OPINION Let’s stop blaming the hipsters. The Google bus, that annoying icon of yuppie invasion and transit privatization, is not the lead driver of gentrification’s reckless stampede reshaping our city (though it does play a role). The upscale restaurants dominating commercial strips may be economically and aesthetically offensive to many, but they are the natural byproducts of gentrification’s much-ignored elephant in the room: the real estate industry.
While headlines, comment threads, and café chatter fixate on the tech industry and yuppies with fistfuls of dollars, it’s the profit-gobbling real estate companies and speculators who are jacking up rents and evicting so many small businesses and renters—and they are surely happy to stay out of the spotlight.
Gentrification is a many-layered beast nurtured by cultural and economic trends, regional and local labor and housing factors, and public policies (or lack thereof). Beneath the surface-level aesthetics, it is about displacement of people who don’t fit the dominant economic growth plan—radical market-driven upheavals of communities often abetted by government policies and inaction.
The stats are familiar but bear repeating as they are so destructive: average apartment rentals exceeding $2,700 a month, requiring someone making $70,000 a year to pay half of his or her salary in rent. Literally thousands of no-fault evictions in the past decade, according to the Rent Board.
Despite rampant displacement of thousands of San Franciscans, there has been little response from City Hall: no hearings, no proactive legislation, not even bully-pulpit style leadership. We must demand more.
Where is the leadership demanding the city do everything in its albeit limited power to halt further displacement of residents and small businesses? The toxic combo of tenant evictions and home foreclosures by the thousands — driven principally by major banks and real estate companies — is destroying lives and communities.
Some of this is beyond City Hall’s jurisdiction: state laws like the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins enable no-fault evictions and prevent vitally needed commercial rent control. Still, beyond their valiant opposition to the Wiener-Farrell condo conversion threat, city leaders have been largely silent about this latest wave of gentrification that’s eviscerating communities, driving out small businesses, and squeezing renters to the bone.
What can we do? We won’t defeat gentrification with city hearings or loud protests or online screeds and petitions — but we need all those things, along with serious public education, to shine a bright hot spotlight on the companies and individuals defining who lives and votes here.
We need a new era of citywide awareness, unity, and action to literally save San Francisco — a bold unapologetic vision that puts affordability and diversity at the forefront of what our city is about. We can’t have diversity without affordability; it’s that simple.
Renters are gearing up to fight back. An ‘Eviction Free Summer’ is being planned — an innovative campaign to counter the rash of evictions that are generating both displacement and skyrocketing rent prices. The idea of ‘Eviction Free Summer’ is to put evictions and evictors in the spotlight, to put would-be evictors on notice and capture the attention of city officials who have so far done little to stem their tide.
We must demand accountability and action by City Hall and state legislators to rein in the real estate industry and put the brakes on evictions and other displacement. People’s lives, neighborhoods and communities, and the very fabric and identity of our city are at stake.
To those who cheer “change” as if its victims were not real, or who wearily concede the fight, we must ask: are we really going to allow the profit-hungry market and wealth-seeking executives and speculators decide who lives and votes here? Are we going to let the market destroy what’s left of our city’s economic, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity — the very things that make San Francisco what it is?
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author, and former Bay Guardian city editor. Contact him at www.christopherdcook.com