a victory."

“The passage of Prop. E will mean that Grants for the Arts can again fulfill its longtime pledge to give ongoing general operating support to the broadest array of arts organizations of all disciplines, cultures and budget sizes in all neighborhoods," said Kary Schulman, the longtime director of Grants for the Arts, the main city body that distributes hotel tax funds to cultural groups.

"It will mean that San Francisco can resume pride of place as a national model for enlightened arts support. And for residents and visitors it will go a long way toward assuring access to arts and culture as creators, students, volunteers and audience members."

Tom DeCaigny said some of the new funding will start to come online as early as next spring.

Before then, he said, the city plans to conduct community meetings and focus groups to figure out how best to use the increased resources.

"We want to ensure that these resources are invested in a way that is responsive not just to the needs of artists, but also to neighbors and residents who are experiencing the wonderful arts and cultural offerings in our neighborhoods," DeCaigny said.