How Tech Elitists Are Pushing Out SF Middle Class


zuckerberg1By Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz

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.

sfhousingAnd 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.

seanparkerNapster 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.

willieWillie’s warning: It also doesn’t help that the young millionaires (1,600 of them created just through Twitter) are largely uninvolved in the city’s charities and causes.

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).

HankPlanteIn any event, Mark Zuckerberg is already creating a few new local new jobs in the city, since his $10 million dollar home is undergoing millions of dollars in needed renovations.

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.

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There are 12 comments for this post

  1. avatar Mark Paul says:

    Elitists are at the root of the problem, but they did their dirty work long before most of the techies were even born, shutting down construction in SF and many other Bay Area places decades ago. My wife, son, and I got driven out 29 years ago. Gabriel Metcalf has a much better assessment here: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2013/10/san-francisco-exodus/7205/

  2. avatar ReilleyFan says:

    I saw this coming in the 1990s & moved from my hometown in the Bay to Sac. Even then it doesnt take a mathematician to figure out the Bay has only so much available land/housing & given its appeal there would be less & less available & higher & higher cost as time goes by.

    Techies, driving up prices with salaries unmatched by the rest of the local economy, combined with not hiring any locals only accelerates & exacerbates the natural process that would be happening anyway, albeit at a much slower rate.

    Funny thing is that as much as I lamented it then I am glad I left. At this point it’s a great place to visit as a tourist but aweful to live, especially to raise a family. Unless you are very wealthy & dont have to work at all your quality of life is pretty bad there. The crowds, especially commute traffic, along with high costs & crime make it a bad deal.

    I hope people continue to think Sac sucks & stay away. We have a nice quiet, uncrowded, affordable hamlet that is 2hr driving from a multitude of world-class destinations in every direction (Yosemite, Tahoe, Wine Country, Bay/Coast).

  3. avatar smoker1 says:

    Conservative communities must be scratching their heads. San Francisco has sky high taxes, is very unfriendly to business, has boatloads of regulations and lots of homeless. When you combine all of this (according to conservative theory) you end up with an urban hellscape followed quickly by abandonment and desolation. In fact, people are scraping the blood and hair from their fingernails as they fight to find an undersized, overpriced apartment. Isn’t this odd?

    • avatar ReilleyFan says:

      It’s the geography and to a lesser extent politics. Any other place your neocon theory holds true but because the Bay is the most beautiful location in the USA & gays and liberals want to live at their “Mecca” they will continue to commit socio-economic suicide to be there.

  4. avatar patwater says:

    Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over provides a fascinating trend analysis of how the growth in the abstract economy (enabled by advances in info tech) has forever changed the former American middle class: http://www.amazon.com/Average-Is-Over-Powering-Stagnation/dp/0525953736

    And hurt the ability of everyday folks to live in a place like San Francisco. Cheers

    • avatar Hank Plante says:

      Thanks, Patrick. I’ll read that book. I also enjoy your writing and have great respect for your dad’s work over the years. Best Wishes — Hank Plante

  5. avatar FaceValues says:

    >Philanthropist Dede Wilsey
    This woman is hilariously depicted in Sean Wilsey’s book, Oh the Glory of It All. It’s pretty great to see her mentioned out of that context, as a ‘philanthropist’ no less.

  6. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    The obvious solution to this problem in San Francisco rental property prices is to either pay the higher rents….if you prefer the S.F life…or move where rents are cheaper such as the Oakland flat lands.

    That’s what I found three decades ago when I was shopping for a Beverly Hills home near work. We could afford only a Beverly Hills postal address in the unincorporated area so it had to do. Oh well. It had a second story sauna.

    Of course, the singles could also turn to a normal life style and get married so the two income couples could broaden their housing horizons.

    Yes Hank! There is more than just whining about the moneyed techies that could be done to fix the high S.F. rent problems.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Ernie, since when did being married constitute a “normal lifestyle?” And of course, people can move out of San Francisco. Hank’s whole point was that’s what’s happening and it’s changing the character of San Francisco. We’d prefer it if you read an article before you comment.

    • avatar Andy says:

      The issue is more than just rent…left unabated, what’s going on in San Francisco is fundamentally changing the city and its culture.

      Like Venice sinking into the Adriatic, it’s something that may forever change the fabric of the city, only in this instance, we should be able to solve it.

  7. avatar Kathi Nelson says:

    Yelling at the techies won’t help. We need comprehensive planning for the region, including housing and transportation. It might make sense to reach out to the techies and present it as a set of problems that need resolution. That letting “the market” settle it all out will result in an outcome that everyone will hate. And it is not just San Francisco, it’s Palo Alto, Pleasanton, Mill Valley ..etc. etc.

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