The Death of the City?

by Rachel Brahinsky

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Editor’s Note:This is an excerpt of Rachel Brahinsky’s essay “The Death of the City?” from our Summer 2014 issue. Click here to access the full article through JSTOR, where it will remain free for a limited time.

You may have heard that the wave of gentrification that’s crashing through San Francisco these days has brought “the end of San Francisco.” You may have heard that the cool city of fog and freaks is over and done with, run over by Google buses filled with techies who have no sense of community or history. At the risk of being very unpopular, I’m going to tell you this isn’t quite true. The “Google bus,” which is what people in the Bay Area call the mass of private, tech commuter buses that fill the rush-hour streets, is not essentially the problem. In fact, it may be the seed of the solution.¹

The San Francisco Bay Area is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. In many ways, we’ve seen this boom before. Yet the unsettled atmosphere of the current moment—in which the middle class fears eviction alongside the most vulnerable—has refueled another familiar Bay Area process in the fight against displacement. The San Francisco you love exists because, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” tears through the urban landscape, community advocates fighting for what I call an “ethical city” try to reshape that destruction²—and sometimes they win.

This latest wave of advocacy has been centered around tech wealth and motivated by the great, white shuttle buses. Defended as a way to keep the tech industry “green,” even as it blocks public transit and weighs heavily on city streets, the Google bus has become a metaphor for life in an age of seemingly warp-speed urban change. Neither gentrification nor real estate flipping—in which investors buy and resell property for quick profit—were invented in San Francisco, and neither of them are new. See New York’s SoHo and Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s, and see cities around the globe, which have produced enough variants on the theme that academics have created an advanced taxonomy of gentrification.³ Even so, the rumble of urban change has been deeply jarring on many levels, threatening to transform what’s left of San Francisco’s beloved quirks into what Rebecca Solnit has aptly termed an urban “monoculture.”4

It’s true that, amid rising inequality, the regional culture has become more predictable, more formula retail. Even its offbeat places have aligned with similar districts in other cities, the chain-store hipsterisms of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and many others. The monoculture matters not just for the loss of the unexpected or the creative, but because it rises alongside the forced displacement of people.

Bound with the homogenization of culture, tech wealth has flushed through the real estate market, with harsh impacts on small businesses and longtime renters. Though the relative numbers of evictees are small in terms of the greater population, the steep rise in residential evictions has caused thousands of personal tragedies, and storefronts have seemed to flip at an ever-faster pace. San Francisco’s no-fault evictions, in which tenants have not broken rules or laws, are rising, with Ellis Act evictions rising 175 percent in the last year, according to the city’s rent board.5 (The state Ellis Act allows evictions in cases where owners take properties off the rental market.6) Meanwhile, the fallout from the foreclosure crisis continues in the East Bay, drawing capital investments that spill over the edges of the San Francisco market.7

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The effects are so widespread that, in a city where 65 percent are renters and where landlords are aggressively using all measures to flip houses to take advantage of the flow of tech wealth before the bubble bursts, it’s safe to say that more than half the city feels insecure in its tenancy.8 In many ways it feels like a moment of “one-percent” power; Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko might be very happy in today’s San Francisco. Each week, it seems, we hear about the impending closure of yet another fixture on the urban landscape that will soon lose its place in the city, another hard-fought mural that will soon be losing its face. Meanwhile, the reports flow about realtors knocking on doors in places like the Mission and Bayview Hunter’s Point, offering cash buyouts for homes that are not for sale.

Even so, another quintessentially San Franciscan story is emerging in the activist challenge to the Gekko-inspired “greed is good” mentality that is gripping The Valley.9 In early December 2013, the first tech-shuttle protests burst into the news. At the time, critics challenged whether protesters had chosen the right target by blocking buses of workers who were simply trying to get to work. Yet by the end of February, the issues that the protesters wanted to push into the mainstream had traveled the globe through dozens of high profile media reports. Locally, the concerns from the streets morphed into a clear set of policy prescriptions, from the resurrection of slain supervisor Harvey Milk’s proposed antispeculation tax and other disincentives to slow displacement, to the proposed creation of a new city office that would be charged with aggressively protecting tenants.

Suddenly, the once-sacrosanct Ellis Act, which is often used to flip properties for profit, was on the table for reform in Sacramento. Silicon Valley’s prominent financiers and the politicians who are close to them are publicly supporting this shift.10 Suddenly, after negotiating a “handshake agreement” to use public bus stops for its private shuttle program, Google Inc. was offering $6.8 million to support a free public bus program for kids.11
Of course, for Google this is a cheap externality. Still, by the time you read this, there may be more stories like this, as the appeal against Google’s use of public stops moves forward.

It has been hard to see that real positive change is afoot amidst the hyperventilation in the media and the cacophony in blogs and comment sections about this war for San Francisco. Real lives are at stake as the private pain of evictees has revealed the timidity of public policy when it comes to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities. Rents and home prices have peaked and then peaked again, each rise bringing news of displacements. First, it was seniors on fixed incomes and people dying of HIV/AIDS, and then it was middle-class families, then teachers, and then came reports of shuttered art galleries, evicted musicians, and so on.12

Sometimes it feels as if the tech-capital influence is a force of nature barreling through the region in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It can be easy to forget that we didn’t have to imagine it. Many of us lived through this story in the late 1990s and stories like it in the 1980s, and in the years before.13 As chroniclers of the Bay Area’s ebb and flow often point out, this is a region born of booms, so we have lots of experience. If we were paying attention, we also saw the counterpoint in, for example, the housing activists who convinced Dianne Feinstein to install emergency rent control in 1978. Then, as now, a key ingredient helped fuel significant policy changes: the middle and upper classes now feel housing stress too.14

Although there is much to be mourned in the loss of places and people that this boom has wrought, we cannot miss that the response to it that has come over the recent winter is also shaping the cultural-political-geographic landscape of the region. The rise of multipronged organizing, where we’re seeing street protests bolstered by deep data gathering and policy advocacy, has shifted the debate at a moment when many people who love San Francisco for its quirks and queerness—particularly those who cherish its remaining anticorporate zeitgeist—thought it might be time to give up.

One sign of this shift comes at the wonkish policy level, among organizations like SPUR (formerly the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), which has classically insisted that simply opening the gates to all development will solve our housing dilemmas. Most recently SPUR began advocating for affordable housing policies that sound increasingly like the proposals coming from street-level tenant advocacy groups. It’s hard to imagine this new vision emerging without the activist pressures that have arisen in the recent crisis; it’s also hard to imagine that vision becoming long-term policy without continued pressure from below.15

Ellis Act evictions (when a landlord can legally evict all tenants in a building to get out of the rental business) first took off during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. Between 1997 and the burst bubble in 2000 there were more than 900 such evictions.

Through the years of the housing bubble, large numbers of Ellis Act evictions continued. By the end of 2007, there had been 2,905 of these evictions in San Francisco— more than 300 in 2007 alone.

Evictions slowed down during the housing crisis, and in 2010 only 89 families lost their homes due to the Ellis Act. By the end of that year total number of evictions going back to 1997 was 3,336.

But the Ellis Act doesn’t tell the whole story. From 1997 to October 2013, there were 11,766 no-fault evictions in San Francisco; 3,693 due to the Ellis Act, 6,952 due to owner move-in, and 1,121 due to demolition.

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Notes

All photographs courtesy of Rachel Brahinsky and maps courtesy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

1 My deep thanks goes to those who read and commented on this essay, including Bruce Rinehart, Joshua Brahinsky, Corey Cook, participants in the “Planning, Revitalization, and Displacement” session of the 2014 Urban Affairs Association meetings, and the generous editors and anonymous reviewers at Boom.

2 “Creative destruction”originates with Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975). Others have explored its role in the urban context. See Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Richard A. Walker, “An Appetite for the City,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, James Brook, Nancy J. Peters, and Chris Carlsson, eds. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998).

3 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin K Wyly, Gentrification (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996). The blog Vanishing New York published this excellent analysis that fleshes out “hyper-gentrification” in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. Moss is a pseudonym: Jeremiah Moss, “On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York,” Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, 3 March 2014.

4 Rebecca Solnit, “Resisting Monoculture,” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, 12 March 2014. Solnit has become the prime chronicler of the disappearance of old San Francisco, documenting the clash of cultures in fine detail in a series of essays including this one.

5 See Delene Wolf, Rent Board Annual Report on Eviction Notices (Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, 2014).

6 The city doesn’t track the number of people evicted in each incidence, but the activist Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates that the number of evictees could be between 716 and 3,580, assuming one to five evictees per eviction. See antievictionmappingproject.net. This advocacy-project’s data sleuthing has been bolstered by city reports like the one noted in note 5 (Wolf, 2014).

7 On the economic fallout in the East Bay, see Darwin Bond-Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords,” East Bay Express, 12 February 2014.

8 Housing stability has been a key concern in a series of surveys, including this one: Cook, Corey, and David Latterman, University of San Francisco Affordability and Tech Poll, December 2013. This is notable across incomes in San Francisco, where the most recent census showed about 65 percent of residents are renters, about twice the national average.

9 This push back by civil society against pressures of market economics is what Polanyi described as a “double movement.” Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).

10 Tim Redmond, “Everyone in Town (except a Few Landlords) Is Supporting Leno’s Ellis Act Bill,” 48 Hills, 24 February 2014; Norimitsu Onishi, “Ron Conway, Tech Investor, Turns Focus to Hometown,” The New York Times, 18 April 2013.

11 Cote, John, and Marisa Lagos, “Google Says $6.8 Million for Youth Muni Passes Just a Start,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 February 2014.

12 One of too many to include here: Baker, Kenneth, “Art Galleries Swallowed Up by S.F. Real Estate Boom,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 2014.

13 On the rise of street-level urban planning during Dot-com I, see Rachel Brahinsky, Miriam Chion, and Lisa Feldstein, “Reflections on Community Planning in San Francisco,” Spatial Justice/Justice Spatiale 5 (2013). Then head back to the 1980s—no techies, lots of yuppies: Dan Morain, “Gentrification’s Price: S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1985.

14 Last fall, after a member of the politically connected Alioto clan found himself facing eviction from his well-appointed Art Deco Nob Hill apartment, tensions rose further with the realization that almost anyone could be evicted, even a politically connected person paying high rent. See Carolyn Said, “Park Lane Tenants Protest Conversion Plans,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 2013.

15 See Gabriel Metcalf, “The San Francisco Exodus,” The Atlantic Cities, 14 October 2013, compared with SPUR report, SPUR’s Agenda for Change, 12 March 2014.

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