Widgets Magazine


Saving the city from ourselves

San Francisco’s municipal election last week was a victory for developers and the gentrification they facilitate. As a good liberal, I oppose gentrification’s dislocation of low-income residents, who are disproportionately people of color. As a Stanford student who loves the Bay Area, I will hopefully use my degree to get a good job and will then want to live in a hip neighborhood that once belonged to deeper-rooted residents. In other words, I will be a gentrifier. Can gentrifiers earnestly oppose gentrification?

I conveniently avoided this quandary because I forgot to vote in the election. My absentee ballot is sitting under a pile of notebooks and binders somewhere in my room, unopened and awaiting its fate in the recycling bin. I had midterms!

While I was studying (procrastinating), San Francisco voted no on two important measures meant to curb the city’s affordable housing crisis: Proposition I proposed a moratorium on luxury apartment construction in the Mission district and Proposition F proposed restrictions on short-term apartment rentals, which was meant to limit Airbnb’s takeover of the city’s living space. Both were rejected by record-low voter turnout.

I came across an article that perfectly sums up my and many of my peers’ position: “Hates gentrification in theory, loves artisanal donuts in practice.” Computer science is the most popular major at Stanford and 90 percent of undergraduates will have taken CS during their time here. We are training to become the techies we decry. We will ride the very Google buses we scorn. We will earn tech-industry salaries and be able to afford $3,000 a month for a one bedroom, evicting the very people we claim to support. We are the bad guys with the gall to say we care.

But at the same time, we as individuals are not bad guys. We happen to be living in the time and place where tech companies reign supreme. We have worked hard in the system available to us, and just want to have good jobs and live in cool places. But so do the people already living in San Francisco. And so did the people living there before they did. Wasn’t everyone a gentrifier at some point?

This moment’s gentrifiers seem worse than previous incarnations because they (we) want to live in the city and work outside of it. In previous generations, the upwardly mobile lived outside of the city and worked in it. This white flight from urban centers did not displace lower-income urban residents of color, as today’s gentrification does. It did, however, create huge urban-suburban segregation and school system inequity, and it deepened urban poverty.

Today, due to massive rent increases, San Francisco’s black and Latino populations are being forced to move to suburbia. Between 1970 and 2010 (most recent census data), San Francisco’s black population fell from 13.4 percent to 6.1 percent of the total population (and meanwhile constitutes 56 percent of San Francisco’s current jail population). According to a January 2012 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco report, the number of poor blacks living in urban neighborhoods decreased by 11 percent while the number of poor blacks in the suburbs increased by 20 percent. This suburban forced migration to places like Antioch, Stockton and Vallejo distances formerly urban residents from sources of employment, which increases commute time (and gas and opportunity cost), which further entrenches those displaced into poverty.

The fact that this cycle of capitalism-driven gentrification may exist beyond any of our individual control does not absolve us of personal responsibility. How can we be the most responsible pawns possible? Or, how can I align my broad notion of racial-socioeconomic justice with my actions, knowing I am part of the problem?

It is hard to avoid giving business to stores and companies that benefit from gentrification. I will still probably eat at the city’s latest bahn-mi (or whatnot) restaurant. I will still use Airbnb when I travel because it’s convenient and cheap. That leaves me with legislative action. City voters did vote to pass Proposition A, which will provide $310 million to build affordable housing units. But, as mentioned, the other two propositions meant to target gentrification’s most direct cause — development — failed. Airbnb spent $8 million to defeat Prop F, while its proponents spent $300,000. Only 30 percent of eligible voters voted. Organized money defeated organized people.

Perhaps our role as gentrifiers against gentrification is to organize some of the money and resources of our institutions in support of those already organizing on this issue (in our effort to affect change, we must not speak louder than those most directly affected by gentrification). At the very least, next time, I will put down my $4 almond milk latte long enough to cast a vote in line with my values, in hopes that good legislation will step in where my ethical gap persists.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madkc95 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

  • Alum in SF

    I appreciate the motivation behind this piece, but I do not think you have a very good understanding of the housing economics underpinning gentrification, which is essential for coming up with effective solution to combat the problems you discuss. Calling new development the “most direct cause” of gentrification is at best disingenuous and at worst completely opposite from the truth; the rising cost of rent in San Francisco is primarily a function of demand for housing (and land in general) far outstripping available supply, for which the only real solution is either 1) a catastrophe in the local economy of a similar magnitude to the bursting of the dot-com bubble, or 2) a significant increase in available housing stock. In reality the situation is even more complicated; if you are really interested I would recommend you read this article: http://techcrunch.com/2015/11/03/prop-f/ for a well-researched piece that is able to cover these topics far more in-depth than I have space for here.

  • Candid One

    Unfortunately, your link is incomplete, although it does provide a brute force redirection to generally related information. Anyone who’s interested might try this link: [http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/]

    Be advised that the above link is to a tour de force multi-page write-up with myriad charts, photos, and internal links to fascinating supplementary sources. It is not for those with short attention spans.