Boom forces city-dwellers out, “techies” swarm in

on Feb 6, 14 • by Natalia Arguello-Inglis

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Two locals cross the street as a pair of buses charted by eBay drop off employees in the Castro. Photo by Cate Stern

In recent weeks, angry protesters wielding signs scrawled with slogans like “Fuck off Google” and “Stop displacement now!” have barricaded the private buses that carry employees of tech giants like Google from their San Francisco condos to their jobs in Silicon Valley. Though these buses serve multiple biotech and technology companies, they have become known collectively as the “Google bus.”

Upon first look, the protesting, which in West Oakland escalated to the shattering of a bus window, seems brought upon by anger that the private buses use public bus stops to pick up their workers free of charge, consequently delaying public buses, building up traffic and forcing public bus riders into the street to board buses. However, it is clear that Bay Area residents and the San Franciscans in particular who are enraged by the buses, may not be appeased by the one dollar per day per stop fee they currently pay for use of the Muni stops. Nor has Google’s extravagant and eye-roll inducing attempt at compromise by running a private ferry service from San Francisco to Redwood City done anything to relieve the locals’ anger.

Landlords… are quick to kick out tenants, many of whom have been San Francisco residents for decades.

To some, it is hard to believe that so many locals are fiercely upset about traffic jams, considering the buses take cars off the road, but the issues surrounding the Google bus run deeper. The protesters represent the many San Franciscans who feel that companies like Google and the recent tech boom are responsible for the growing gentrification of San Francisco that has displaced many residents, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Put simply, gentrification is when a city or neighborhood receives an unwanted face-lift (such as new condos and apartments) that attract a higher income population — consequently pushing out the original lower income residents with high rents and evictions. In the case of places like Manhattan and San Francisco, newcomers are attracted by the culture of creativity, experimentation and innovation (think San Francisco’s Summer of Love 1967) cultivated by artists and free thinkers — exactly the people whom gentrification is driving out. The melting pot of ethnicities, ways of life, worldviews and economic and social classes in San Francisco have been gradually diluted since the early 90s. If this gentrification continues, soon there will be nothing left but wealthy people in a pretty city full of hills.

The person sitting next to you in class, whose name you never bothered to learn, may be one of those San Franciscans feeling the effects of eviction and high rent, being forced to leave the home they grew up in, or even becoming homeless.

According to US News & World Report, 40 percent of the students at Lowell fall into the category of “economically disadvantaged.” That means the person sitting next to you in class, whose name you never bothered to learn, may be one of those San Franciscans feeling the effects of eviction and high rent, being forced to leave the home they grew up in, or even becoming homeless.

Today’s tech boom-induced gentrification bears a frightening resemblance to the wave of gentrification following the dot-com boom in San Francisco in the late 1990s in that within the last few years, thousands of small business-owners and residents have been pushed out of San Francisco by eviction, housing buyouts or ridiculously inflated rent. This is in large part caused by the influx into San Francisco of new hires by tech industry giants like Google and Twitter, many of which are not even located in San Francisco. These so called “invaders,” have become not-so-affectionately referred to as “techies” or “tech yuppies” by San Francisco locals. The “Google bus,” and its proprietors’ disregard for the fair use of public resources and the collective good of the community has become a symbol of the sense of entitlement and arrogance that techies exude. The buses have become a tangible target for frustration felt against an intangible and seemingly unstoppable enemy to the heart and soul of San Francisco: gentrification.

Not only are techies seen as having pompous attitudes— for example, the CEO of online payment startup Celery, Peter Shih, wrote and later removed a lovely blog post entitled “10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition,” in which he whined about San Francisco’s homeless population, weather, bicyclists, transvestites and “girls who are obviously 4′s and behave like they are 9′s.” The presence of these young and wealthy 20 to 30 somethings in The City is inadvertently causing San Francisco to lose part of San Francisco’s “soul.” The people, places and businesses that make this city the unique and beautiful place it is today, along with San Francisco’s cultural diversity, are losing the battle against the growing Bay Area tech industry. It seems that anyone making under six figures is being pushed out of San Francisco by rising costs of living, especially housing costs.

In other words, the rich nerds are taking over.

One of the most devastating effects of the tech invasion is the seemingly unending slew of evictions, both legal and illegal, that burden the City. Because most San Francisco rental units are rent-controlled, meaning rent can only be legally raised by a set amount each year, often the only way landlords can make the most profit from their properties is to either evict the current tenants to make space for other tenants willing and able to pay much more or to convert units into condos, also resulting in evicting the current tenants. Since the tech and biotech companies moved into the Bay Area, like Twitter into downtown San Francisco, the number of no-fault evictions (not caused by something the tenant did or did not do) have skyrocketed.

In other words, the rich nerds are taking over.

Landlords looking to profit from the incoming techies’ wealth and desire to live in San Francisco are quick to make the decision to kick out current tenants, many of whom have been San Francisco residents for decades.

According to a November 2013 San Francisco Gate article, the number of evictions in San Francisco has jumped almost 40 percent since 2010, and the number of Ellis Act evictions (done through a law that allows landlords to legally evict tenants by “going out of business”) have increased by 170 percent (www.sfgate.com). The Ellis Act is used as a “loophole” for landlords to get around rent control provisions and evict tenants. In an Ellis Act eviction, a landlord must evict all the tenants and take all the units in the building off the market. While there are restrictions on using the Ellis Act to evict tenants — the apartments cannot be re-rented for a higher price than before until five years after the evictions — there are no restrictions on converting them to units, like condos, that can be sold for huge profit.

As the tech yuppies with the means to pay big bucks for San Francisco living pour in, the market price for housing has skyrocketed, consequently pushing many lower and middle class families and individuals who can no longer afford a San Francisco home. According to a June 2013 San Francisco Gate article, the 2013 median price for a single family home was $1 million (www.blog.sfgate.com). Because of San Francisco’s exorbitant housing prices, those who are renting their homes in San Francisco, and therefore most affected, are the lower and middle classes.

Despite it all, some still argue that tech giants like Twitter and Google moving into the Bay Area is a good thing. After all, won’t they bring more money into the city’s economy, ultimately benefiting residents? In theory, yes. However, tech companies have been able to use their massive influence and seemingly endless supply of money to win large tax breaks from the city. According to the San Francisco Public Press, in 2012, the City gave 14 San Francisco based tech companies, including Twitter, $1.9 million in tax breaks to facilitate their moves into the mid-Market Street area, in hopes that their presence would improve the neighborhood and generate entry level jobs for local residents (www.sfpublicpress.org). Though these “charity tax breaks” have slightly improved the area and now employ almost 3,000 people, the companies have shown little effort to meet more than the bare minimum of their promises to improve the community. With mountains of wealth coming into the city, only a small amount is going towards improving San Francisco’s infrastructure, public services or public education.

Tech companies like Google purposely recruit employees using the prospect of living in beautiful San Francisco and being escorted down to work outside of the city on a fancy bus as an incentive.

By definition, the primary goal of for-profit companies like Twitter is to do just that: amass heaps of money. No one should be surprised that little of their profit actually benefits The City or its people. “For all the wealth coming into the City, I see little of it impacting San Francisco’s infrastructure, or public services, much less public education,” English teacher and longtime San Francisco resident Nicole Henares said.

To be fair, its not the techies’ fault that their occupation of San Francisco is displacing locals and further widening the wealth gap in the City. Tech companies like Google purposely recruit employees using the prospect of living in beautiful San Francisco and being escorted down to work outside of the city on a fancy bus as an incentive. New recruits are told nothing about the negative impacts of this employee benefit. It is clear that gentrification is not the fault of the individual techie — they just want a chance to live in this amazing city.

By definition, the primary goal of for-profit companies like Twitter is to … amass heaps of money. 

The city’s problem with gentrification is a complex issue and lacks an obvious solution, but that does not mean that a solution does not exist. Nicole Henares encourages youth to step up and take charge. “We cannot have real solutions to the problems of equity in this city without real dialogue and understanding from all sides,” Henares said. “I just don’t see that happening, considering the anger, indignant ignorance, and biases involved.”

As someone who spent much of her childhood running around the Mission district — one of the areas most affected by gentrification — I know firsthand how easy it is to see the wealthy as the enemy. Avoiding blind hatred and pointing fingers at the nearest offending party is hard to avoid when the casualties of a battle are so innumerable and close to home. But if both sides take a step back, calm down and allow an open and respectful conversation to ensue, maybe a solution could be found. Wealth coming into the City does not have to be a bad thing. If we work together with those who have brought all this money into San Francisco, to integrate wealth into the City, gentrification could benefit the public infrastructure and actually help improve life for the middle and lower classes. Instead of tech wealth coming in being considered a virus “infecting” the City, let’s allow this to become a symbiotic relationship so that our future children will have the chance to grow up in San Francisco.

 

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