Am I ruining San Francisco?
Affordability in San Francisco and who’s to blame?
After hearing about yesterday’s protest of Google and Apple buses in San Francisco and Oakland, I had to pause and ask myself, “Am I part of this problem?” I’m a early 30 something male from the Midwest, have an engineering degree and have at least one pair of skinny jeans. Based on those characteristics, I could pass as one of the “techies” that have inundated our lovely City. It is those same workers in the Tech industry that have been the object of scorn from many who are frustrated with rising rents and struggling to be able to make it in a City that for many (like me) is part of a life’s great adventures. It’s that characteristic among others, why I chose (and love) to live here. I know that I’m not alone and when meeting new arrivals, I’m excited for them as I reminisce about my first days getting to know my new home.
To be clear, I don’t consider myself part of the tech industry. I work for a small company in SoMa that has barely figured out Twitter and whose primary clients are public transit agencies (not exactly talking lavish profits). Yet, I embrace technology and am a happy user of the products supplied by these large companies. I’ve fortunately been able to live a modest life in San Francisco. But to complicate matters, I work in the transportation industry and support and see the value that corporate shuttles provide our struggling transportation system. (the shuttle issue and use of public infrastructure is a very complicated topic in itself, which I’ll leave aside for now). So again I ask myself, are people like me to blame? If not, who’s really at fault here? Google employees and their comfortable salaries?
I do have serious reservations about work environments that encourage employees to be in the office for all of their basic needs and believe the ecosystem of people who use of San Francisco as their evening and weekend bedroom community stifles neighborhood involvement and connectivity. I also find it cringeworthy everytime when I walk by my local shuttle bus stop and find the morning sky light up from 40 smartphones and zero verbal communication. Yet, if I were in their shoes, I would be doing the same thing. The opportunity of a well-paid, interesting job and chance to live most exciting cities in the world? Who wouldn’t take take that offer? Yet, personally, I would imagine the shuttle as a necessary evil. While they might be lavish, leather seated and wi-fi enabled, it’s still at least three hours a day, five days a week on a bus, away from friends, family and happy hour. That’s alot of life minutes, day in and day out that I would be want spent elsewhere.
The most recent round of shuttle protests are perplexing for many reasons. Most confusing is that we’ve lashed out at a sector not an income class. Why have there not been protests against lawyers, finance sector employees and university professors? I would venture to say those well paid individuals are just as likely to be renting and buying places to live in San Francisco straining our limited housing supply. Is the tech industry catching the heat because it is the straw that broke our proverbial housing system’s back? Maybe if lawyers got fancy shuttles to their office, we’d be protesting them too. As an aside, I did want to mention that employer shuttle programs are always not “perks” of the job. With growing campuses, some companies were basically told that they were not allowed to expand unless they significantly could reduce new vehicles trips. Shuttles were the way to grow staff without new car trips.
So in thinking about the problem at hand, I still haven’t figured out if I’m to blame and I certainly am not suggesting that I have a solution. Yet, I would raise the more provocative question, “Are locals ruining San Francisco?” I wouldn’t say such a taboo statement unless I believed it held some truth. Housing affordability is affected by supply and demand and San Francisco has been woefully behind on that front not only for the past year or two, for decades with its own citizens leading the opposition. In terms of access to housing, the region didn’t exactly help by opting out of BART in several counties. Thus, the problem of housing affordability didn’t happen overnight. There are countless stories of local opposition to new housing and we’ve created a labyrinth of planning policies (intended to keep San Francisco great and historic) that would be frightening to any housing developer’s bottom line — unless they’re building to cater to the top % of earners (which is what often happens). While we’re now just seeing the impacts of this long history, we can’t expect to reverse this story overnight. Thus, when I see a protestor blocking a shuttle bus, it evokes the quote “don’t hate the player, hate the game” and that game is currently underway at City Hall.
I’m not really sure where it goes from here. Yet I can feel there is a tipping point of public sentiment occurring and those in the tech industry are starting to be discussed in terms of “us versus them.” As captured by recent articles in Streetsblog and the Chronicle, this sentiment and recent protests might placate those looking for an easy scapegoat, it certainly isn’t going to help us solve the larger problems at hand.
All opinions are are my own and do not reflect my employer, spouse, housemates or cat.