The bell rings for San Francisco
The kids are jumping ship and they’re not coming back
It’s been coming. For the five years I have lived here, people have shaken their heads and wondered how long San Francisco could keep getting away with it. We’ve all stepped in human feces and kicked syringes to the kerb. It bonds us. We’ve all had to step to the side as a crazy meth head lurched towards us with intent. But, hey, stock prices kept going up and the sun continued to set over the Pacific Ocean and it’s been beautiful enough to somehow make the deal worthwhile. It’s a trade-off, we told ourselves. But then the glass shattered. It’s over.
San Francisco is a city built upon lies, mostly told by the dwellers to themselves. It presents itself to the world as a progressive city, whatever that means at that particular moment to that particular person. The notion of “values” is tossed about like a feather in the wind, even though everybody means something different by it. It’s certainly comforting. It tells itself that it’s nothing like those cities in Texas and Florida and the whole wild world is the better for it. “I’m special, so special,” just as the Pretenders used to sing.
To be clear, there is much that is fantastic about living in San Francisco — I like strong winds and I don’t like high temperatures — but it’s a slippery concoction, a three card monte trick that flips your eye to the wrong hand. It worked until it didn’t work. Which is where we are right now. It’s suddenly no longer quite so easy to fool the dupes. We have the virus with us and it’s showing no sign of upping and leaving. It has changed everything. There has been a sudden but seemingly permanent change to the way that working is viewed. The concept of an office building has been thrown out the window. I hesitate to use the word “disrupted” but, for once, it might actually apply.
Now that Facebook has given its imprimatur to its staff to work from anywhere, albeit at a cut rate, the gates have been flung open. The golden handcuffs have been snapped. This was the tape that San Francisco had long been using to glue its finances together but it’s been ripped away and the wound beneath is red and raw. The charms of Menlo Park and even of SOMA only go so far. Remove the necessity to live in an insanely overpriced box amidst a towering pile of take-out cartons and stained sweat pants and everybody turns into Wile E Coyote. Cloud of dust. I’m out. See ya.
Once somebody clears the fence, they don’t come back. Ever. How many young tech workers have vaulted to the freedom? Pick a number. 20k? 40k? But no city can afford to give up its supply of 30 year olds. Yes, they can be annoying. Yes the backwards baseball cap and bro this and bro that isn’t all that endearing. But they pay a lot of taxes and they eat from food trucks and go to gyms and they’re too young to suck up much in the way of health services. So there’s that. Call them useful idiots, call them whatever you like, you’re going to start missing them when they’re no longer clogging up your fields and hills, chugging Millers Lite from a solo cup.
Then there’s the homeless thing. I use the word “thing” because nobody seems to have made any headway in addressing the issue in the past decade despite billions being spent and everybody agreeing that it’s a “problem.” There are many ways in which this particular word can be said. If uttered lightly and quickly, perhaps with regard to the lack of topping on your pizza, it’s not the end of the world and you know it. If said slowly and with a meaningful stare, it’s a deal breaker. Now that a sizeable chunk of your revenue has strapped itself to a rocket to fly back home to the corn fields and the Great Lakes, the question needs to be posed. Are they leaving just because it’s so much cheaper anywhere else? Because they’re no longer content to be confined to a room with somebody they found on Craigs List who farts in his sleep? Or might there be a bit of “I can’t take any more of the filthy streets and the crazy guys coming up to me, trying to steal my phone?” If so, it has become a very real consideration and one with giant dollar signs affixed.
Then there’s Prop 13, one of the many “third rails.” San Francisco delights in these. This one applies to all of California and the ten second version is that, back in June 1978, a couple of tax vigilantes jammed through an arrangement whereby property tax would forever more be based on the value of the property in 1976 and only thereafter permitted to be raised by a a maximum of either 2% or the inflation rate, whichever was lower. It was such an obvious fiscal wrecking ball that Mayor Moscone, Governor Brown and Supervisor Harvey Milk only needs five seconds to vote against it. But it passed. Warren Buffett pays more tax on his Omaha home than on his house in Laguna Beach. It isn’t unusual to have a $4m property in San Francisco where the owner pays as little as $2k rather than a more appropriate $50–60k. Of course, since Peter only ever robs Paul, this means that a multitude of community services need to be slashed to make up the budget shortfall. Today, classroom sizes are bigger, parks more unkempt, streets dirtier and libraries more curtailed in their hours than they would be otherwise. Should Prop 13 be ripped up? Yes. Will it be? No. The moneyed elite benefit most from the arrangement (regressive, San Francisco, not progressive) and they fund the lobbyists and back the more pliant political candidates. Forget it.
Likewise, for rent control. I know many a person paying $2k for a 1500 square foot space in a nice area when the recent arrival next door is forced to pay $6–7k. Again, it’s a system that relies on a fresh influx of ambitious 30 year olds whose life purpose is to code for Google. They pay more just so the protected guy can get away with paying less. Once again, it’s not fair but will it change? No. Those that benefit would turn out in droves to vote against it.
Finally, my favorite one, public pensions. 20m are registered to vote in California elections but only 10% of that number gets any benefit from the ridiculously generous pensions being paid out in full. Not only have the funds been horribly mismanaged, the state and local governments mask the fact that they are making up the shortfall by including it in the number allotted to, say, education and hoping that nobody notices. In consequence, it’s no surprise that California ranks even lower than even maligned Florida and Texas in its 4th and 8th grade math and reading attainment levels.
To conclude, San Francisco’s bluff has been called. It could get away with looking the other way as fentanyl dealers took the BART downtown and sold their merch. It could hope that nobody cared that much if the streets were both dirty and smelly because, hey, it’s San Francisco. Tourists didn’t matter since you could scalp them hard and who cares if they never came back, even if it was a mildly upsetting that the one common denominator in things said by visitors post hurried exit was that they were stunned by what a dump the place was and they couldn’t match that up with all the talk of it being the wealthiest place on Earth. Cognitive dissonance, etc.
Do I think that City Hall will see the light and start pulling levers? No. Not yet. I call it the Thelma and Louise Moment. They could have turned back. They had some options. Harvey Keitel could have helped them out. But they kept driving and that’s what San Francisco is going to do, right until it has three wheels dangling over the edge of the cliff. It will only be at this moment that we hear the words over the tannoy “guys, I think we have a problem.”