By Julie Rae Levak
A little over a year ago, I found myself awake in the middle of the night, unable to shake a troubling conversation. An old friend “Lara” had called that afternoon to tell me the building – the one she and her husband “Omar” had lived in for 15 years – had been sold to an out-of-state investment group. The eviction notice had just arrived. Lara, a retired teacher, and Omar, a registered nurse, have made their home here since 1978. They are deeply rooted and, like most San Franciscans, renters. Her voice was understandably shaky and tinged with panic as she asked, “How can we just pack up and go? And to where? We’re not 25-year-olds!” We discussed ways to buy time, but we both knew the painful truth: Barring a miracle, Lara and Omar would be leaving San Francisco, and would almost certainly never be able to return. It was just one of many similarly distressing conversations I had been having lately.
Sure, gentrifying waves have been crashing into San Francisco ever since I moved here in 1983 (and certainly before). But this was a tsunami, and it was beginning to look like few without substantial means would survive the rising tide. Every week there were more stories of loss, more reports of friends and acquaintances losing their place in the very community in which they expected to grow old. At the same time, nonprofits and neighborhood businesses were disappearing at such an astonishing pace, it felt like the ground was shifting under all of us.
On that anxious early morning, I sat staring at my laptop until I came up with an idea to help me sleep better: a Facebook page that I titled VanishingSF. I posted a photograph of two people, each holding up a big red cardboard sign. One read: “Stop Evicting People With AIDS.” The other: “Housing = Healthcare.” In the description, I pasted this line from Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, which I read as a love letter to the overlooked power of social change movements:
To live entirely for oneself in private is a huge luxury, a luxury countless aspects of this society encourage, but like a diet of pure foie gras, it clogs and narrows the arteries of the heart.
The sentence seemed to me a perfect illustration of what bedeviled a town that was beginning to look a lot more like Edith Wharton’s nineteenth-century New York, updated for the young, ironic-T-shirt-wearing crowd, than the welcoming, empathic City of St. Francis I had moved to.
A great deal has changed since that morning. In a matter of months, community activists, writers, artists, progressive political representatives, and a whole city full of people who had had enough worked overtime to push San Francisco’s eviction epidemic to the top of the city’s agenda, drawing international attention to the crisis.
It took a lot to jolt San Francisco into action. There was a time when much of the city welcomed the tech industry.
It took a lot to jolt San Francisco into action. There was a time when much of the city welcomed the tech industry, despite the unhealed scars left by the dot-com boom and collapse of the late ’90s. But that was before the Twitter tax break – before big tech created an elite bubble of newcomers, while ignoring the needs of everyone else. Before real estate speculators swooped in like war profiteers to grab their share, making vulnerable San Franciscans just so much collateral damage. And before San Francisco became the nation’s leader in income inequality.
I know there must be people reading this who balk at the picture I’m painting, what with all the “corporate mindfulness” certain companies are known for. But, beyond superficial nods to counterculture, much of big tech is ruthless. Even putting its impact on San Francisco to the side for a moment, it is helpful to understand who these companies align themselves with. Google and Facebook, along with the Koch Brothers, are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a notoriously powerful right-wing lobbying group. The companies also support a host of organizations and candidates that would send a chill up any liberal San Franciscan’s spine.
Is it any wonder the industry crashed headlong into San Francisco with all the consciousness of a runaway train? It took a lot of public shaming and dogged political pressure just to get Google to take its first tentative step by underwriting free MUNI rides for low- and middle-income youth. It may sound like I’m dismissing the good news. I’m not. I’m just acutely aware that naiveté did not serve us well in the recent past. PR problems, not corporate ethics, made this and more possible. The responsibility will remain with everyday San Franciscans to keep up the pressure.
Yes, the tech shuttle protests matter
There is still a lot of time spent debating the value of the tech shuttle protests. Particularly confusing is the argument that activists waste their time blocking buses when they ought to be lobbying City Hall or the statehouse. This makes as much sense to me as being told I should stop eating leafy green vegetables and switch to exercise. Aside from the fact that work is being done on all these fronts, and by many of the same people, the impasse at City Hall broke immediately following the escalation of the protests.
So many have been uprooted and forced out, none more important than the other, but the crisis is particularly severe for black San Franciscans. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has a basic understanding of San Francisco’s sorry history that predates the tech boom by decades, including an ”urban renewal” campaign that savaged the Fillmore and forced thousands of people out of the city.
A quick review of the census over the last 40 years shows how dire the situation is. In 1970, 13.4% of San Franciscans were black. By 1980, the population had shrunk to 12.7%. By 1990, blacks were only 10.9% of the population. And by 2000, the population had plummeted to 7.8%. The last census was equally shocking. In 2010, blacks were only 6.1% of the city's population. I shudder to think where we’re headed.
In 2010, blacks were only 6.1% of the city's population. I shudder to think where we’re headed.
LGBTQ elders are also suffering disproportionately. Enough cannot be said about queer San Franciscans’ contribution to this city and to the world over the past several decades. Now, after having survived the trauma of the AIDS crisis, and working tirelessly to force the U.S. government to take action on the epidemic, many are being tossed aside in their later years in ways that seem incomprehensible to those of us who remember.
The human cost of evictions can be especially high for the elderly and those whose health is otherwise compromised. Studies show that traumatic stress associated with such loss and disruption in one’s later years shortens lifespans by suppressing immune system function and prompting or exacerbating cardiovascular issues. Suicide can also result when people become despondent over loss of home and community.
And here's something that is too often swept under the rug: San Francisco women over 50 aren’t doing well. An article about elderly homeless women published in The Nation last January revealed that, while “homeless women over 50 were once rare [in San Francisco],” their presence on the streets has become the norm.
Not all tech workers are created equal
To suggest that the onus be on long-term San Franciscans – whose well-being and essential security are threatened – to extend an olive branch to money-obsessed entrepreneurs and financiers is rather like asking the chicken to make nice with the fox. Still, there is an unhelpful misperception that everyone in tech is pretty much the same. A large percentage of Vanishing SF followers work in the tech industry and contribute to anti-eviction efforts and more.
Big tech employees are often highly critical of employer practices and do what they can under the radar, but they function under a strict corporate gag order. Many have told me privately that, should they express their opinions publicly, they would almost certainly lose their jobs.
To suggest that the onus be on long-term San Franciscans to extend an olive branch to money-obsessed entrepreneurs and financiers is rather like asking the chicken to make nice with the fox.
The difference between people in the industry who look the other way and those who step up to help is the degree to which they’ve been influenced or not by an epidemic of greed that furthers San Francisco’s stark income inequality.
Where do we go from here?
On particularly bad days, I wonder if I may have no choice but to brace myself for the time when San Francisco has lost so much of its humanity that to live here is no longer tenable. Last month, the small stretch of space between Valencia and Mission on 16th Street saw another string of casualties. Esta Noche, the bar that has provided safe space for the queer Latino community for decades, was forced to close. The space’s new owner is a wealthy real estate figure. Half a block away, Val 16, a Latino owned open-air market that was an evocative anchor of abundance and community for many decades, was shuttered overnight. No word yet on what will take Val 16’s place, but whatever it is, it’ll cost the proprietors $16,000 a month. Plans are also underway for a controversial luxury condo development at 16th and Mission. A couple of miles away, the same week Esta Noche announced its closing, several prominent downtown art galleries, including the George Krevsky Gallery where Lawrence Ferlinghetti has shown his artwork for the past two decades, were shuttered to make space for a startup that offered to pay three times the monthly rent.
The powerful campaign to protect San Francisco’s endangered spaces and people has swept through the city all the way to Sacramento.
At the same time, the powerful campaign to protect San Francisco’s endangered spaces and people has swept through the city all the way to Sacramento. The fight to stop the epidemic of evictions via the Ellis Act is now supported by a broad coalition. Last month, a series of tenant conventions endorsed a proposal to impose a windfall profit tax on real estate speculators.
We’re at a tipping point and there are more ways to help save the heart of San Francisco than are possible to mention here. I invite anyone interested to check out VanishingSF. At the least, it’s a decent resource for finding out about what’s happening and where. But my general recommendation is pretty simple: Be a part of the solution, not the problem. That credo has been a rallying cry for a great many San Franciscans for a very long time, and we need it more than ever.