Beyond Assessor: Carmen Chu Redefines Her Role
By Joel P. Engardio
It’s hard to get excited about a political office called "Assessor."
There are rallies and house parties for candidates who run for supervisor and mayor. Those offices are well known and capture the imagination of people hoping for a better life in San Francisco.
Yet voters are routinely disappointed. Heroin needles and broken glass from car break-ins still litter the streets. Property crimes and housing prices continue to soar.
Perhaps our city should turn its lonely eyes to Assessor Carmen Chu.
What does she do? She values properties, records marriages and brings in $2.7 billion in revenue to City Hall every year. But after five years of service, Chu has more on her mind.
“My office touches everyone who owns a home and they need a resource working for them. People want their home to be secure. They want to live in safe and clean neighborhoods. They want their kids and friends to be able to stay in San Francisco,” Chu said. “I want to figure out how to bridge the gap between government and what the community needs.”
Beyond assessing, Chu is interested in building strong neighborhoods — a first step in addressing issues like public safety, clean streets and affordability. But can she bring excitement to the Assessor's office?
Chu's potential to make a difference on seemingly intractable issues should not be underestimated. At City Hall, she has a reputation of being a no-nonsense problem solver. When Chu entered the Assessor’s office in 2013, she began transforming it in ways no one thought possible.
First, she had to jump-start a slow-moving bureaucracy to accommodate same-sex weddings within hours after an historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Thousands of couples descended on City Hall to get married. Chaos was averted as Chu executed a flawless plan. San Francisco was the only county to keep its doors open on that first weekend and Chu even taped her own signs to the counters and walls.
Next, Chu faced the daunting task of digitizing over 210,000 paper files that were the only record of San Francisco’s properties. She also launched online filings. Chu needed to bring her office into the 21st Century if she was going to address a years-long backlog of assessments and lost revenue.
The stakes were high with President Trump threatening to withhold federal funds from San Francisco. Chu worked overtime to strengthen San Francisco’s financial position. In the past five years, she added $62 billion in assessed value to the property tax role. Her audits also recovered millions in underpaid transfer taxes for high value properties. The money Chu found helps pay for the local services that benefit every resident.
Chu’s office has outperformed its own budget goals by $565 million since 2014. The 7,400 open appeals Chu inherited have become 991. A three-year backlog has been reduced to less than one year on average.
Now that the basics are firing on all cylinders, Chu is ready to take her office's services directly to the neighborhoods.
Chu’s first venture was hosting a “Family Wealth Forum” at City College last fall where she provided free seminars and one-on-one financial consultations on asset building and estate planning. More than 400 people showed up. Most spoke Cantonese or Mandarin and a majority were seniors and women.
“They reminded me of my aunties and parents,” said Chu. “Like a lot of immigrants, they have worked hard their entire life to pay for a home. Now they’re asset rich, cash poor and need some help figuring out what’s next.”
While Chu was able to intervene when her parents turned to radio personalities selling financial advice, it made her realize she needed to make credible information available to all San Franciscans.
Last month, Chu did a wealth forum in Spanish that also provided tips on college funding. A March 24 forum at Lincoln High School will be multilingual and include a focus on helping middle-income families find affordable housing.
“I know what it’s like to grow up with little resources, with parents who couldn’t speak the language and still having to navigate all the pressures of life,” said Chu, 39, who worked as a child in the Chinese restaurant run by her immigrant parents. “My story isn’t unique, but I’m in a position now to help bridge some of the gaps we’re experiencing in San Francisco.”
A cynic might note the wealth forums are useful in a year when Chu is up for re-election (and I’ve donated). But she is running virtually unopposed and could have an easy victory doing the absolute minimum her job requires.
The same cynic would be correct to say Chu considered running for mayor and that crowd-pleasing forums are a great way to raise name ID. Yet Chu didn’t enter this year’s mayoral race and she continues to plan more forums while expanding the scope of her office.
“There is a lot of need in this city and a lot of room for people in different positions to lead,” said Chu. “I’m not just an assessor. I’m a public servant and I want to help build stronger communities. Think of me as your neighborhood assessor.”
Also published in San Francisco Examiner March 11, 2018