A public toilet ‘should not cost $1.7 million.’ Why California’s governor is wading into a San Francisco neighborhood’s ‘inexplicable’ plan

October 22, 2022, 5:56 PM UTC
Homeless people in San Francisco
A common scene in San Francisco, where rents are sky-high and getting approval to build housing has been notoriously difficult—yet a $1.7 million toilet was approved.
Tayfun Coskun—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Toilets don’t generally make the news, but one planned for San Francisco is raising eyebrows—and drawing the attention of California’s governor.

The project in question is for the Noe Valley neighborhood, which wants a public toilet for its Town Square. The problem is the price tag: $1.7 million.

State funds will not be forthcoming for the project, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office told the San Francisco Chronicle this week amid mounting controversy. Republicans have hammered Newsom, a Democrat, over the state’s homelessness problem, with San Francisco a prime example.

“A single, small bathroom should not cost $1.7 million,” Erin Mellon, the governor’s communications director, wrote in a statement. “The state will hold funding until San Francisco delivers a plan to use this public money more efficiently. If they cannot, we will go back to the legislature to revoke this appropriation.”

Though San Francisco needs more public toilets, spending that much for just one was bound to spark anger once residents became aware of the plan. The city, known for its sky-high rents and large homeless population, has been heavily criticized for its poor track record on housing, with an expensive, byzantine approval process for building homes hampering development.

“San Francisco stands alone as an example of what is an acutely concerning pattern of delays and denial,” Jason Elliott, senior counselor to Newsom, told the Chronicle in August, when the governor launched an unprecedented review of the city’s housing approval process. In late September, Newsom signed legislation to streamline that process both in the city and statewide, choosing an affordable housing project in San Francisco for the signing ceremony.

Given the attention on the city’s homelessness and housing-approval shortcomings, the green light for the $1.7 million toilet infuriated many residents in the Bay Area and beyond. Not helping matters was the construction time frame: two years.

“Noe Valley should get a bathroom, but $1.7 million should pay for seven bathrooms, and it should happen much quicker,” Assembly Member Matt Haney told the Chronicle after hearing from Newsom’s office. “I fully support and agree with the governor here, and we’re going to work together to get this done cheaper and quicker and also send the message that San Francisco needs to fix its broken processes.”

Haney, according to the paper, secured money in this year’s state budget for the controversial toilet, and had been planning a celebratory news conference to announce the project. But he later told the paper the cost was “inexplicable” and the project would “take far too long.”

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