It has become grossly apparent that the once, vibrantly raw streets of San Francisco, full of oddballs and eccentrics, is slowly being replaced with a hollow shell of architecture and “economically confident”. But is it all due to the “techies? ” I wonder as they stare soulessly at their Twitters and Twats, awaiting for their rectangular white chariots to take them to “campus,” where the food is bottomless, where no buttock is left un-heated, and the internet works in every crevice. Yes, every crevice. I would know. I was somehow deemed “Googly enough” and hired to be on the Google Glasshole Team last year. I was an impostor who walked among them for 5 months. At heart I was an Indie film-maker and San Francisco native trying to finish a film and make ends meet, but I was doing what I needed to do so I wouldn’t get priced out of the very city I grew up in. I did not last half of my contract.
Who is to blame?
You may have heard the rumors that San Francisco’s soul has taken a sabbatical in Oakland, but is her absence really due to the reasons you think? Yes, Google and Twitter may pay these well-fed working stiffs enough to afford a significant chunk of their income towards market rate rents, but are they the root of the issue or also victims like us? Mass media is quick to cover Google bus protests, while economic theories tells an opposing story. What most people don’t realize is that it is the residents and policymakers of SF who support legacy zoning restrictions, block new construction and eviction of residents that may in fact be slowly smothering the city’s soul. Who are these people to blame? We are. We have become our own worst enemy, and we don’t even know it.
A Neighborhood without Neighbors
The same people who are quick to complain about the affordability of the city, are the same ones who will oppose any new construction that may obstruct their view or for the ever-so-ironic fear of changing the “character of the city”. The amount of red tape we’ve erected is being woven in a blanket, suffocating us into a “Hipster-pocalypse” nightmare.
After all, what is a neighborhood without your neighbors? San Francisco is a boom town. Always has been. Many of us can trace our history back to one of San Francisco’s peak moments of prosperity. To attack the tech workers arriving in the current boom is to attack our own identity. Tech companies are as much of San Francisco’s identities as gay rights or Bush man. Plus, the tech sector only makes up 8% of the wealth. They are not the enemy, and in fact create 5 non-tech jobs for every 1 tech position.
It’s time we took a step back and educated ourselves as voters about basic economics so that we don’t continue to suffer from the unintended consequences of well meaning but shortsighted policies. Learning about and supporting solutions that both keep us in our homes and accommodate newcomers drawn by the same charm that brought us here, will help keep San Francisco diverse, affordable, and soulful.
The Rent Control Fallacy
I grew up in the old Italian neighborhood of North beach. I think I learned the words“rent control” before I muttered the words “mom.” When I got older and started researching this issue, I was stunned to find out that 93% of economists agree that rent control is a significant contributor to our housing crisis. I didn’t want to believe it. It felt so counter intuitive, since most of us have always been taught that it is rent control that keeps us in our homes. However, in every market in which rent control has been introduced, it has led to a decrease in the quantity and quality of housing available.
We grew up thinking all landlords were rich, greedy slumlords who never “wanted” to fix anything. Whereas landlords also stereotyped SF renters as squatting complainers. The system, as it is, breeds distrust and contempt. Even right now, there are 36,000 vacant residences in San Francisco that could be homes to people, but because laws are so biased towards renters, landlords have no incentive to rent them out. These same landlords receiving large rent checks monthly have every incentive to prevent new housing since it results in less competition, allowing them to increase rents with each new tenant without earning a greater rent by investing in improving their properties.
Meanwhile, renters fortunate enough to have rent control have permanently checked out of the housing market, oblivious to how San Francisco’s housing market is evolving … OR not evolving. Most remain willfully ignorant of the fact that they might outgrow their tiny studio or communal living. that they might want to start a family, its far too late; because how exactly does one reconcile moving out of their $700 a month room to a $3500 two bedroom with enough room for themselves and one kid? God forbid you want two kids.
When you check out of the housing market, you’re effectively reducing the demand for additional housing that would prompt changes in zoning and more construction. Had most of us renters been back in the market every couple of years, we would have demanded changes decades ago that would have allowed us to grow with the city.
Out of all my childhood friends, I’m one of very few who have managed to stay in San Francisco and thrive here. When I tell people I’m a native, they say “A unicorn! I heard you exist, but haven’t actually seen any myself– until today. “ In fact, San Francisco has the lowest number of kids per capita of any city in the United States.
How bad is it?
Francisco, in all its 7 x 7 miles of glory, is the home to a mere 839,336 San Franciscans, yet is the most expensive city in the United States. Right now, there are 372,560 rental units in the city. Out of those, 172,000 are rent controlled.
According to US Census bureau, the median household income in SF in 2013 was $74,922 that is $23,551 greater than the US median household income!. Most tech workers are not even that much better off than the median, having arrived in the city in the past decade when rent was already sky high. If you earn under the median income and pay a rent controlled since 1995 $800 month for your one bedroom, you’re economically not much better off than a tech worker earning $101k and paying a 2014 market rate $2250 a month (or 26% of your gross salary) for a 1-bedroom.
The Future of SF Housing
Despite the fact that the cost of living in San Francisco will most likely continue to increase for the foreseeable future, the projections suggest that newcomers will continue to move to San Francisco. Yet, only an average of 1,500 new housing units per year were created over the past decade, despite a population growth of 75,000 people. In the next 25 years, San Francisco is projected to be home to another 150,000 residents and by 2032 we are projected to hit a million people. So I ask you, what kind of people will make up this city if only a specific socio-economic status and demographic can afford to remain here? With an already alarmingly fast rate of rent increases in the city, how can these newcomers hope to afford to live in the city? And what will happen to those who already called SF home?Will we continue to let San Francisco sell our soul to the highest bidder or will we finally put down the misguided picket signs aimed at the tech companies, and start pointing them to the real culprits? Ourselves.
Coming soon: Part 2: “5 Soul-utions to the Housing Crisis”
Statistical data sources: