Now Playing

Can Big Tech Be Tamed?

As the tech industry grows to unfathomable proportions, San Francisco needs to grow to match it. A call to arms for a city under siege.

SLIDESHOW

How well do you know your tech titans? Clockwise from top left: Tim Cook, Apple; Marc Benioff, Salesforce; Sundar Pichai, Google; Sergey Brin, Google; Larry Page, Google; Brian Chesky, Airbnb; Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook; Travis Kalanick, Uber; Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook; Jack Dorsey, Twitter. Got all 10? Congratulations—you can probably afford the rent here!

(1 of 5)

Clockwise from left: Sergey Brin, Drew Houston, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeremy Stoppelman, Ron Conway, Sheryl Sandberg.

(2 of 5)

Susan Wojcicki, Sam Altman, Larry Page.

(3 of 5)

 

Travis Kalanick.

(4 of 5)

Elon Musk.

(5 of 5)

I. A MIGHTY RIVER

Cities, it's been said, are like rivers, and San Francisco has always been a leaping, unpredictable one, constantly jumping its banks and fed by the most varied and unlikely springs. I’ve been splashing in this unruly current for almost half a century. But several years ago, something happened upstream. A great deluge of money of a magnitude not seen since the bonanzas of the 19th century began to crumble our protective levees, hoisting San Francisco’s skyline, swamping its housing, stalling its traffic, and profoundly altering its character.

Since the great tech boom started six or seven years ago, this has become a city of staggering wealth, one where only the economically privileged can afford to move, and upon which everyone else has an increasingly shaky grasp. The data tells the story. San Francisco’s median household income has gone up by more than 10 percent a year this decade. The average salary of a worker here is now more than $100,000—up from $61,000 in 2001. Insatiable demand for housing, coupled with not nearly enough supply, has caused median single-family-home prices to soar from $660,000 in 2011 to an outrageous $1,715,000 in 2018—an increase of 160 percent.

These barking-mad numbers are the result, almost entirely, of a stratospherically booming technology sector whose growth and reach are unlike anything any of us has ever seen. The combined market value of Apple, Facebook, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, all headquartered within 40 miles of downtown San Francisco, is more than $2.2 trillion—about the same as the gross domestic product of Italy, the eighth-largest economy in the world.

And these are just the biggest of the big tech companies. In February, TechCrunch posted its ongoing list of global unicorns, startups valued at more than $1 billion by private investors. Worldwide, there are 279 of these no-longer-rare beasts, located in 23 countries. A jaw-dropping 69 of them—almost a quarter of the total—are in the Bay Area, many in San Francisco proper. The biggest ones, like Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Dropbox, are well-known, as are some of the smaller ones, like 23andMe and Eventbrite. But raise your hand if you’ve heard of Anaplan, C3 IoT, or Apttus. Yet each of these obscure giants is valued at at least one-tenth of the annual $10 billion budget of the city of San Francisco.

I know from personal experience what happens when a sudden torrent of riches rains upon a city. As a cofounder of Salon who dreamed of being in the first cohort of journalists in world history to get filthy rich (it didn’t work out like that) and who witnessed the crazy tsunami of money that slammed into San Francisco in 2000, watching this boom is like déjà vu all over again, only this time while wearing VR goggles and under the influence of ayahuasca. But there are profound differences between this boom and the dot-com days: The revenues, for one thing, are real. (Cryptocurrency is a whole other story.) When today’s most successful startups allow employees to cash in some of their vested stock options—whether after an IPO or, as is increasingly common, long before one—dozens if not hundreds of staffers actually become what I wanted to be: instant millionaires. And, naturally, the first thing these newly minted rich folk do is go out and buy a house. (One realtor friend of mine recalls one of his colleagues showing a $2 million home to an in-house masseuse at Google.)

By driving housing prices up across the spectrum, all that nouveau wealth creates corresponding pain. And it prevents non-wealthy newcomers—who have always been the secret springs replenishing this particular river—from relocating here. The boom isn’t just smothering present-day San Francisco. It’s strangling future San Franciscos in the crib.

The technology sector does not employ the most workers in the city—the healthcare industry does—but tech is, in the words of city economist Ted Egan, “the tail that wags the dog.” It’s almost hard to believe now that in 1990, when companies like Apple, Oracle, Cisco, and Intel dominated Silicon Valley, 1 percent of the city worked in technology. Now it’s more than 11 percent, and in some neighborhoods, like SoMa, the Mission, the Marina, and Noe Valley, it feels like 50. More numbers: In 2001, at the apex of the dot-com boom, there were approximately 26,000 residents working in the technology sector. In 2016, there were 83,000. In just one year, between June 2015 and June 2016, more than 5,000 tech workers moved to San Francisco. And why wouldn’t they? The average salary here for their industry brethren that year was $185,147.

I try not to resent newly arrived tech workers or the entrepreneurs who created the companies that brought them here. Resentment and its first cousin, envy, are unattractive emotions. And get-off-my-lawnism, even if dressed up as progressive anti-elitism, is equally toxic. I try to take people as they come. But the sudden flood of so many well-heeled young people working in the same general field, many of whom seem motivated not by some world-changing ethos (please), but by life-changing sums of money, has tested the tolerance of even the most nonjudgmental residents.

“This is a wild time, a revolution,” says Michael Johns, a professor emeritus of geography at UC Berkeley and the author of the forthcoming San Francisco: Instant City, Promised Land. “I appreciate it, and I don’t want to stomp on their parade.... But it’s a little monocultural.” Johns worries that the San Francisco that has long been “open to all kinds of youth… the bohemian sexual crowd in 1890 and 1900, the art world in the 1930s and 1940s, the beatniks, the Haight-Ashbury thing,” couldn’t be refreshed by similar youth movements today. “The place is so ratcheted up in class terms,” he says, “that those people couldn’t come now.”

The problem Johns is articulating goes far beyond antipathy toward the techies. It’s about who will be able to live in San Francisco in the future. It all comes down to housing. Although far fewer people have been directly displaced by this boom than by the dot-com one, the fear of having to leave town hangs over the entire city like a ticking-bomb emoji. It hovers over me. Since 2011, I, a divorced father of two grown children, have lived in a 450-square-foot apartment in a ramshackle old two-unit building on Telegraph Hill for which I pay $2,165 a month in rent. It’s an indication of how expensive this town has become that this is a steal, in the same price bracket as one of those Starcity adult dorm rooms that the New York Times recently wrote about, which purportedly have a waitlist of 8,000 people. I’m a reasonably successful middle-class 64-year-old professional who has lived in this city for 47 years, in eight different apartments and a house. Every time I moved out of a place before, I found another one. If I have to leave this time, I will have to leave San Francisco.

I bring my situation up not because there’s anything special about it, but precisely because it’s so ordinary. Nearly half of the city’s 385,000 housing units are rent-controlled, which means hundreds of thousands of people in the city are in the same boat as me, watching nervously for leaks. Sooner or later, all of us living in rent-controlled apartments will either voluntarily move out, be evicted, or simply die. And a vast majority of the units we occupied will no longer be locked into their former rent-controlled prices and will immediately zoom up to market rate. If you think average rents are high now, just wait until the boomers begin to depart en masse. (Although it’s possible that the increasing housing supply will keep rents relatively stable, it’s also possible that it won’t.)

One thing is certain: Whatever kind of city that demographic changeover enshrines will bear even less resemblance to the place I moved to in 1971 than the present one does. Barring a dramatic change in our current direction and the addition of tens—maybe hundreds—of thousands of new housing units, San Francisco will be a city that many of its current residents—and their children—will not be able to live in.


II. WHOSE FAULT IS THIS, ANYWAY?

In the creation myth of modern-day San Francisco, the one posited by the most trenchant critics of the tech industry and, in particular, by the progressive faction of City Hall, the original sin goes like this: Once upon a time, everything was dandy in San Francisco. That is, until an army of techies swarmed over the battlements. Someone must have unlocked the gate! Who did it? It was the late mayor Ed Lee, a well-meaning but hapless bureaucrat who was putty in the hands of the evil venture capital courtier Ron Conway. Duped by Conway’s honeyed words, Mayor Lee opened the rusted-shut Mid-Market portcullis with his Twitter tax break and then proceeded to personally direct the techie hordes to other choice pillaging sites in SoMa and the Mission. The app-developing Visigoths poured in, ravaging, burning, and muddling $14 cocktails at will. When the smoke cleared, San Franciscans opened their horrified eyes to behold a giant tech phallus in the sky, looming over them in perpetual, Ayn Randian tumescence—the dread Salesforce Tower!

That’s a hell of a lot sexier a story than “It’s the economy, stupid.” But interviews with historians, economists, urban planners, tech leaders, politicians, city officials, developers, and venture capitalists—several of whom were personally involved in negotiations between the city, tech companies, and real estate interests during the Lee administration—make it clear that it’s basically a fairy tale. The tech invasion may, depending on your perspective, have ruined San Francisco, but no individual was to blame. A cabal of “white rich-men billionaires,” in the words of Supervisor Hillary Ronen, was not responsible for what happened here. Nor was Mayor Lee. The city was simply in the wrong (or right) place at the right time.

“The Twitter tax break was an irrelevancy,” Johns says. “This has become a shibboleth of a certain group on the left. I don’t think it drove the development, anyway. You’ve got these underlying things that drove this whole sector. San Francisco had all this undervalued land, perfectly situated and ready to go.” That point is echoed by Richard DeLeon, retired professor emeritus of political science at San Francisco State and author of the forthcoming San Francisco and the Revolt of the Cities: Progressivism, Technology, and Democracy in San Francisco, 1996–2016. Building off the “thriving remnants of the dot-com crash,” the tech boom, DeLeon says, was bound to happen. “Once it got established, it fed upon itself, created its own gravitational field, and locked in. I don’t think anything is inevitable, but all the arrows were pointing in that direction and the conditions were set.”

Furthermore, what has happened to San Francisco in the last seven years isn’t unique to San Francisco at all—it’s part of a global trend. In his 2017 book The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It, Richard Florida, a professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto, details how young, skilled, highly paid professionals have increasingly gathered in urban centers—the so-called great inversion that has reversed the white flight to the suburbs that marked the 1960s and ’70s. The result is what Florida calls “winner-take-all urbanism,” in which a handful of “superstar cities” like London, New York, and Los Angeles gain wildly disproportionate economic power.

Because of its proximity to the world center of tech innovation, San Francisco was particularly susceptible to the global phenomenon of “clustering” that led the most talented and ambitious people in technology and related fields to flock to the Bay Area. In the four years between 2014, when the floodgates really opened, and the end of 2017, venture capital firms poured almost $120 billion into Bay Area startups, with $78.3 billion of that going to companies in San Francisco. By contrast, between 1998 and 2001, during the dot-com boom, VC investments in the city totaled $32.3 billion. Only in the single mega-year of the dot-com boom, 2000, did VC investment in the city total $15 billion. We’ve now exceeded that total for four straight years and counting.

Could the city have raised the drawbridge and simply kept the tech companies, the venture capitalists, and all their money out? Theoretically. But has a city ever willfully done such a thing? It would have been economic suicide for San Francisco to do so. In 2010, the city’s unemployment rate hit a high of 9.4 percent, and it was aggressively cutting its budget. “I think it would have been crazy, and I don’t know who could have constructed a political coalition around restricting the growth of jobs and real estate,” Johns says. DeLeon, a self-described “progressive lefty,” dismisses the idea that San Francisco should have somehow blockaded the economic stimulus that tech’s moving in created. While he calls Ed Lee the “concierge mayor” for the way he catered to tech, he regards the demonization of figures like Conway as “highly simplistic thinking.”

Florida likens the idea that any city would have deliberately shut out the most dynamic, fastest-growing industry in the world to the aims of “the Luddites, who destroyed the ability of England to compete and benefited the United States.... That’s the story of economic decline.” Florida has a name for the reflexive ideological opponents of growth in cities: New Urban Luddites. “I think the urban left is engaging in a level of silliness...a level of romanticism, that Marx would have called ludicrously utopian socialism, not grounded in any reality of the laws of motion of capitalism—this loony romantic notion that the world would be a better place without jobs and business investment. And this loopy notion that everything that happens [when cities get more prosperous] is gentrification and everything is bad.”

The justified angst over housing prices can obscure the fact that San Francisco’s crisis is, indeed, a crisis of success: It currently has 2.5 percent unemployment (one of the lowest levels ever in city history, or for any comparably sized American city), the most jobs ever, and a $10 billion annual budget—one of the highest per capita of any city in the country—that pays for aff ordable housing, transit, parks, and everything else we ask of our government. City economist Egan makes the crucial point that it isn’t just wealthy techies who have benefited from the boom. There’s a “multiplier effect”: Every tech job creates 1.3 other jobs. There are 105,000 low-income households in San Francisco, and despite how expensive it is to live here, they somehow persist. Asked why they stay, even when it would be far more affordable not to, Egan gives a one-word answer: “Jobs.”


III. 
“THERE’S GONNA BE A CIVIL WAR”

If the left-populist claim that the tech industry and its supporters are the villains in San Francisco’s current drama doesn’t hold up, it nonetheless raises deeper issues, ones that cannot be dismissed. Just because tech isn’t to blame for what has happened to San Francisco doesn’t mean it isn’t responsible for it. The fact is, we have a tech-created crisis on our hands. And it’s one that goes far beyond one wealthy superstar city. It’s a national crisis.

Technology is already driving the U.S. economy, and in the future its hegemony will only grow. With artificial intelligence and robotic technology coming at warp speed, massive unemployment is an imminent possibility. “It pains me to say this, but the number-one job in the U.S. today is driver,” says venture capitalist and former state controller Steve Westly, whose firm the Westly Group invests in autonomous vehicles. In the United States, “3.7 million people [drive for a living], and a substantial number of those people will be displaced,” Westly warns. Millions of other jobs, many of them low-paid, are also at risk.

Under these circumstances, it’s not just a good idea for tech companies to expand the idea of what it means to be a responsible corporate citizen. The very stability of the country, not to mention their own survival, may depend on it. “I think these tech companies have handled themselves abysmally,” Florida says. From Uber to Amazon, “the way they work with cities is just hellacious. Amazon is having an auction with cities so that the world’s richest man can take billions of dollars of public money away from schools and kids and affordable housing.”

“The tech companies have to grow up,” Florida goes on. “Let’s have [them] see what it takes to build a real city, not just a platform for their success. What do you need to invest in transit? What do you need to invest in affordable housing? What do you need to create good parks? Good schools? Be partners in this, instead of just saying, ‘We’re doing our part by locating here,’ which is actually making inequality worse and housing affordability worse.”

Comparing the current moment to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Florida argues that today’s tech titans should emulate earlier businessmen who saw the big societal picture. “Henry Ford put his hand up. He was a pretty conservative guy, but he said, ‘We’ve got to give these workers $5 a day so they can buy these cars coming off the assembly line.’ It was business leaders who said to FDR, ‘We need a New Deal.’... There are no richer [tech] companies in the world than Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon. Why don’t they get together? They say they’re progressive, they say they’re openminded—what in the world is stopping them? Do they really think we’re better off with a class war in San Francisco and Donald Trump in the White House?”

DeLeon is equally concerned. If the tech sector doesn’t begin to practice the altruistic ethos it preaches, “there’s gonna be a fucking civil war,” he says. But he finds reason for hope in a budding “tech progressivism,” led by enlightened companies like Salesforce and Zendesk, whose credo is that social justice is just as important as profits. “In 2012, [Mayor] Lee went into [Salesforce founder Marc] Benioff’s office with the superintendent of schools with [his] hat in hand, seeking enough money to buy some computers,” DeLeon recalls. “Benioff’s sitting at the desk with his pen in hand poised to write a check, and he says, ‘You need to think bigger. We’re loaded. You should be putting more pressure on us.’” DeLeon also cites Sam Altman’s Y Combinator, which launched an experimental universal basic income program in Oakland.

DeLeon and Florida haven’t articulated an actual agenda for the tech companies, but they’re both thinking Google-size big. DeLeon would like to see the tech companies partner with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to create a “European-style social democracy.” This would mean affordable housing and healthcare as a right, progressive taxation, and workforce training for all—with the tech companies helping to underwrite the billions of dollars this would cost, at least until the massive economic benefits of a skilled workforce, low unemployment, and higher productivity kicked in. In short, tech would play the economic role of a government—the Swedish government.

Could something like this happen? Could private enterprise step in where our dysfunctional government has failed and try to create a city—or an entire society—based on the idea that the common good is more important than profits? Such an effort would mark a paradigm shift in the history of American capitalism and governance. It’s the longest of long shots, but the example of Benioff is reason enough to not simply dismiss the possibility out of hand. Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan whose Fortune 500 company is the second-largest employer in the city, has embraced the idea of “compassionate capitalism,” putting 1 percent of his company’s money, products, and labor (the famous Pledge 1 Percent initiative he undertook the day he started Salesforce) where his liberal San Francisco values are. “I really do believe business is the greatest platform for change in today’s world,” Benioff tells me. “We certainly can’t rely on our government, local or national.”

Benioff travels the world evangelizing his fellow CEOs about the importance of “building companies that are about not just their shareholders, but all their stakeholders, including their partners, their customers, and their community.” He says 4,000 companies around the world have adopted the 1-1-1 pact. But he acknowledges that many others aren’t interested. Reinventing capitalism isn’t going to happen overnight. 


IV. GIMME (MORE) SHELTER

Where does this societal quandary leave San Francisco? For city officials, one strategic imperative trumps all others: figuring out the best way to get the tech companies and their partners in capital investment and real estate development to pony up. The question is: Should the city twist their arms? Or try to bring them in as partners? Or both?

Arm-twisting is already taking place, albeit with a forcefulness that doesn’t always satisfy the progressive critics of the moderate, pro-tech faction that has held power here since before the dot-com boom started. Like all cities, San Francisco has always imposed taxes and fees on businesses and developers. For many years, it has targeted commercial and residential developers in particular to help underwrite the construction of subsidized—or “affordable”—housing, most of it reserved for very-low-income residents. It’s the city as Robin Hood: Plutocrats—the developers and the tech companies whose insatiable need for office space keeps them in business—underwrite housing for the poor, as well as for a small but growing portion of the middle class.

Tech companies also pay various taxes and fees, which can be considerable when they own the office buildings they occupy. But going after the companies directly is problematic, not least because as tech employment goes, so go the city’s coffers. The most significant effort to tax tech companies at a higher level took place in 2016, when then-supervisor Eric Mar proposed a 1.5 percent payroll tax on tech companies to fund affordable housing and homeless services. The measure, which would have raised $140 million annually, died in committee after a contentious debate in which city economist Egan released a study claiming that the tax on tech companies would end up harming non–tech workers, a prediction that Supervisor Aaron Peskin disputed as abstract and theoretical. Since then, no direct levies on tech companies have been proposed, although in February supervisor and 2018 mayoral candidate Jane Kim floated a measure that would tax companies making more than $25 million a year.

But even if the city decides to impose additional taxes on tech companies, it’s unlikely that it will create game-changing amounts of subsidized housing. In San Francisco, because of extremely high labor expenses and thickets of regulations, it costs between $550,000 and $850,000 to build one unit of subsidized housing. If we assume a cost of $700,000 per unit, Mar’s proposed tax would have created only about 200 units a year.

And for middle-class people, the heart and soul of a city, subsidized housing isn’t really an option. San Francisco has a laudable commitment to building such housing—we have more of it per capita than any other city in the country—but most of it, understandably, is reserved for the poor and very poor. Only 3,382 of the 37,899 subsidized housing units in the city are available to middle-class people. These below-market-rate (BMR) apartments are open for either rental or purchase. Rental applicants can make up to 110 percent of the area median income, or $96,000, while buyers can make up to 130 percent. But the odds of landing such a home are daunting. Kate Hartley, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, says that when the city held a lottery for 28 new BMR units at Alice Griffith Apartments (a former public housing project in the Bayview, now owned and managed by a nonprofit), it got more than 4,000 applicants.

Because it has suppressed the construction of new market-rate housing for decades (between 1980 and 2014, San Francisco grew by more than 170,000 residents but gained only 70,000 housing units), the city bears as much responsibility for the crisis it now finds itself in as the tech industry does. But it has a chance to make up for its past mistakes, and in the process ensure that this doesn’t become a schizoid city, with subsidized housing on one side of the street and millionaires’ mansions on the other. To do so, it needs to start building housing—a lot of it. Ironically, the best way to preserve San Francisco will be to change it.


V. A PRISONER’S DILEMMA

Since the 1960s, anti-growth progressives have held the de facto moral high ground in liberal cities like San Francisco. Their default position is that the laws of supply and demand don’t really apply here, because demand is so high that no matter how much market-rate housing we build, we’ll never significantly cut housing costs. Therefore, any housing development that doesn’t include some unspecified but not-subject-to-the-laws-of-capitalism percentage of subsidized housing (100 percent has been proposed) should be rejected. Same goes for changing neighborhood zoning to allow for more apartment buildings instead of single-family homes. The result of these passionately held beliefs is predictable and consistent: Nothing gets built.

The people who make these passionate arguments are often homeowners who have a vested interest in protecting their property values and don’t want their neighborhoods profaned by new development—i.e., NIMBYs. This coalition of progressives, NIMBYs, and renters protected by rent control who see no personal upside in increasing the housing supply has effectively blocked the construction of any significant amount of market-rate housing for decades.

But that’s all changing before our eyes. The city’s current housing crisis is so extreme that it has made it increasingly hard for the progressives to maintain their no-growth line—especially since we’ve never built enough to test it. (In Seattle and Washington, D.C., both of which have built a lot of new housing, prices have in fact come down .) And the progressive status quo is being challenged by an organized coalition of younger, less affluent renters, so-called YIMBYs, many of them just as politically left-wing as their elders, whom they accuse of selfishly locking a younger generation out of San Francisco.

State senator Scott Wiener’s proposed bill SB 827 is one of the most audacious efforts to shake up that status quo in years. It’s an attempt to force California cities to not just build more housing, but to do so according to “smart growth” principles, which means building more densely in the areas around transit hubs. As anyone who has tried to get onto the Bay Bridge at rush hour lately knows, transit is second only to housing in its ability to negatively affect one’s quality of life.

Wiener’s bill highlights a critical, long-ignored aspect of San Francisco’s housing problem: It’s not just our problem. It’s a regional crisis, and the failure of our neighboring cities to build housing has made our own problems much worse. San Francisco, bad as it is, actually has a much better track record of housing construction than most of its Bay Area neighbors, which have essentially said, “We’re suburbs—we don’t do housing.” Every city and town has its reasons for not building—it would change the character of the place (Brisbane), it would be ugly (Cupertino), it would lead to gentrification (Berkeley), it would lower property values (Menlo Park). These reasons all make sense for the individual cities that veto housing. But the cumulative effect is the housing affordability crisis much of the region is now experiencing.

To break through this prisoner’s dilemma, it’s essential that the entire Bay Area act in concert. Without a coordinated regional approach to housing and transit, San Francisco will end up bearing far more than its fair share of the regional housing and transit burdens. Which is another way of saying that regionalism offers San Francisco a relatively low-cost solution to its problems. If Walnut Creek and Mountain View and San Rafael build more housing—if some suburbs even become full-fledged cities, as smart-growth evangelist Gabriel Metcalf of the urban planning think tank SPUR advocates in a recent paper—San Francisco won’t have to do all of the heavy lifting on its own.

What if Wiener’s bill passes, and San Francisco upzones widely? What would the city look like if streets near transit, like Geary Boulevard in the Richmond or Columbus Avenue in North Beach, were filled with four-to-six-story apartment buildings? If done right, it might look pretty good. Lower Nob Hill and the Tenderloin, the neighborhoods that have the most medium-size apartments in town, are also the densest and most aesthetically pleasing deep-city parts of San Francisco. Whether the architecture of the new apartments would match the glories of the post-quake, pre–World War II buildings on Post and Bush and Jones is another question.

But at least in principle, streets lined with four-to-six-story apartment buildings could be superior to the motley assemblages of random buildings our neighborhood arterials now are. Of course, many residents are likely to react to the idea of upzoning their neighborhoods with visceral scorn. And of course not all NIMBYism is bad. A 50-story tower on the top of Bernal Hill would not be a good idea. But it’s possible to imagine San Francisco, at least in part, not as a cool gray city of two-story buildings but as a cool gray city of six-story buildings.

However, there is another alternative, one that would ease pressure on the city to upzone so widely. There are around 60,000 units in the city’s development pipeline, of which only about 12,000 are under construction. Approximately 48,000 have been approved but not yet built. Ken Rich, the director of development for the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says expediting the construction of these already-approved units, and also developing available space that doesn’t require rezoning, would be more efficient than a massive rezoning effort. “I would rather focus on getting that parking lot on the west side, which has a 40-foot height limit, built up to 40 feet than fighting an extended battle about whether it should go up to 60 feet or not.”

In my view, solving San Francisco’s housing crisis requires three coordinated steps. First, the city should selectively upzone and increase density on smart growth principles, and also expedite construction on the 60,000 units in the development pipeline. All of this new housing should include the highest-possible percentage of affordable units. Second, a new regional governing body with enforcement power should require other Bay Area cities to increase their density and begin long-range regional planning on housing and transit needs. And third, the tech giants should step forward and partner with San Francisco and other cities, working together not just on affordable housing but also on transit, jobs, sustainability, and every other aspect of life in a real, nonvirtual, community. Creativity and genuine engagement are the key. Opening plants and training and hiring local youth in Bayview–Hunters Point, the Mission, and other vulnerable neighborhoods, or brainstorming and funding creative new transit systems, might fit the problem-solving ethos of the tech companies better than simply writing checks for housing. In any case, a new civic engagement by tech doesn’t have to be the second coming of Sweden. It just needs to be real—and make a real difference.

This last piece is the big one, and its ramifications extend far beyond San Francisco. “There’s no question this is the eight-billion-ton gorilla in the room,” DeLeon says. “People haven’t quite grasped its immensity.” Will the tech companies rise to the occasion? It would require them to reach beyond their libertarian comfort zones into a risky place of self-examination and, yes, creative destruction and reinvention. But it could happen. As Florida says, “A lot of these movements through history have come from San Francisco. Why not once again?”


VI. THE ONCE AND FUTURE CITY

On a cold Friday afternoon in February, I jump on my bike and go for a ride. I roll down Union and across Columbus to Stockton. I head south, swerving out of the way of jaywalking old men holding bags of produce, past the endless Central Subway excavation on Washington Street, then through the old, noir-y Stockton Tunnel. As I cross Market, tourists and retail shoppers are clogging the streets. I pedal down Mission, past motley little Second Street, and into the concrete jungle. There’s the Salesforce Rorschach Tower—a monument to a progressive company, but also to an industry hated by many.

Young people and their AirPods scurry past the stunning new Transit Center. I head west on Howard, past the Yerba Buena Center, where a bunch of old working-class men living in residential hotels were forced out in the 1960s. I turn left on down-and-out Sixth Street, near the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s harm reduction center, where staffers and volunteers are helping heroin and meth users stay alive and sometimes get clean. The ugliest and most beautiful things I’ve seen in San Francisco have taken place around here. In a few blocks I head over to Seventh and turn down Hooper, rolling past a big new mixed-use development partially occupied by Adobe. The other part of it, consisting of 150,000 square feet of industrial space, will house local manufacturers and craftspeople in the consortium SFMade. That blow against monocultural domination was paid for by the office space.

I head across Division, at the base of Potrero Hill, and over to Harrison. I roll through the Mission on my way to Bernal Heights. I turn right on 24th Street, where I used to shoot pool at the long-vanished Green Lantern bar before techies even existed. The neighborhood still has a large Latino population, as it has since the 1950s, but it’s changing.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote that as a young pilot, he was forced to learn how to really read the river. Once he learned that a picturesque floating log meant that the river was rising, that a gorgeous sunset meant there would be wind tomorrow, he could never see it in the same way again: “The romance and beauty were all gone from the river.” A city is like Twain’s Mississippi. If you really want to know it, you have to learn to see the snags that are hidden beneath the beautiful ripples on its surface. But you also have to appreciate its magnificence, hidden snags and all.

I make the long, painful haul up Folsom Street. When I get to Bernal Heights Boulevard, huffing and puffing, I stop to take in the amazing view, and as I look, in my mind’s eye I see everything that’s happening in every nook and corner of the city, from North Beach to Visitacion Valley, from the Mission to the zoo. The whole sexual-orientation spectrum dancing at El Rio. The systems developers and the baristas getting stoned together at Dolores Park. The old Chinese women dancing in Washington Square, cracking me up with their hearty yells of “Cha-cha-cha!” The African American ladies cutting loose for a friend’s birthday at Sam Jordan’s. The gold-chained contractors arguing about the Giants at Gino and Carlo’s. The 21-year-old kids having fun—not that different in their silly drunkenness from me, in another lifetime—at Evil Eye.

With all its faults, I still love this town. I don’t have a big ask. I just hope my daughter, the theater major, will be able to live here someday.

It’s time to head home. I take off down Bernal Heights Boulevard, the wind at my back, the city opening before me.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag