No, the protests are not justified
San Francisco, long known as a liberal bastion that embraces people and cultures from around the world, has unfortunately had trouble accepting the recent arrivals of tech workers who work in companies like Twitter and Salesforce that moved into the city as well as those from Google and Apple, who have made the city their home while commuting to Silicon Valley to work.
Protestors have filed the streets attacking Google buses, with profanity laden posters and vitriolic comments directed at these new residents. According to a recent Guardian article, a Google engineer’s home was targeted with fliers that he is “building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation” and alerting that “he is also your neighbor!”
San Francisco Mayor Lee brokered a payroll tax waiver in 2011 that not only helped retain Twitter offices in the Market area of San Francisco, but also attracted other companies to move to the area. The payroll tax waiver incentivized Twitter to double their local staff.
Thanks to Twitter and other companies that moved in, the once blighted area is now on a revival trajectory, with new shops and restaurants, creating service sector jobs and generating tax revenue for the city.
The protestors’ ire at their new tech savvy neighbors is misguided. As the popular saying goes—“a rising tide lifts all boats” and these new San Francisco residents add not just to the vibrancy of the city but also the economic vitality benefitting all residents in the long term. It is estimated that the Twitter IPO created over 1600 millionaires, presumably, many who have made San Francisco their home. The state of California is expected to net a tax windfall of over $300 million from these tax payers. These residents are going to spend their money in procuring local services and products generating commerce and creating local jobs. As U2’s Bono said in a recent Georgetown University speech: “Commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid.”
Yes, rents may go up due to increase in demand for housing, but that needs to be addressed by increasing the supply of rental housing. Most rentals in San Francisco are covered by onerous rent control regulations that provide no incentive for potential landlords. A recent study by Jed Kolko, Chief Economist for the real estate site Trulia, points out that “Since 1990, there have been just 117 new housing units permitted per 1,000 housing units that existed in 1990 in San Francisco. That’s the lowest of … all the 100 largest metros.”
Nevada has dumped thousands of mentally ill homeless patients in San Francisco—with a heartless one way bus ticket—that SF city attorneys say will cost $500K to care of. Who would you rather receive San Francisco—the homeless or these tech workers?
Rameysh Ramdas, an S.F. Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
Yes, the protests are justified
Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, one of the companies that is the target of these protests, sympathized with the protesters when he declared that he was dismayed by the tech industry’s “stinginess.” According to Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, the new denizens of San Francisco need to be cognizant of the cultural norms of the community they are joining.
With soaring rents and rising evictions, the anxiety that long-time San Francisco residents face seems to be entirely legitimate. According to RealFacts, a rental “data and analysis” website, the monthly rent in San Francisco soared 11.9% to $3,096 per month in the third quarter of 2013 while San Jose’s average rent rose 9.2% to 2,015 per month for the same period. As a point of comparison, Washington, D.C. rents within the city center average $1,984 per month. The have-nots are slowly being squeezed out of their homes in San Francisco.
This disparity is on display when luxury buses trundle up and down clogged urban streets sharing Muni bus stops for pick-ups and drop-offs of tech workers. “It’s not that the buses are the problem,” explains Tom Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor, in a Mercury News story, “It’s what those buses represent that’s the problem.” It should not be the case that luxury buses elbow their way into reserved spaces especially marked for public Muni buses.
Indeed, San Francisco is well-known as a liberal bastion, and the haves and have-nots have always known how to get along and compromise. These tensions highlight the growing gap between those within and outside the tech industry as well as new and old residents. As start-ups have sprouted in this urban mecca, and as younger employees of companies like Google and Yahoo have begun to look at San Francisco as their home, it becomes imperative for the ethos of the city to be preserved. Sure, tech workers are as hard-working as others and sure, they have a right to go where they want, but like Benioff puts it, “If you’re coming to San Francisco, you’ve got to do better.”
Any large-scale migration is bound to change the dynamics in a city. But, San Francisco also has the problem of age, size, insufficient resources and inadequate infrastructure.
It’s a question of attitude. How are these companies and individuals giving back to the community that harbors them? Large paychecks and great perks come with big responsibilities.
Technology leaders are beginning to realize that the solution lies in creating affordable housing and giving to public shools, volunteering at local charities, helping the homeless and bolstering infrastructure needs. With the billions of dollars in revenue, surely tech companies can show a little fellow-feeling?
Mani Subramani is on break this month. Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents.