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The Bleaching of San Francisco: Extreme Gentrification and Suburbanized Poverty in the Bay Area

San Francisco is experiencing a wave of unprecedented hyper-gentrification and urban removal.

Protesters block a Facebook bus at intersection of San Francisco's Market and 8th Streets and show unfair system of private tech buses. (Photo: Adam Hudson)

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On January 21, dozens of protesters, decrying displacement and inequality, gathered near City Hall in San Francisco on a chilly Tuesday morning. At around 9:15 a.m., they marched down Market Street and blockaded two tech shuttles, one that was parked at a MUNI (San Francisco Municipal Railway) bus stop, the other in the middle of the street. Tech shuttles – also infamously known as “Google buses” – are private corporate buses that take tech industry workers from their homes in San Francisco down the peninsula to work in Silicon Valley.

Protesters surrounded the buses and placed signs near them that read: “Stop Displacement Now” and “Warning: Rents and evictions up near private shuttle stops.” A UC-Berkeley study and maps show that evictions and rent increases often follow the locations of tech bus stops. One sign bluntly read: “Fuck off Google.”

Present at the protest was Martina Ayala, a teacher, artist and consultant for San Francisco nonprofits working with low-income families. She is currently facing a no-fault eviction from her residence in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood that sits next to the Pacific Ocean beach. Ayala told Truthout, “The landlord would like us to self-evict” – but not by way of a buy-out, in which landlords evict tenants by paying them to leave. Instead, Ayala said, “They’re trying to get us out without having to pay the eviction costs. And so they’re doing that by harassing us and calling us every day, sending us three-day notice to pay rent or quit without following through with service.” Why would the landlord go to such lengths to push the family out? Ayala says, “Even though we are paying $1,750, that is still not enough for the landlord, because the average rent is now $3,000.”

The Google bus blockade lasted for a half-hour. Afterward, the crowd marched down Grove Street to the San Francisco Association of Realtors, then ended at City Hall. Much of the media coverage of the protest focused on the Google bus blockade. However, the protesters emphasized that the tech industry was not the only culprit. Developers, real estate brokers, and City Hall all play a role in economically displacing many San Francisco residents.

Not all protesters were mad at the tech workers riding the buses. Some encouraged tech workers to support the protesters’ cause. One sign read, “Get off the bus, join us!”

“Those buses, for us, is just a symbol of what rich folks can get away with.”

A few hours after the protest, swarms of residents, tech industry workers and reporters packed themselves inside City Hall to attend a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) hearing about starting a pilot program to have tech shuttles pay $1 each time they use a MUNI bus stop. It is against city law for others to block MUNI bus stops. Violators have to pay a $271 fine. MUNI bus riders pay $2 per ride. People who ride the bus and don’t pay bus fare face a $100 fine. Poor people and people of color are often targeted by transit agents and police for not paying fare. Tech bus riders, on the other hand, do not face such penalties.

The hearing was divided by tech industry workers, who largely supported the plan, and residents who felt it wasn’t enough to curb the deeper problem of displacement. At the hearing, Roberto Hernandez of Our Mission No Eviction, a San Francisco resident born and raised in the Mission District, said, “Children are getting to school late because of these tech buses that roll through the Mission. They’re late, and they don’t eat breakfast. So they’re there with an empty stomach. They start in school late because they’re getting to school late.” Rodriguez told Truthout he had no problem with tech workers, but felt the $1 fee plan was an “insult” and “had no involvement of the community at all. We’re concerned about the impact that these buses are having.” He added, “If you ride a MUNI bus, it’s slow; it’s late; it stinks. Now you ride one of those [tech] buses, you get Wi-Fi; you get luxury on that bus; you get everything. But those buses, for us, is just a symbol of what rich folks can get away with.” After about three to four hours of discussion, the city approved the pilot program. The next month, after pressure from community activists and organizations like People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), Google agreed to donate $6.8 million over the next two years to fund free MUNI passes for low- and middle-income youth.

Two weeks after the tech shuttle hearing was the San Francisco Tenants’ Convention, where hundreds of city residents and leaders gathered in an elementary school cafeteria to propose solutions to fix the city’s housing problem. San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission District, attended the convention to show support for the growing movement. “Right now, the middle class in San Francisco is being pushed out. It’s becoming a city that only millionaires can afford, and you see here that there is a groundswell across the city that people are saying, ‘We’re not gonna let that happen anymore. We want a city that is affordable for all of us.'”

Also at the convention was Tyler Macmillan, the executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC), a nonprofit legal services clinic that assists residents facing eviction lawsuits from landlords. He told Truthout how the city’s judicial system works against eviction victims. “The vast majority of laws are written by and for folks who own property,” said Macmillan. “So when you fight to defend evictions, you face a code of civil procedure, the civil code, even elements of our local law that really favor folks who are wealthy and who have access to good attorneys. And so for most tenants in San Francisco, both of those things are missing. They don’t have money to get to an attorney, and then they’re dealing with a set of laws that are really, especially at the state level, against them in terms of the rights of property.”

To evict a tenant, landlords give them a three-day notice to pay rent or leave. If neither happens, then the landlord can file a lawsuit to evict. Tenants are given a five-day summons to appear in court, which is barely enough time to get a lawyer and prepare oneself to fight an arduous legal battle. Moreover, most judges are property owners and landlords. As a result, “they come in with the assumption that the tenant is wrong,” says Macmillan.

A New Wave of Gentrification

2014 0425hudson3Google bus stopped in the middle of 8th Street by more protesters condemning tech industry’s role in gentrification and displacement. (Photo: Adam Hudson)

San Francisco is experiencing a wave of unprecedented hyper-gentrification and urban removal. The city was gentrified before, and has long been a pricey place, but this current episode is more extreme than previous ones.

San Francisco rent has skyrocketed to obscene levels. Median rent in San Francisco is over $3,000 a month, with some neighborhoods in the $4,000-$5,000 range. Average rent is in the same range. Even rooms for $1,000 a month are virtually nonexistent. Rents in 2013 increased over 10 percent from the previous year, which is more than three times higher than the national average of 3 percent. This makes San Francisco perhaps the least affordable city for middle-class families in the country, with New York City following closely behind. It’s so expensive that even San Francisco’s minimum wage, which is the highest in the country at over $10 an hour, is barely enough to live. One would have to work five, six, or more minimum-wage jobs to make the city’s rent. Moreover, San Francisco is one of the most unequal urban areas, and its income inequality is growing the fastest in the nation.

“What they do in San Francisco, they send black people to prison and [provide] no jobs.”

Evictions have also shot up, displacing hundreds of San Francisco residents. According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a grassroots project that has been counting and mapping evictions in San Francisco, “The number of evictions in 2013 has surpassed evictions in 2006, the height of the real estate bubble. Total no-fault evictions are up 17 percent compared to 2006. More significantly, there has been a 115 percent increase in total evictions since last year” in 2012. From 1997 to 2013, there have been over 11,000 no-fault evictions – either through demolition, owner move-in, or the Ellis Act. The Ellis Act is a California state law that allows landlords to evict tenants to “go out of business” by pulling their property off the market. This allows speculators to swoop in and flip the property. In fact, speculators are driving many Ellis Act evictions. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project reports that Ellis Act evictions “increased by 175 percent” in 2013 “compared to the year before.” Additionally, “Demolitions have gone from 45 in 2006 to 134 in 2013, a 197 percent increase.”

The displacement of San Francisco’s African-American population was the canary in the coal mine for today’s current incarnation of gentrification. Previous waves of gentrification and urban renewal, particularly in neighborhoods like the Fillmore District, which is famous for its historic jazz scene and was long known as the “Harlem of the West,” exiled many African Americans from San Francisco. According to census figures, in 1970, African American’s constituted 13.4 percent of the city’s population. In 1980, they dropped to 12.7 percent; then to 10.9 percent in 1990. By 2000, African Americans made up 7.8 percent of the city’s population. Now, San Francisco’s black population hovers around 5 percent or 6 percent only.

In April 2011, with a push from Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a city ordinance that gives Twitter and other tech companies a 1.5 percent city payroll tax cut for the next six years in return for those businesses staying in San Francisco’s mid-Market Street area.

Willie Ratcliff, publisher of San Francisco Bay View newspaper, told Truthout “San Francisco has certainly conspired to drive us [African Americans] out of here” through racially discriminatory practices in the economic and criminal justice systems. “Particularly, what they do in San Francisco, they send black people to prison and [provide] no jobs.” While they are 6 percent of the city’s population, African Americans constitute 56 percent of San Francisco jail inmates. Unemployment for black San Franciscans has remained high for a while. For black youth, unemployment is 19.4 percent, while it is 4.8 percent for the city. African Americans are also disproportionately impacted by evictions in San Francisco, as they are 29 percent of EDC’s clients for eviction lawsuits, according to the group’s studies.

The wave is so severe that nonprofits and organizations that help marginalized communities are struggling to finance their offices in San Francisco. Homeless Youth Alliance, which helped homeless youth for over a decade, closed last Christmas because it could not afford rent. To fix this, the city plans to “spend $4.5 million to assist nonprofits facing eviction or struggling to make rent,” according to the the San Francisco Examiner.

As the poor and middle classes are pushed out of the city, San Francisco welcomes the booming tech industry, whose workers’ average salaries are over $100,000. In April 2011, with a push from Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a city ordinance that gives Twitter and other tech companies a 1.5 percent city payroll tax cut for the next six years in return for those businesses staying in San Francisco’s mid-Market Street area. The tax breaks must be re-approved every year. In 2012, the tax cuts cost the city $1.9 million and were re-approved for this year. Twitter is expected to get $22 million from the tax break over six years and possibly more since stock options are untaxed, and the company is now publicly traded. Twitter’s IPO is also expected to create more millionaires.

In exchange for tax breaks, San Francisco’s tech companies have to make charitable contributions to the city known as community benefit agreements (CBAs). But those contributions largely benefit other members of the tech industry. They include Yelp reviews, cocktail parties and employee-only ballet performances. Contributions are made at the company’s whim, and there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure they help the community. Meanwhile, community members have yet to see anything meaningful come from the CBAs.

Who is this development for?

Some argue that San Francisco’s housing problem stems from a lack of supply. If the city built more housing, the argument goes, rent would come down, but the city makes it difficult to build. However, San Francisco has had a building boom since 2012, and rent has increased instead of decreased. San Francisco’s chief economist Ted Egan said that to noticeably reduce rental prices, the city would have to build 100,000 market-rate units – the same amount it’s built since the 1920s. Mayor Ed Lee, meanwhile, has proposed to build 30,000 housing units by 2020. Building 100,000 market-rate units would have the same impact on affordability as giving every low-income household – about 56,000 in the city – $75,000 to assist their down payments, according to Egan. Unless San Francisco is willing to build an extremely high amount, building more housing would hardly reduce rental costs. Additionally, while building more housing is not bad, the issue is what kind. As Uptown Almanac’s Jackson West points out, “even if you remove the permitting costs from the process, it’s not profitable to build anything but luxury housing.” This raises the question – who is this development for?

The Process of Gentrification

Whenever the term “gentrification” is thrown around, confusion often follows. Director Spike Lee went on an expletive-laden rant against gentrification in New York City, saying, “You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.” In response, columnist Joshua Greenman wrote in the New York Daily News, “But Americans of all races, motivated by economic and cultural currents, have moved from city to city, and from neighborhood to neighborhood, since civilization began. . . . Everyone replaces someone. Sometimes, neighborhoods go from predominantly Latino and African-American to increasingly white.” Greenman’s characterization is fairly common – gentrification is typically portrayed as a natural, benign process of people simply moving from one neighborhood to another. Depicted this way, challenges to gentrification seem dyspeptic and naive. However, gentrification does not occur inevitably. It is a systematic process with many moving parts.

As a process, gentrification is typically preceded by disinvestment in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. A new report by Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC), a Bay Area tenants’ rights organization, notes that investment, including real estate development and infrastructure funding, usually follows white populations while shying away from communities of color, according to an In These Times summary. For decades, banks denied financial services, such as loans and credit, to predominantly black and brown neighborhoods – a practice known as redlining. This generated low property values in those communities and deteriorated the neighborhoods. Then the process of displacement begins.

Kalima Rose, a senior director at PolicyLink in Oakland, California, wrote that gentrification occurs “in a series of recognizable stages.” The first “involves some significant public or nonprofit redevelopment investment and/or private newcomers buying and rehabbing vacant units” in usually working-class, black and Latino neighborhoods with low property values. Next, “the neighborhood’s low housing costs and other amenities become known, and housing costs rise. Displacement begins as landlords take advantage of rising market values and evict long-time residents to rent or sell to the more affluent. Increasingly, newcomers are more likely to be homeowners, and the rising property values cause down payment requirements to increase. With new residents, come commercial amenities that serve higher income levels.” Then as “rehabilitation becomes more apparent, prices escalate and displacement occurs in force. New residents have lower tolerance for existing social service facilities that serve homeless populations or other low-income needs, as well as industrial and other uses they view as undesirable. Original residents are displaced along with their industries, commercial enterprises, faith institutions and cultural traditions.”

In short, gentrification is trickle-down economics applied to urban development: the idea being that as long as a neighborhood is made suitable for rich and predominantly white people, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else.

Police Crack Down on Poor, Homeless

To make way for this new wave of gentrification, San Francisco police have enforced the city’s criminalization efforts against the poor, homeless and working-class people of color. Last September, SFPD shut down a group of chess games, claiming it was a “public nuisance” and “disguise” for drug use and gambling. This is despite it being a 30-year tradition that has helped poor people; while criminal elements often came not because of players themselves, but from surrounding unsavory characters.

Last November, “DJ” Paris Williams, a 21-year-old African-American City College of San Francisco student and bicyclist, was stopped and brutalized by two undercover police officers outside his Valencia Gardens apartment in the Mission District, a historically working-class Latino neighborhood experiencing intense gentrification. The cops’ issue with DJ was him riding his bike on the sidewalk near his home since the complex is private property. As he entered his home, the police grabbed DJ from behind and beat him. When three residents came to help DJ, they were beaten up, too. One person, Orlando Rodriguez, had his face smashed to the ground by police and was badly bloodied.

This one incident is part of a larger trend. Bay Area hip-hop journalist Davey D reported, “As more white folks have been moving in, many Black and Brown folks, who long made up the majority of folks living in the Mission, have noted they are frequently being profiled and stopped by police. They are often viewed suspiciously, even though they have lived there for generations. Many feel that they are being made to feel unwelcome in their own neighborhoods, and police harassment is part of a larger process to make it so uncomfortable that folks move out.”

Recently, months after DJ’s assault, SFPD shot and killed 28-year-old Latino Alejandro “Alex” Nieto in Bernal Heights Park. Nieto was a City College of San Francisco scholarship student and resident of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood – south of the Mission – with hopes of becoming a youth probation officer. Police mistook Nieto’s Taser for a gun. Nieto wore a Taser for his job as a nightclub security guard. SFPD dispatch audio reveals that Nieto was not acting erratically nor fired at officers before he was killed. Community members were outraged at Nieto’s killing. They protested and connected his murder to the city’s deepening gentrification. Nieto’s family is now suing the city, claiming the killing was unjustified.

San Francisco is literally washing away its homeless population

At the corner of 16th and Mission Streets in the Mission District, groups of poor and homeless people, artists, activists, sometimes drug dealers, and other passers-by regularly congregate. In response, a shady campaign called “Clean Up the Plaza” was born. The campaign was announced in June 2013, and San Francisco police began daily patrols in September, leading to increased harassment of homeless people and residents in the area. In October, Maximus Real Estate Partners submitted a proposal to the San Francisco Planning Commission to build a 10-story, 351-unit housing development at the 16th and Mission intersection that would cost around $175 million and replace several businesses in the area. Many community members oppose the plan. “This proposed plan doesn’t take into consideration the affordable housing needs this neighborhood has,” CJJC organizer Maria Zamudio told El Tecolote.

The 16th and Mission intersection has not always been a safe environment. However, some community members feel threatened not just by local crime, but also by police – Nieto’s shooting being one reason for that. A group of activists called Coffee Not Cops, inspired by Books Not Bombs, congregate at the intersection every other Sunday to serve coffee, pastries, literature and talk to people (except police) in the area about the police presence and gentrification. On their flyer, they pose an interesting question, “Let’s say crime stops on 16th and Mission. Do we really think it will be Latino families, working class people, and young people of color who will be around to enjoy this supposed lack of crime?”

For a while, almost no one knew who was behind the “Clean Up the Plaza” campaign, and it was rumored to be linked to the planned development. It turns out that link is San Francisco political consultant Jack Davis, who has a long record of working on behalf of real estate interests and whose roommate, Gil Chavez, runs the “Clean Up the Plaza” website. Independent journalist Julia Carrie Wong confirmed that “Davis is also working as a paid consultant for the condo project at 16th and Mission.”

Adding insult to injury, San Francisco is literally washing away its homeless population. Last September, the San Francisco Department of Public Works launched a pilot program to keep the streets clean. A DPW spokeswoman told Al Jazeera America, “We wash the streets using disinfectant and steamers as part of our alleys program. We also pick up litter, human waste and other debris.” But under this program, street cleaners have sprayed their high-powered hoses at homeless people sleeping on the streets. A hidden camera from the Coalition on Homelessness captured a DPW worker kicking a homeless person and trucks spraying the homeless with their powerful hoses. It is also very common to see homeless people lying on the street in downtown San Francisco, particularly along Market Street near where tech companies like Twitter are located.

Suburbanization of Poverty

2014 0425hudsonProtesters march down Grove Street to San Francisco Association of Realtors to protest developers and realtors for evicting people. (Photo: Adam Hudson)

Often overlooked in stories about tech buses and displacement in San Francisco is how gentrification perpetuates the suburbanization of Bay Area poverty. US Census data shows that, from the years 2007 to 2011, large chunks of San Francisco’s middle class moved to Alameda and Contra Costa counties in the East Bay, along with other parts of California and out of state. Macmillan told Truthout that, after being evicted, many Eviction Defense Collaborative clients move to the East Bay area, including “inner and way outside of Contra Costa County.” Low- and middle-income residents, many of whom are people of color who can no longer afford to live in San Francisco or Oakland, usually move to outer East Bay area suburbs like Vallejo, Antioch, and Fairfield – or as far as Stockton.

Lines of racial and class inequality lie not just in San Francisco and Oakland but also in working-class suburbs like Antioch, Pittsburg and Vallejo. Some of these cities are low to moderate income and have sizable African-American and Latino populations. Pittsburg, an East Bay industrial town flanking the Sacramento River Delta that connects to the San Francisco Bay, is 17.7 percent black, 42.4 percent Latino, 15.6 percent Asian, has a median household income of $58,063, and its poverty rate is 17.1 percent, according to census data. It is also home to an old coal mine, the steel company USS-POSCO and Dow Chemical. Vallejo is 22.1 percent black, 24.9 percent Asian, and 22.6 percent Latino, has a similar median household income and a 16 percent poverty rate.

In January 2012, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco released a report that analyzed the increasing poverty in Bay Area suburbs. Looking at census data, between 2000 and 2009, poverty increased in both urban and suburban areas. However, poverty rose faster in the suburbs than in urban areas and varied across racial groups. According to the report, “The number of people living in poverty rose 16 percent in the suburbs, compared to 7 percent in urban areas. Blacks and Hispanics saw the greatest percentage growth in suburban poverty, as did the native-born population.” African Americans were the “only group to see a decline in the number of poor urban residents. While the number of poor blacks living in urban tracts decreased by 11 percent, the number of poor blacks in the suburbs increased by about 20 percent.” San Francisco and Oakland both have declining black populations.

Poverty rose in cities like Pittsburg, Antioch, Concord, Vallejo, the fringe of San Jose and Millbrae. The percentage of poor people living in the suburbs increased among all racial groups, but the highest change was among African Americans. “The share of the poor Black population living in the suburbs increased more than 7 percentage points, whereas the next highest group, Asians, increased 2 percentage points,” the report said.

The report notes that several factors contributed to the suburbanization of Bay Area poverty. One is the collapse of the housing bubble in the late 2000s, which particularly hurt Stockton, Antioch and much of East Contra Costa County. In the mid-2000s, the housing boom provided affordable housing in the suburbs. Once it burst, home values dropped, foreclosures skyrocketed, people lost their jobs, and poverty increased.

Some low-income residents moved from the cities to suburbs to escape crime and find better opportunities. But gentrification also factored in suburbanizing poverty. The report notes, “The rising value of properties in the urban core may have led to indirect displacement, as landlords converted rental units to condominiums and Tenancy in Commons (TICs), or raised the rents to the extent allowed by local regulation. Displaced residents may have moved from central cities to more affordable suburban areas.”

These Bay Area working-class suburbs provide cheaper housing, some of which is Section 8. However, there are disadvantages to living in these communities. Social services that help low-income people are typically located in urban areas, where much of the poor have long been concentrated, while the suburbs lack them. Thus, poor people in the suburbs have little access to nonprofits and organizations that can help them. Moreover, Bay Area suburbs are no different than other suburbs when it comes to lacking public transportation. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) goes throughout much of Oakland and San Francisco but barely reaches Pittsburg and doesn’t even touch Vallejo. Thus, low-income workers are forced to endure long commutes on the freeway, which leads to greater traffic and pollution.

Taken together, what’s going on in San Francisco is deeper than just a fight between well-to-do tech workers and longtime San Francisco residents. San Francisco is microcosm of what’s going on in metropolitan areas around the world. From San Francisco to New York City to London, urban areas are being redesigned into playgrounds for the very rich. The poor, working and almost-nonexistent middle-class people who can’t afford to live in these rich Elysiums are forced to live farther away, with few resources to support themselves.

By pushing poor and working-class people to the suburbs, gentrification doesn’t benefit everyone. Instead, it reconfigures the geographic lines of racial and economic inequality, granting improvements to the lives of the moneyed classes, at the expense of the needs – and sometimes, even the survival – of everyone else.