By Liam Kinney
This past week, I read a very long article about gentrification in San Francisco. I always thought gentrification was one of those distant phenomena that happened in the abstract and didn’t merit a practical response, but the article cut through that assumption right in the title: “How burrowing owls lead to vomiting anarchists (or SF’s housing crisis explained).”
People are literally vomiting (on the Yahoo! employee bus, to be specific) in protest of how packed San Francisco is becoming, and of the kind of people it is becoming packed with. People think of gentrification as some old lady getting evicted by some young money douchebag who wants a bigger back yard, but in fact it should be on the mind of everyone trying to live in the Bay Area from now until Google goes bankrupt.
Apparently, supply (from supply and demand) in the housing market of San Francisco is a thing of the past—specifically, thirty years ago. In the ’70s and ’80s, the city was abustle with the clangor of industry and the working class, so the mobile elite took off to the suburbs and to other cities. The lowered rents that the demand vacuum caused sucked up hippies and immigrants, picketing it into the weird, beautifully cultural speak-your-mind place we know it to be today.
Unfortunately, these people did their jobs too well. Since 1980, the city’s population has grown from 700,000 to 800,000. This number is not about to stop growing, but the denizens of The City are in denial.
The Bay is chock full of preservationists, and everyone has their own reasons for preventing infill. You might be wondering what burrowing owls have to do with vomiting hobos. You also might be wondering, “Hey, why don’t they just build living places on these enormous tech campuses so there aren’t any buses to vomit on.” The answer to both comes courtesy of environmentalists on Mountain View’s city council. They have expressly forbidden housing developments on or around Google’s campus in order to preserve the city’s burrowing owl population. Yet, Mountain View is discussing new office developments that would bring a little under 50,000 new residents to the city, and even more to the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, SF, which became the way it is because of protests and community resistance, has people protesting every single change to anything at all, especially housing. As the article points out: “Gentrification raises the gap between market-rate rents and rent-controlled rents, strengthening the financial incentive for landlords to evict longtime tenants.” It cites a group of Mission-based non-profits and activists who recently protested the construction of a 351-unit apartment complex, which would only have displaced a Burger King and a Walgreens. Every new housing development, even affordable ones, must be circumvented or beaten down by a hefty number of neighborhood organizations struggling to pay their already high rents.
The yuppies are suffering all right—even the ones who want to help the housing crisis. A recent article in San Francisco magazine outlined the hoops that a single developer, Dean Givas, had to jump through to build condos in the Mission. His plan was to put up 14 luxury-housing units on a plot near Shotwell Street. Community groups made him change the plan to 40 affordable units. He was already prepared to pay upwards of $1.4 million in city-mandated impact fees, but the community made him pay more. On top of that, he donated $800,000 to local community groups (which itself drew claims that the groups were selling out), contributed $1 million to refurbish a closed-down movie theater nearby and made the new owners of that theatre agree to both hire most of its staff from the neighborhood and let the community groups hold meetings there. Producing housing in SF has become a slow, expensive, political and very unattractive prospect for developers.
So what’s worked so far? Basically, things only go smoothly when both parties get their way, like (sorta) the example above. This does not happen very often when the parties involved are angry San Franciscans and greedy real estate moguls.
Angelo Sangiacomo is one of these moguls who made it work. He recently bought and renovated a 360-unit complex, agreeing to control rents in his building. Former residents of the complex got their homes refurbished without a change in the rent whatsoever. According to SF Gate, Sangiacomo isn’t your stereotypical real estate mogul, though. He smiles a lot, attends church and swims laps in his pool every day despite being 87. When money isn’t an issue, things get a lot easier. Go figure.
So before you pop your Stanford bubble and enter the war, you will be forced to choose a side: Will you be a hippie, or a yuppie? Will you be vomiting or washing vomit off a car? If you’re a techie, will you be a Trump or a Sangiacomo about it? Check yourself before you add one to SF’s 800,000, and be wary, lest your dream home be twice as expensive tomorrow as it was today. As Jack London said about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, “San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories.”
Liam Kinney wants to demolish Meyer Library and build some luxury condos. Contribute to his effort at [email protected]