San Francisco's Unique Character Crumbling as Wealthy Techies Take Over
Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld
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It’s not just the 22 construction cranes dotting the San Francisco skyline and 5,000 pricey condos and apartments under construction. Nor is it the fleet of private buses ferrying 14,000 tech workers to Silicon Valley, or the explosion of restaurants and boutiques, or rents doubling, or the spike in evictions, or home sales now averaging $1 million.
What’s happening to San Francisco goes beyond the accelerating gentrification in multicultural districts like the Mission or Mayor Ed Lee minimizing affordable housing woes. The city that’s been a magnet for free spirits and immigrants and working-class people for decades seems to be losing its famous heart. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that its heart is being replaced by a software update.
The best encapsulation of this sea change, which is driven by a booming tech sector that’s generated 13,000 jobs since early 2012, might be this blog from former San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who begged the techie beneficiaries to stop treating the city he loves like a “rich kid’s playground.”
“When a 1990s tech-startup guy who admits he was part of the last generation of gentrification is now so fed up with the new arrival of high-paid techies that he’s ready to leave, it’s pretty serious,” he wrote in a piece titled, “The Mission ‘douchebags.’” He ended, “I know, I’m an old fart who is not rich and never will be... But if you’re lucky enough to be rich in your 20s, show some respect.”
All economic booms bring dislocations, but what San Francisco is undergoing seems deeper because unlike past decades, when hippies arrived in the 1960s and gays came a decade later, locals were not displaced. That distinction has also been noted by longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte and by author Rebecca Solnit, another longtime resident, who recently wrote, “The problem is that we understand Silicon Valley’s values all too well, and a lot of us don’t like them.”
Today’s construction cranes and skyrocketing housing costs are merely the most visible signs of a city in transition. There are two ways to look at that boom—from the vantage of the tech elite like Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who brought the America’s Cup yacht race here but made it so expensive that almost no one can compete, or from the ground up where more of the city’s more pedestrian classes are feeling pressured by the boom.
Websites tracking apartments have declared, “You’re Never Moving Again,” noting that rents in desirable neighborhoods have doubled in less than two years and keep going up. Home prices are not far behind, jumping 35 percent since last year, one-and-one-half times the rate of the region. Downtown parking spaces are selling for $80,000.
Contrary to the breezy headlines, people are moving in and out. But in the latter case it’s not because they want to. Evictions have hit a 12-year high, in part because investors are using loopholes in otherwise strong tenant laws to buy apartment buildings and convert them to private homes. The business model, the San Francisco Tenants Union said, is targeting rental buildings with long-term tenants—as that makes them cheaper—and evicting everyone for resale as condos, tenancies-in-common or new mansions.
Meanwhile, hundreds more longtime residents have been put on notice for possible eviction. The Tenants Union says that the Mission, Haight-Ashbury, North Beach and Inner Richmond neighborhoods are the hardest hit, with upward of 100 households a month losing their longterm housing through a mix of evictions and paid buyouts, most of which aren’t recorded in city hall statistics.