San Franciscans are holding the big tech companies to blame for a recent spate of rent hikes and evictions. Those born and raised in the city, or who have lived there for decades are getting priced out.
Protests are being directed at the so-called “Google buses” that shuttle well-paid workers to the offices of companies such as Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Apple and Facebook in the Bay area. The influx of young professionals on big salaries employed at the tech giants has led to a skyrocketing in housing costs. The buses carry 35,000 incomers back and forth every day. An appeal has been filed by angered tenants and political groups to stop the companies using the municipal bus stops for their corporate shuttle services.
San Francisco has experienced a rapid economic boom since the many successful sites on Silicon Valley have shipped in more and more staff. They all need somewhere to live, and as a consequence, have begun to settle in districts like the Mission. They get in and out to work each day on the free buses. Along the bus routes, both rents and housing prices have shot up. Long term residents now cannot afford to live there anymore. Many of these people are on low-incomes; a lot came as hippies in the sixties and never left. Many are also from minority groups.
Opponents say the buses clutter up the infra-structure as well, clogging the traffic up, and make it more difficult for “ordinary” citizens to go about their daily business, but the tech companies say it is environmentally responsible, otherwise there would be thousands of cars on the roads.
In response to this, the evictions have seen lower paid workers moving out to further afield and having to drive back in from areas like Fairfield and Tracy. Alysabeth Alexander, of the group SEIU Local 1021, says that this causes just as much air pollution. Her groups have joined with the League of Pissed-Off Voters and the Housing Rights Committee in filing the appeal to stop the Google buses using the city bus stops for only a $1 per stop. This is the pilot scheme scheduled to begin in July, currently the buses pay nothing.
Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union cannot understand how the big technological companies have had so little regard for the impact they are having on the lives of the local community.
Neighborhoods like the Mission are becoming “gentrified” as the high-salaried move in. Laundrettes and tattoo parlors are turning into yoga centers and cafes. Shabby old homes are done up and re-sold.
Some landlords have offered long-term tenants a financial incentive to move out. Others are not so kind; they just go ahead with the eviction.
Some who work for Google and the other giants are uncomfortable with the way they are whisked to work in the plush buses with their tinted windows, air-conditioning and free wifi. They realize that they have become symbolic of the divide, and the focus of the protest movement.
Bebo founder, Michael Birch, thinks he has a solution to the increasing social gulf. After he sold Bebo to AOL, he has turned his talents to starting a private members club in San Francisco. The Battery, a high-end club with a pricey annual membership offers bars, meeting rooms, a restaurant, spa and gym. He insists that he limits membership from tecchies to one third, to allow for a more cultural mix, and encourages those in the arts and who work in charities to join as well. He has some bursaries for the less wealthy.
Birch accepts that San Francisco is primarily a tech town, but he believes his club provides a meeting space for people from all walks. He says that San Francisco is the envy of other American cities for its massive boom but that it has happened so quickly that it was perhaps “a victim of its own success.”
News that Google is planning to set up camp in the city itself, by establishing offices in a former printworks in Alabama Street in the Mission, is likely add fuel to what is already a fairly brisk fire. They intend to put engineers in there who do not like the commuting out to their Googleplex every day, which takes an hour each way. With the building, Google is acquiring start-ups already in there, like Nest. These people won’t want to give up their inner-city working lifestyle. Twitter, Pinterest and Square all already have premises in the city, with Facebook rumored to be looking.
Office space costs have doubled in the Mission, whilst the Latino population has dropped by 20 percent in ten years. The area was originally named for a Latino mission – Mission Dolores.
The mission now for the huge tech companies might be a public relations one, as they will eventually have to deal with the protests and face the fact that many who live and work San Francisco are now suffering on the back of their phenomenal success.
By Kate Henderson