Al Jazeera Magazine: The fight for the soul of San Francisco

"The Mission Condition - Outwardly Mobile" Mural and Assemblage by Mona Caron and Dustin Fosnot, depicting San Francisco houses teetering precariously on stilts surrounded by alternative housing such as tents, cardboard boxes and shopping carts. Photo by Isabeau Doucet

“The Mission Condition – Outwardly Mobile” Mural and Assemblage by Mona Caron and Dustin Fosnot, depicting San Francisco houses teetering precariously on stilts surrounded by alternative housing such as tents, cardboard boxes and shopping carts. Photo by Isabeau Doucet

It is an iconic city famed for its radicalism, but can its spirit of protest now be galvanised to tackle the technocracy changing its character and pricing long-time residents out?

By Isabeau Doucet – 5 December 3013. Published in the January ‘Cities’ issue of the digital magazine:

San Francisco, the charming west coast city that blossomed during the gold rush and was once a stomping ground for beatnik poets, bohemians and Black Panthers is now the headquarters of some of the world’s largest and wealthiest tech companies.

With Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Wikipedia and a myriad of venture capital backed start-ups, this city has become the capital of global digital connectivity.

But while these websites have created platforms for global social networking and incubated new virtual communities, they are blamed at home for a wave of evictions fragmenting San Franciscan communities as the city’s residents are priced out by spiralling rents.

The tech boom is changing the character of this iconic American city, with rents now the highest in the nation – a median of $1,463 – and the number of available houses the lowest with 2.8 percent vacancy.

“We do have a crisis and it goes to the very question … [of] who we are as a city,” said David Campos, a city supervisor in charge of some of the most hard-hit neighbourhoods, at a public hearing into the housing crisis held at San Francisco’s City Hall on November 11.

“Are we a city that will allow working class people to live in this city? Will this become a tale of two cities?” asked Campos.

City public health officials estimate that someone earning minimum wage would need to work more than eight full-time jobs to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment downtown. And despite having some of the best rental protection laws in the country, there has been an explosion of evictions under what is known is the Ellis Act, with housing rights groups calling on City Hall to declare a “state of emergency” and impose a moratorium on the “epidemic” of evictions until affordable housing is made available.

Home prices have risen by 22 percent in the past three years while evictions under the Ellis Act have gone up 170 percent in the same period. A time-lapse info-graphic produced by the anti-eviction mapping project shows the city being pockmarked by 3,678 no-fault evictions from rent controlled apartments in the past 16 years with 2013 an 11-year high.

“We are, I believe, at a critical juncture in the history of San Francisco. We’re fighting, I think, for the soul of San Francisco. Whether or not we really remain the city of Saint Francis,” concluded Campos as hundreds of residents lined up to testify about their impending economic deportation from the city whose namesake is the patron saint most famous for his defence of the poor, sick and outcast.

Wrecking ball

One of the US’ great public intellectuals, author Rebecca Solnit had been railing about how the tech boom has been a wrecking ball for the soul of her city since the first doc-com wave of evictions in 2000. She published the photo essay book Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism as well as Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas in 2010.

Solnit describes the soul of San Francisco as “the sense of this place as a refuge for all comers, as a place that fosters eccentricity, freedom, tolerance, alternatives, and joi de vivre, as a place for environmentalists, poets, people whose lives are driven by idealism and not by greed, by a sort of biodiversity of community in class, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, interests. When only the rich survive, and even the doctors I know have trouble finding housing, all that’s clear-cut.”

In ‘Google Invades’ a recent essay published in the London Review of Books, Solnit laments what she sees as the transformation of the iconic west coast city into “a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world” in Silicon Valley.

The Mission, named after the Franciscan church Mission Dolores, is a vibrant and traditionally working class Latino neighbourhood where the cost of housing has risen by 30 percent in the past three years. It has been called the ‘Ground Zero’ of Ellis Act evictions due to its popularity among techies who work in Silicon Valley, which is easily accessible by commute on privately run Google buses.

“It really hurts me to see the moving vans moving all these Latino families out,” says 71-year-old Mexican artist and curator René Yañez, known locally as a cultural icon and artistic godfather to a generation of Hispanic ‘Chicano’ artists.

Since the early 1970s Yañez has been curating international art exhibitions and was instrumental in establishing the November 2 Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) procession as a popular cultural celebration in San Francisco.

At around the same time that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife bought their $10m pied-a-terre in the Mission, Yañez and his family were served with an Ellis Act notice. His wife is terminally ill with stage four cancer and he himself is in remission. Their eviction is scheduled for July 12, 2014, by which time the Zuckerbergs will have made headway with their estimated $1.6m worth of home renovations including, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “a new basement garage, complete with a turntable pad so cars can get in and out more easily”.

Yañez says an equivalent flat to the one he has lived in for the past 35 years now goes for $3,800 a month, far beyond what an artist without a pension and with mounting hospital bills can afford.

At this year’s Dia de los Muertos procession, Yañez carried a “No Evictions in the Mission” placard and the official procession float was dedicated to the death of the Mission’s Latino community due to evictions.

“I’m not anti-tech,” Yañez insists, “what I object to is the cultural deportation of people” replacing them with “cultural tourism” that “benefit from what the artists and the activists have done for the Mission.”

And for this he blames landlords, developers and real estate speculators.

The technocracy

Gentrification has always accompanied changing flows of labour, and in some ways, San Francisco’s housing crisis is a result of the city’s success in establishing a post-industrial digital labour base running the empire of the internet.

Blue collar manufacturing and port jobs have been migrating overseas for decades, but California’s fiscal crisis and the 2008 economic crisis hit the working class hardest at the same time that white collar tech industry jobs boomed in San Francisco.

This financial fruits of this new “cognitive capitalism” aren’t trickling down to the ethnic minorities and urban working classes so much as creating a ‘technocracy’ that has made class polarisation here more acute than elsewhere.

Outside Twitter’s Market Street HQ, on the November 7 IPO (Initial Public Offering) launch, local residents held a boisterous rally demanding that Twitter hire local residents and reinvest in the community.

Holding a placard showing a Latino boxer knocking Twitter’s trademark blue bird on its side, Tony Robles’ sign read: “Im-A Knock the Twit Outta You!”

A native San Franciscan, co-editor of Poor Magazine and housing organiser with Senior and Disability Action, Robles is currently fighting eviction as his neighbourhood turns into what he describes as “condo-land”.

“We don’t hear a tweet about that!” says Robles. “How come they can’t come up with an app … to stop gentrification, removal and displacement? If you’re a goddamn genius … write an app for that!”

Like Yañez, Robles has noticed few black and Latino people cuing up to board the Google buses.

“They’re mostly white, I would assume they’re probably from middle class backgrounds and they’re sitting up there on their tax-free perch.”

Twitter received a $56m tax break from the city, and a free bus line as an incentive to make Market Street its HQ. Protestors demand to know why their tax dollars should subsidise a private bus system. Over 1,600 Twitter employees have since become millionaires as a result of the IPO.

The ‘canary in the mine’

A block and a half away from Twitter’s HQ is a battle ground and the site of one of the largest evictions in the city in the past 40 years. Seventy-five residents of 1049 Market Street were given a 60-day notice of eviction in mid-September.

“We’re the canary in the coal mine,” says Ben Cady, a photographer and resident who has banded together with his neighbours to fight the landlord who owns two other buildings on the same block.

City Hall has sided with the residents against the landlords and the pending legal battle will determine the fate of the other buildings as well as the neighbourhood.

“We’re in a precedent-setting situation that even the [city housing] code is ambiguous about,” says Cady, confident that the residents can mount a good fight in court.

In some ways, it may be unfair to blame techies for the housing crisis when powerful real estate firms and limited liability corporations (LLC) from all over the country are scampering to invest in a skyrocketing real-estate market.

San Francisco’s Housing Rights Committee (HRC) holds workshops to provide renters with online investigative tools to track down landlords. Attending one of these workshops, I traced the owners of the corporate housing Al Jazeera had placed me in back to a large life insurance company based in Pennsylvania. One of the challenges for tenets facing eviction is simply identifying who their landlord is, and when that landlord is a large faceless corporation that becomes even more difficult.

But the HRC aren’t the only folks giving free housing workshops. Daniel Bornstein, a lawyer with a “boutique law firm providing an array of real estate and civil litigation legal services” has teamed up with Bay Property Group, a real estate investment firm, and invited Al Jazeera to attend their free workshop on how to legally evict tenants.

The 90-minute powerpoint presentation is designed to help landlords and investors understand the legal conditions under which they can evict tenants and reap the best “equity appreciation” on their property. Bornstein’s firm hires private investigators to research tenants and assess how evictable or protected they are by rent control.

“I always try to do a negotiated buyout before I pursue an Ellis Act eviction because it’s easier, it’s less cumbersome, it’s less politically distasteful,” said Bornstein, who boasts that his firm does several buyout agreements a week.

Campos and other supervisors in City Hall are trying to place a moratorium on the use of the Ellis Act and are crafting legislation to track the number of buyouts, double the relocation assistance landlords are obliged to pay and prohibit landlords from charging market rate after a buyout.

‘Losing the magic and poetry’

Another casualty of the housing crisis is the way in which gentrification has infected all conversations in the city. Where poets, artists and social activists once experimented with radical ideas or rallied against war, now their energy is spent fighting evictions, often, somewhat ironically, taking to Twitter and Facebook to vent their frustrations.

Kal Spelletich, an early pioneer of Burning Man type kinetic sculpture, says gentrification has decimated his community of friends much as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s did.

Back in the day, says Spelletich, “I step out my door in San Francisco and there’s a guy on roller skates, in a nun’s costume with tons of make-up and jewelry with a big old beard, and that gave me license to do whatever I want.”

“As I lose my friends and family, it’s not like they get replaced by other artists and freaks, it’s a net loss. For a 50 year lineage of radical art to just stop – it’s devastating.”

“The saddest thing is that when I used to hang out with my friends everyone was talking about their creative projects, the poems they were writing, the opera they want to make, the crazy robotics project … now the people who are left are so scarred they’ve lost the magic and poetry and fun rebelliousness of making art and they’re all stuck in an endless dialogue about displacement.”