I was asked to emcee a community town hall for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation recently at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center (or, as I call it, “The BLT Center,” since that seems to cover it all).
The topic was supposed to be about growing older as gay men in the age of AIDS. Instead, what many in the audience really wanted to talk about was the housing crunch in the city.
And, in fact, it is easy to see why: When I first began reporting on AIDS in the city in the early 1980’s, people who were ill could cut back to part-time work and still live here. That isn’t the case anymore. And they aren’t alone.
The biggest change I’ve seen in San Francisco in the last three decades is that artists, musicians, freelance journalists and others in the creative class could work part-time and still be San Franciscans, giving the city its texture. As they depart for Oakland or points elsewhere, they aren’t leaving their hearts there.
And so we are seeing the beginning of an avalanche of news stories documenting the new class warfare in the city between techies and others who are fighting for every square inch of loft space, and perhaps for the very future of the San Francisco.
Why S.F. rents are national news: The economic and cultural implications of the conflict are drawing considerable national attention: in the last few months, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic have all examined the phenomenon. The New York Times joined the chorus this week with its headline, “Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City.” The Times noted the median rent in S.F. is the highest in the country, at $3,250 a month for a two-bedroom.
But landlords aren’t sitting back as they become punching bags for all the bad press. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Nellie Bowles this week offered a soft and sympathetic look at a big meeting of landlords, many of whom were looking for easier ways to evict tenants living in rent controlled apartments. The “Rent Control Boot Camp,” as it was called, was held at Fort Mason — often called “Frat Mason,” according to the Times, because of all the young “tech bros” who use the facility and live nearby.
And no wonder housing is skyrocketing, when you have Mark Zuckerberg reportedly paying $10 million for a home in the once-edgy Mission/Castro/Noe Valley neighborhood – a house that CNBC reported “was worth only as much as $3 million.”
The new Gilded Age: Exacerbating the problem is the hubris of the techies themselves.
Napster co-founder Sean Parker’s $10 million dollar fairytale wedding at Big Sur was one thing. The fact that the California Coastal Commission fined him $2.5 million for damaging the pristine spot only added to the excess. Parker later denied doing any “eco-trashing.”
And the techies’ arrogance goes back to the first dot-com boom in the late ’90s, when we reporters noticed a serious uptick in pedestrian accidents South of Market. It seemed like the incidents involved one vehicle after another, being driven by a person with a Starbucks in one hand and a cell phone in the other, plowing into somebody at an intersection.
When the dot-com bubble burst, police told us the pedestrian accidents were cut in half.
Of course the current crop of techies may be safer since they’re on private Google buses and in Uber cars, isolated from the life that most city residents must deal with.
A few years ago, when I did a TV story called “Silicon Valley Cheapskates,” Philanthropist Dede Wilsey told me when she raised $190 million to rebuild the deYoung Museum, almost none of it came from Silicon Valley. So far there are few David Packards or Walter Hellmanns among the nouveau riche.
Former Mayor Willie Brown, in last Sunday’s Chronicle column, warned techies to start hiring locally or face a backlash. But the comments from readers were even more interesting, with some noting that typical San Franciscans don’t have the skills to do these 21st Century tech jobs. Others said the feud was simple jealousy. Still others said the tech boom has gentrified once dangerous streets and led to much-needed condos and apartments being built (albeit, at high prices).
Hank Plante is an Emmy and Peabody-winning reporter who spent 25 years covering San Francisco for KPIX TV. He is the Palm Springs Bureau Chief of Calbuzz.
Update: The NYT story cited above, by Friends of Calbuzz Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller, has generated over 1,000 online comments so far, making for an intriguing national conversation that may be found here.