TAX THE RICH: A mural on Sycamore Street in San Francisco’s Mission District (Photo: Andreas Weck)

Gentrification in Silicon Valley: Disruption at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014

As usual, TechCrunch Disrupt was an opportunity for the tech industry to praise its own accomplishments. Outside of the event, however, the assembled protesters rallied to call attention to a different kind of disruption: San Francisco’s growing rental crisis. A report from our San Francisco-based correspondent, Andreas Weck.

As the annual TechCrunch Disrupt competition came to an end and the doors slowly closed behind the numerous founders, investors, and media representatives who flooded out of the beautifully-redecorated Pier 48 building, a group of protesters gathered. Inside, participants in TechCrunch Disrupt had heard pitches from innovative new startups. Outside, protesters wanted to talk about a problem that a new app isn’t going to solve: the widespread effects of San Francisco’s gentrification.

An air of reproach fell upon the friendly-looking participants who strolled past the protesters on a bright summer day. “The face of this city is changing; it’s becoming a playground for the newly rich,” yelled one of the protesters at the large crowd leaving the event. Another inveighed against the exorbitant salaries that lead to increasingly high rents. Many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are now dominated by well-to-do professionals — hence the harsh, desperate tone of the assembled demonstrators.

Activists want to bring awareness of the city’s growing rental crisis to tech companies. (Photo: Andreas Weck)

Among them was Erin McElroy, who organized the protest and together with a few others created the Anti-Eviction-Mapping-Project. The project seeks to creatively visualize rent increases throughout the city, and thereby explain the widespread gentrification that San Francisco is currently experiencing. On the website it’s also possible to see a list of landlords, referred to as “The Dirty Dozen,” who have evicted their tenants in order to significantly raise rents.

The red-haired McElroy has a firm belief in the message her protest aims to spread: “Tech companies and the so-called sharing economy are directly responsible for the eviction of more and more long-time and low-income residents of San Francisco.” Her opinion is that the needs of ordinary San Franciscans are ignored in favor of agreements between the city government and tech executives. “We’re here to show the participants of TechCrunch Disrupt that their revolution has a dark side,” she adds. “We want to give a voice to those who aren’t included in a necessary dialogue.”

Mission, SoMa, and the Dogpatch: tech territory

Undoubtedly, San Francisco has become an oasis for people with well-paying jobs. A small room measuring between eight and twelve square meters costs approximately $1,300 in the Mission District and elsewhere. The Mission, which has historically been home to the city’s Mexican immigrants, is now the hippest place for young tech employees to live. Due to its proximity to SoMa, home to dozens of startups, and its countless trendy bars and restaurants, the Mission has transformed into a resort for twenty-somethings who want to live a short walk from work and play. Who doesn’t dream of that kind of life?

As recently as ten years ago, the Mission was known primarily for its deadly gang violence. Wealthy residents of the city generally stayed away from the area, but artists and others were often attracted by the low rents. A vibrant commune of artists lived and displayed their work at Million Fishes on the corner of 23rd and Bryant, emblematic of the community that existed there before the recent influx of startups.

Eventually Million Fishes was forced out of their building when the landlord realized the lucrative potential of the property. A space that was once an affordable gallery was converted into an office that rents for $31,667 a month. A startup named Bloodhound moved in, though they soon after folded, and are being sued for unpaid rent despite having raised $3 million in venture capital.

Such occurrences aren’t unique to the Mission District, either. The next tech hotspot may be the Dogpatch, where up-and-coming bars and restaurants seek to emulate the Mission’s transformation. The Dogpatch, a small neighborhood lining the eastern edge of the city, was the former home of numerous factories. Within the next few years, it may be the beneficiary — or the victim — of the city’s rapid gentrification.

Activists demand government intervention

Tax the speculators. (Photo: Andreas Weck)

Without a doubt, the city’s government officials need to handle the situation with care and precision. Throughout the city, protests have occasionally been quite aggressive, like when Google’s buses were blocked and pelted with rocks. For a while, Google has enabled its employees to travel comfortably from San Francisco to its headquarters in Mountain View on luxury buses, which have become emblematic of the divide between the city’s richest and poorest inhabitants. Such pervasive images of wealth give rise to the impression that tech employees live in the city, but are not really a part of the San Francisco community.

One certainly cannot fault Google for seeking to attract the best and brightest with a number of enticing perks that offset the long hours on the job — but perhaps they have handled some situations less tactfully than one would hope. Some residents look to the city’s government as the only hope for putting the brakes on ever-increasing rents. An anti-speculation measure, if passed in an upcoming election, would tax people who buy and then immediately resell properties in order to make a profit. It’s uncertain if such regulations are fair, or whether they would truly solve the problem, but for Erin McElroy, one thing is clear: “It is everyone’s responsibility to find a solution to this problem.”

Translated crosspost from German language t3n-Magazine:

Author — Andreas Weck:

(Translated by Dan Gray)