When the Google Bus Stops (1/2)


For the Google employees onboard the Google bus headed for its Mountain View headquarters, confronting that jarring message probably wasn’t the best start to their morning.

Protestors in Oakland recently attacked a Google bus, smashing a window and distributing fliers calling for a moratorium against evictions of residents in Oakland. San Francisco activists blocked an Apple bus, parading a wooden coffin bearing the words “Affordable Housing,” recently as well.

Why, when Silicon Valley tech companies celebrate the democratizing nature of technology, are their employees seen as “chums living on free 24/7 buffets who are driving up housing prices?”

The University of San Francisco recently released a poll suggesting that bread and butter issues—i.e. affordability of housing—are at the heart of the debacle.

Partly because of the recovering real estate market from the 2008 financial crisis and the tech boom in the Bay Area, the median price of a home in San Francisco topped $1 million earlier this year, while the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,250—the highest in the country. Over the past year, the Bay Area has experienced a 22 percent increase in home prices.

Young yuppies working in the tech industry that thirst for urban life are squeezing out existing residents. Between 2010 and 2013, median rent in San Francisco increased 15 percent, and 2013 saw 1,716 evictions, the majority of which included seniors and people with disabilities.

When the young yuppies with more money want a place suitable for them, they are ready to pay higher rent. These are the places occupied by people who can’t afford to match the rent these youngsters are ready to pay. As a result, the older people get evicted and are replaced by the younger, higher rent paying generation. These people earn higher salary and many even invest their money outside, like in the stock market through multiple trading software like HBSwiss, etc, where they need not worry about their money or do any work and all trading activities will be done for them.

The root of the problem doesn’t lie solely with Google, Apple or the rest of the tech industry, although they have been specifically called out in the protests.

The simplest explanation is that San Francisco’s fast growth and rapid influx of workers is causing a housing crisis, making it a victim of its own success. The real fault, I think, lies in San Francisco’s housing policies, which have not supported the surge in demand.

Thanks to restrictive zoning laws, a Byzantine permit process and a pathological culture of NIMBYism, housing supply has stalled. Over the past couple of decades, barely 1,500 new housing units per year have been built, which is half of what Seattle (a tech economy not unlike the Bay Area’s) produces in a year.

In 2011, San Francisco added only 269 housing units; in 2012, the city added more than 40,000 new jobs. Because infill development has faced active resistance in San Francisco, regional population growth has to be pushed elsewhere—to Oakland, the Brooklyn of the Bay Area.

So why are lines being drawn for a battle between techies and non-techies?

A probable answer: this is not merely about housing policy, but also about change and inequality.

Change is not a tide that lifts all boats. When it comes too quickly and with indifference to (un)fairness, resistance is to be expected. It is easy to see who will have to make way for change: the poor, the elderly, the less code-fluent, and yes, the less-white.

The manifest dissatisfaction toward tech money makes clear one thing: that the tech sector, for all the paeans it sings to egalitarianism, is not exempt from the host of inequalities we see throughout the country.

Silicon Valley is a place where “the right kind of nerdy” does well, and “the right kind” happen to be white or Asian, and male.

Part two in this series on inequality in Silicon Valley will be published tomorrow. 

Featured image courtesy of The Verge.