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Are Smug Hipsters Ruining the Gentrification Debate in San Francisco?

Gentrification in San Francisco is driving people out of their neighborhoods and raising the cost of living in the city. It's a big problem, but are outraged Hipsters doing the cause justice?

You've likely read at least 15 articles and essays in the past year that hysterically declared, “All the artists are leaving San Francisco and moving to the East Bay!” Although people have been complaining about that for 30 years, the story has gotten juicier lately because some activists have put a face, or a logo, at any rate, on the villain. Enemy, thy name is Google.

Or tech workers, anyway. As you've surely read by now, a flood of well-paid high-tech workers moving to the city to work for companies such as Google, Twitter, and Apple has created a housing demand that has led to sharp rent spikes and displaced, priced-out residents. And the Google buses...Dear God, save us from the Google buses!

For decades, people in major cities all over the country have had similar (albeit Googleless) laments, most notably in New York City; Brooklyn; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Los Angeles: Gentrification is out of control, the middle class no longer exists and no one but the very wealthy can afford to live in the city anymore.

San Francisco's small size and therefore concentrated population tends to magnify the problems of gentrification more than in other cities. And the tendency of San Franciscans to protest -- loudly -- when they're upset about something means their discontent gets more press, too. Especially when they're blocking traffic standing in front of Google employee buses.

That was then...
At first I was perplexed, however, how this current SF crisis was any different from the city's last housing crisis, when from around 1998 to 2001, the papers ran stories every day about the less than 1 percent vacancy rate in the city, how rents were skyrocketing but we'd all be rich thanks to dotcoms that were revolutionizing our views of work, the economy and essentially, the world.

Having lived in San Francisco from 1993 to 2005, I witnessed the moneyed madness that overtook the city in the late 1990s, and watched as theater spaces, independent bookstores and appliance stores in the Mission District were pushed out by landlords' rental increases, and “oxygen bars” and tapas restaurants sprung up in their places.

To illustrate the cultural shift, when I first moved to the city and met with potential roommates, for example, we'd generally chat for a couple hours over tea and discuss possibly living together. By 2000, finding a room to rent in San Francisco more resembled the reality show Survivor, with yuppie hopefuls vying for empty rooms during awkward, required group happy hours, during which prospective roommates were expected to compete with each other to prove they would be the most fun addition to the household.

But much worse was the late-1990s epidemic of owner move-in evictions, which enabled landlords to boot out tenants and then move into the units themselves – or pretend to move in – for maybe six months, then they were free to rent the apartments to new tenants for much more money. Ellis Act evictions were (and still are) rampant, and worse still, during that period, were the suspicious fires of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels all over the city. Many SRO owners were suspected of torching their buildings, which housed some of San Francisco's poorest and most vulnerable residents, to collect the insurance money and make a killing selling the razed land to developers.

San Franciscans were outraged, and rightfully so.

The same dichotomy arose then between resentful, poorer longtime residents and the newer oblivious, high-salaried, Razor-scooter-riding elite. Some, like me, were confused about which side of the battle line they fell upon. In my case, I knew that as a childless white person, I had apartment-securing and purchasing-power advantages over a single mother with four kids, bad credit, and brown skin; but I was also a person who called myself, sort of jokingly, “dot scum,” because the dotcom I worked for paid me a shitty hourly wage and pretended I wasn't a full-time employee to avoid giving me health care benefits.

Waiting tables (poorly) well into my 20s and going into debt putting myself through college, it was hard to think of myself as one of the “haves.” But the “Rage Against Rent” anti-gentrification meetings in the Mission that I attended in the mid-'90s illustrated the pigeonholing and racial roadblocks that would spring up whenever we tried to find solutions to rising rents and cultural division.

The meetings always began with passionate, earnest white activists talking about how gentrification must be stopped, then a person of color would point out, more or less, “Well, it's white people moving to the Mission that started this whole problem.” And the room would fall quiet with agreement and helplessness about how to move forward.

When my boyfriend at the time and I decided to move away in 2005, we said, “Why not move to LA? San Francisco is already ruined.”

Who knew then that it would get worse.

...This is now

It appears that the culture war in San Francisco today is no longer racially divided. The beef is between technies and nontechies.

There is ample reason to complain about rent in San Francisco. Although vacancy rates in the city are higher now – 4.2 percent – that doesn't mean that it's any easier to rent an apartment today than it was in 1999. Many landlords find it more profitable to hoard their units, so while they're technically vacant, they're not available to rent.

And as Max A. Cheney wrote for The San Francisco Appeal, “What the vacancy numbers [also] don’t account for is price of available units. The small number of units available could, theoretically, cost $3,000 or more — well out of many middle-income household’s price range. ...The realistic vacancy rate for a minimum wage earner is closer to zero.”

But smug rants such as that of Morgan Fitzgibbons's for San Francisco-based and-oriented The Bold Italic aren't doing the current anti-gentrification movement any favors.

In his obnoxious and condescending “An Open Letter to the Tech Community,” Fitzgibbons writes:

“I felt it would be valuable to hear directly from somebody who is a part of the young creative community, a community that has helped to provide this city its globally heralded reputation as a forerunner in nearly every social movement of import, but that now is a bona fide endangered species in San Francisco.”

(First of all, Morgan, the community that helped to provide San Francisco its globally heralded reputation as a forerunner in nearly every social movement of import were the city's artists over the last century, the jazz musicians and club owners of the 1940s, the Beat writers of the '50s, the gay and lesbian activists of the late 1960s and '70s, the punk bands and clubs that followed not long after...but I digress.)

The pompous and self-congratulatory University of San Francisco professor who moved to the city in 2006 from Ohio goes on to say, “I’ve worked for years to bring San Francisco closer to its ideal by cofounding and running projects like the [evidently all-white] Wigg Party, which makes the area around the Wiggle bike route more sustainable and more resilient, and the Urban Eating League, an underground dinner competition featuring local food, costumes, and community building.”

Fitzgibbons's main point is that employees of those rich tech companies should give their time and money to local nonprofits and other community services. I agree with him that cities would be better if everyone did that whenever possible. But the call for the wealthy to get involved would be more palatable if the advice wasn't shrouded in a 9,000-word denouncement of rich people that might alienate as many of them as it inspires.

And I'm sure I don't need to tell Fitzgibbons that it is a luxury to have the time and energy to worry so much about what other people are doing or not doing.

“You must teach your friends and coworkers that tech money can be spent on more than just flannel shirts, fancy restaurants, and traveling to Burning Man to be civically involved one week out of the year,” he continues. “You must explain to them that using new technology and data for social good is eminently more rewarding than the selfish pursuit of financial gain. You must show them what you already understand – that San Francisco is a place where magic is ready to burst forth, where strange and beautiful things happen and reverberate the world over, but only, only if you meet her halfway. I cannot perform this feat for the tech community; it must be done from the inside.”

In another Bold Italic essay, Max Kirchoff had this to say about the Us vs. Them mentality in San Francisco that isn't helping anything:

“Cut the rhetoric directed at technology workers. The Peter Shihs and Greg Gopmans are in the vast minority; stop comparing every person who writes code or carries a Google badge to them. They represent the technology industry in the same way that Donald Trump represents entrepreneurs."

Realistically, however, it's going to take more than corporate donations, costume-contest-community-garden local dinner parties and free yoga in Delores Park events to address the real issue: the city's appalling lack of affordable housing.

In a recent article for Mother Jones, Ben Adler wrote,

“To provide affordable apartments in thriving inner cities and their inner-ring suburbs, we need to adopt both the conservative free-market and liberal big-government approaches to expanding housing supply. Zoning restrictions on density must be lifted, so that developers can increase supply to meet demand. But we must also realize that the market isn't providing housing at the price points low-income families need. As Roger K. Lewis notes in The Washington Post, 'there is not a single state in the United States where a person working full time and earning minimum wage can afford to rent, at fair-market value, a two-bedroom apartment or home.'"

Adler goes on to say that even some conservatives support allocating more money to Section 8 vouchers for low-income renters, which helps keep poorer residents from having to move out of the city.

Brad Lander, city planning professor at Pratt Institute, executive director of The Fifth Avenue Committee and board member of the NYC Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development and Grassroots Leadership said in a roundtable discussion moderated by PBS:

“We work with other groups around the city to preserve New York's rent regulation laws. Those laws are the only thing that keep literally tens of thousands of low and moderate income tenants from being displaced. More recently, we have established a Displacement Free Zone, for tenants in buildings that are too small to be covered by rent regulations. Working together, local tenants, clergy, and homeowners organize to pressure landlords not to evict low income tenants for the purpose of doubling or tripling the rent, even if they are legally allowed to. We are also working on new tax and zoning policies that would provide better incentives for private owners to create and preserve affordable housing.”

Fernando Martí, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of affordable housing and community economic development advocates in San Francisco and Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee wrote in an article for Shelterforce:

“Activists looking to the 2014 election season are sketching the rough outlines of a tenant platform, including requiring registration of 'buyouts' under threat of Ellis evictions, which speculators use to clear out buildings; a parcel tax on buildings left vacant by landlords; a law giving existing tenants a right of first refusal; a six-month exclusive negotiating period when a building is put up for sale (similar to Washington D.C.’s TOPA law); and a steeply graduated tax on rental income to put a disincentive on rent increases after an eviction or buyout. Talk of a San Francisco Tenants Convention is in the air. It’s time to get organizing!”

In addition, there is some city government support for policy changes that would discourage or even put a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

David Taylor offers some helpful advice for activists to alleviate the housing crunch that don't involve complaining:

“Our job as activists and organizers is to not just to shine a light on the straw man that is the privileged tech worker destroying a community but to also see how we can organize together. ...

We all need to acknowledge that this issue is complex and that it is not someone, or one company's fault, but the fault of a corrupted system that everyone other than the super rich are trapped within.

So here is an idea or two for the privileged who care:

- Tell your very rich companies to pay their damn taxes. (The Twitter tax break was a scam.)

...- Participate in the politics of the community and support the local supervisors that support tenant’s rights (Not Scott Weiner!!).

- Attend an eviction defense rally and get to know the folks trying to stay in the neighborhood.

...- Give some cash to Tenants Together and the SF Tenants Union.

- Find some awesome nerd way to help. (You know use the Twitter and the Google and the Facebox etc etc)"

Of course it isn't easy. It's depressing that despite the efforts of activists, many say they don't think San Francisco's housing supply could ever come close to meeting the city's demand. Living in New York City now, I obviously haven't escaped an urban environment of laughable rents where people pay dearly for relatively little.

So I'll leave you with Lander's comments that are much more hopeful than anything I could muster:

“Resisting the powerful, relentless, and subtle ways that the market reinforces income inequality — that is, rewards those who already have resources and punishes those who don't — requires strong and forthright action.

But this does not mean being negative, or bitter, or always reactive. Instead, we [should] work hard to create a shared, positive, vibrant vision for our community — for a community that is characterized by social and economic justice, and is a place that everyone would want to live.”