This column is the first part of a multi-part series. The next segment will be released in two weeks.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Dish Daily.
There are two men standing in front of a bus headed for Mountain View and the sign they carry reads “FUCK OFF, GOOGLE.”
For the Google employees aboard the “Google bus” taking them to work that day, confronting that jarring message probably wasn’t the best start to their morning. Then it got worse. Protestors in Oakland attacked that Google bus on that day last month, smashing a window and distributing fliers calling for a moratorium against evictions of residents in Oakland. It is tempting to see this as an isolated incident mounted by some disenchanted Luddites, but it simply isn’t. Just last week, San Francisco activists blocked an Apple bus, parading a wooden coffin bearing the words “Affordable Housing.”
Just what is going on? Why, for all the ostensibly democratizing nature of the technology celebrated by Silicon Valley, are its employees seen as “chums living on free 24/7 buffets driving up housing prices?”
There appears to be some sort of hipster-on-hipster hatred going on in the city, not unlike the fuzzie vs. techie tension so pervasive on the Stanford campus. But just as the psychology of the oft-parodied fuzzie vs. techie tension runs deeper than humanities majors hating on computer science, the housing protestors are not taking to the streets because they are against technology per se.
Tech work isn’t some harbinger of evil, and there is no reason to believe that Bay Area residents see tech as the enemy, even if viral photos of angry banners tempt us to. Soon after the incident, the University of San Francisco released a poll suggesting that bread-and-butter issues – for example, the declining affordability of housing – are at the heart of the debacle.
Partly because of the ongoing tech boom in the Bay Area and the recovering real estate market, housing prices have escalated dramatically: The median price of a home in San Francisco topped $1 million earlier this year. Hitting especially hard, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment has reached $3,250, the highest in the country. Over the past year alone, the whole Bay Area has seen a 22 percent increase in home prices, and between 2010 and 2013, the median rent in San Francisco rose by 15 percent.
These increasing prices have been met with community upheaval. 2013 alone saw 1716 evictions, the majority of which have been of seniors and people with disabilities. Existing residents in Bay Area communities are being squeezed out by young yuppies working in the tech industry that desire to experience the thrills of urban life.
The root cause of the problem doesn’t lie solely with Google, Apple or the rest of the tech industry, although they were specifically called out in the protests. The simplest explanation is that, for a multitude of reasons – access to jobs being one, the allure of city life being another – many tech employees have chosen to live in San Francisco. In a way, this is a happy problem that other declining cities in the U.S. can only dream of, but fast growth and the rapid influx of workers are causing a housing crisis, making the Bay Area and San Francisco in particular victims of their own success.
The real fault, I think, lies in San Francisco’s housing policies, which have not responded to the surge in demand. Thanks to restrictive zoning laws, a Byzantine permit process and a pathological culture of NIMBYism, housing supply has stalled. Barely 1,500 new housing units per year have been built over the past two decades, which is half of what Seattle (boasting a tech economy not unlike the Bay Area’s) produces in a year. In 2011, only 269 units were built, but the city added over 40,000 new jobs in 2012 alone. Because infill development has been met with active resistance in San Francisco, regional population growth has been pushed elsewhere – to Oakland, the Brooklyn of the Bay Area.
Change, it must be understood, is not a tide that lifts all boats. When it comes too fast, too quickly and with indifference to (un)fairness, some resistance can only be expected. In the face of change, it is easy to see who will have to make way: the poor, the older, the less code-fluent, and yes, the less-white. The manifest dissatisfaction towards tech money makes clear one thing: that the tech sector, for all the paeans it sings to egalitarianism, is not exempt from the host of inequalities we see throughout the country.
Silicon Valley is a place where “the right kind” of nerdy does well – and “the right kind” generally happens to be white or Asian, and male. The culture and instincts so prevalent in the Bay Area are not free from ethnic or gender biases.
Follow the money, and these biases readily reveal themselves: In Silicon Valley, 89 percent of founding teams of Series A startups are all-male, and only 3 percent are all-female. (Curiously, almost 1/3 of Massachusetts’ founding teams are all-female.) 83 percent of founding teams that received Series A funding are all-white, compared to less than 1 percent that are all-black – and the latter get far less seed money than their Asian and white counterparts. Should we even be surprised to learn that the median income for households in the Bay Area headed by non-Hispanic whites is $77,000, compared with $26,000 for those headed by African-Americans?
The question remains: Why have tech companies become a target in recent protests? Why are lines being drawn for a battle seemingly between the techies and the non-techies?
A probable answer: This is not merely about housing policy, but also change, inequality and indifference.
Contact Chi Ling Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org.