San Francisco and the Tech Backlash

gentrification in the mission

So I haven’t written in a while, but this story about the Google buses being blocked by protesters peaked my interest.
My Facebook news feed became full of debates amongst people wanting to voice their opinion. It seems like the typical argument about tech workers and gentrification goes like this:

Person 1:  “Tech people are ruining San Francisco and the bay area. They are jacking up rent by outbidding each other on rentals and it seems that everyone’s rent has gone up. What’s worse is they are shuttled away from San Francisco to their tech campuses in private buses that utilize MUNI bus stops.”

Person 2: “Tech people are actually helping the bay area, its sad that some people are being evicted and priced out, but that’s just economics. And it’s a good problem to have. Many American cities, like Detroit, would love to have to deal with the repercussions of a booming economy.”

Person 1: “But the rate of change is too much and it’s changing the fabric of San Francisco. Teachers, artists, non-profits workers”

Person 2: “Well cities are always changing, and the current changes are for the better.

In general initial protests of any issue capture a feeling that something isn’t right and people are affected – everything is not okay and people are going to voice their opinion. They may not be protesting the right target, i.e. the person or people that have power to make changes, but sometimes in a movement that is beside the point. They are drawing attention to something that many people feel angry about, even if they don’t have the answers.

As most reasonable people would come to conclude, the causes of these issues are more structural in nature. Gentrification happens because there is an influx of new people to an area that need places to live. First people move where its cheap, then restaurants and services move into to cater to their tastes, the area becomes more desirable to live and people with more money move to those neighborhoods. The neighborhoods end up transformed. This change is caused by simple real estate economics – when there is more demand for housing than there is supply prices go up and landlords evict tenants so they can make more money (and keep up with their rising costs).

In the case of San Francisco, its booming tech sector has meant the rapid hiring of new employees many of whom are in their 20’s and 30’s and hail from different parts of the U.S. (and world). When these people need places to live they seek out places where other people like them live. While that used to mean tech workers were split between San Francisco and The Peninsula, new corporate bus programs have enabled people to live in various part of San Francisco (and the bay area) and to be able to live minutes walking distance from their corporate shuttle stops.

Imagine for a moment your 23 years old. You have just graduated college and landed your dream job at Google. You make 80k a year (the actual starting salary for software engineers two year ago) – most of that is yours to spend since you have 3 free meals, free transportation, and fully paid health benefits. You’d love to actually work in the city that you live in, but Google’s tiny SF office is maxed out and the facilities people have sent nasty company wide emails discouraging you from working from that office. So you fold up your MacBook Air into your company provided backpack and grab a coffee at Tartine before hopping on your climate-controlled bus down to Mountain View. Even if you live at the closest stop, 24th Street and Mission, your commute still averages 1 hour 15 minutes and can take up to 2 hours when it rains. That means your spending 2.5 to 4 hours commuting everyday and you would give anything to get back a little bit sooner. So when people ask Why are all these tech workers living in the Mission? or other neighborhoods on the South/west part of the city – the answer is simply a shorter commute. Of course your competing with everyone else for apartments in these hoods and so you’ll spend as much of your salary as you can on to your rent. I mean, your 23 and you haven’t really figured how money works yet, right? And when the weekend is here and you need to get around you don’t dare take MUNI (I mean you’ve never taken it before, why start now?) so you take a private UBER or Lyft ride.

The whole city is feeling the pain these days as rent is so F-ing expensive. Even Castro icons like Cleve Jones write letters to Scott Weiner about all-time high evictions of LGBT seniors living with HIV.

So back to the Google buses. There was a recent article in the Atlantic about the San Francisco exodus to Oakland and how San Francisco has embarrassingly bad transportation due to the underfunding of public resources. Yeah, no shit. Have you taken MUNI or a rainy morning, or really any morning at rush hour? Trains are completely full and they break constantly causing massive delays. One would think that with the massive infusion of tech wealth into the city that some of this money would trickle down to everyone else helping to improve public transportation. (As a knee jerk liberal I can’t believe I just invoked trickle down theory) But as the article points getting mad at the visual signs of gentrification does little stop the root causes of it:

“Railing against Google buses, fancy restaurants or new condos—the visible signs of gentrification—will do nothing to stop San Francisco from becoming more expensive. These are not causes of the rising rents; they are symptoms. The root cause is that many people have chosen to live in San Francisco, and we are now all competing with one another to bid up the rents. As long as this remains a desirable place to live in a region that is producing a lot of jobs — while at the same time we fail to produce enough housing to accommodate the demand — then housing prices will continue to rise.”

So whose fault is it?

Is it the urban planners in the South Bay for building corporate office parks in remote locations? Is the public for being too NIMBY and discouraging the development of high-rise apartments to help alleviate the housing shortage? Is it the lack of a strong regional urban planning authority to say no you can’t build way out here, but you can build in this dense urban core accessible by public transit and here are some funding and tax breaks? Is it the tech companies’ fault for offering these buses or their employees for taking them?

As you can see the answer isn’t so clear. But bringing the conversation back to how to increase housing in a meaningful way would be the best start. These protesters, while misguided, seem to be sparking the conversation amongst San Franciscans.

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