Is Talking About High Rents So Often Crippling Our City?

Are we spending too much time in San Francisco complaining about rent? Have we lost our ability to do anything on Facebook but post regular links to stories about cultural attrition and the high cost of living here? That’s the provocative question posed by local artist and robotics genius Kal Spelletich on his blog recently, and it’s one I’ve had in my head since he and I had coffee to talk about the local art scene last week.

Kal’s hypothesis is that we’re sitting around complaining about how expensive our city is at the expense of saving our breath to work out new artistic ideas. For every conversation we have bemoaning the rise of tech wealth, we could be brainstorming new art collectives, or collaborating on new creative projects. When I left our conversation, I realized how much time I spend stuck in the same conversation loop: it feeds back between eviction rates, rent prices, and worries about being priced out of the city. I think I'm driving myself crazy. Yes, those are legitimate concerns, and ones Kal has as well. But it’s a good reality check to think about time spent banging your head against the wall versus time doing the things you moved here or stayed here to do. It's an important reminder. 

Kal writes, “When I decided I wanted to be an artist in 1980, I was seeing it as a sort of underground coalition of interesting people and freaks with great ideas, who hung out together in bars, basements and coffee shops, forming a hugely interesting community of creative thinkers and doers. Now the running dialogue is a reaction to the corporatists and capitalists. We don't hang and talk about the revolution or our exciting new piece we are working on any more. The wind has been taken out of our sails. We react to the corporatists and capitalists, we are not proactive. I feel like we have played right into their hands in more ways than one. We engage in their scarcity of housing dialogue."

He goes on to talk about how sad he is to see the art scene changing as people do leave town. "Maybe that is being proactive," he adds, "moving away and not trapped in the racket and scam that housing has become here. The head fuck, stress and wasted energy. I do know I am so sick of this discussion, there is nothing poetic or magic about it.”

I thought of Kal again this morning when one of NPR’s lead stories was about the same fight for the working poor and middle class to stay here. It’s pretty much the same story that ran in the New York Times the week before and has landed in the national and local press so many times you can almost recite the statistics from memory (170 percent increase in Ellis Act evictions in the last three years, sorry couldn't help it). But what are we doing that’s creative around it? The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is one of the few proactive groups I’ve seen, a force fighting to help people deal with evictions while creating storytelling and visual pieces around their stories. For the rest of us, if we're not acting to be part of the solution, are we just exasperating the problem by constantly focusing on rent over more proactive topics? It's a really interesting theory, and one I'm going to test out by trying not to despair about rents the next time I'm at a bar or party. We'll see how it goes. 

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Published on December 3, 2013, 2013

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