The Tech Industry & Housing Market Realities: On the Changing Soul of San Francisco

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“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.”—Plato, c. 380 BC

There’s no doubt that technology has impacted our world dramatically, but perhaps nowhere are the changes more visible than in San Francisco. And I’m not talking about the city’s free Wi-Fi. Specifically, I want to address how the influx of wealth to the city from the tech industry has started to change its soul from counter-culture to computer-culture. Whether this change is viewed as a net benefit or loss is almost beside the point, as there’s little to indicate we can stop it. Market realities are altering this city one way and another, and two recent articles published in New York demonstrate that San Francisco’s housing market is one of the primary factors driving this change.

Kevin Roose called San Francisco “the new American capital of real-estate kvetching,” with “supra-Manhattan rents and gentrification at a pace that would make Bushwick blush.” He’s not exaggerating. The New York Times reported late last year that “San Francisco has the least affordable housing in the nation” and that “[t]he median rent is also the highest in the country[.]” Under circumstances like these, the market reality is that many lower-income individuals eventually find themselves priced out. And when they leave, their historical memory of the city—its traditions, trials, and triumphs—leave with them. The Mission District, which used to be heavily influenced by Latino culture, has morphed into a brave new world. Anyone who’s recently walked from Mission St. to Valencia St. can attest to that. The former dotted with small bodegas and pawn shops, the latter bedecked with “[u]pscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals … [with] everything from the $4 artisanal toast … to the underground supper clubs serving kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.” Few people can afford such luxuries, and Valencia no longer exhibits a strong affiliation with any culture outside that of high-end consumerism. The end result is that newly-arrived twenty-somethings, often from out-of-state but with money and a college education, dominate one of the Mission’s most famous streets. The primary method of communication has changed from Spanish to smartphone.

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And these relatively wealthy twenty-somethings are not only taking over the streets, they are pushing San Francisco’s housing market to stratospheric levels. Daniel Alarcón’s piece—entitled “The Mission: Creative Destruction in Eleven Parts”—offers a stark example of this phenomenon. Alarcón recounts that “Facebook founder [Mark Zuckerburg, age 29] bought his San Francisco home for $9,999,000. It had last switched hands for less than one-seventh that price” (emphasis mine). Can the average prospective homeowner compete with such increases? Another individual in Alarcón’s article pondered: “Can you be an artist if you have to pay $3,000 a month?” Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no. In fact, it’s not just artists who can’t pay rent. All sorts of other professions have been priced out of San Francisco, as the NYT has reported there’s “not a single home now on the market is within the reach of the average public-school teacher.” “Five years ago,” by contrast, “police officers and teachers could have afforded 36 percent of the homes on the market[.]” With no evidence to suggest these trends will change anytime soon, San Francisco appears set to experience a significant cultural and socioeconomic shift.

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Real estate realities will dictate demographic changes. Lower-income individuals who have lived in the city for years will increasingly be unable to afford rent, and the person likely to replace them will be a higher-income individual who has been in the city two weeks. There’s no predicting how these changes will affect the city that was so important to the counter-culture and protest movements of the 1960s-’70s, but the San Francisco as it exists in cultural memory will soon be a relic of a distant past. And indeed, that may already be the case today. “More wealth is concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area,” the NYT reports, “than just about any other place in the nation.” I’m not surprised. The city that once spoke the language of rebellion and revolution now talks of robots and riches. Knowledge of counter-culture activism has been replaced with a concern for M&As and IPOs. San Francisco’s character will be shaped by those who live there, but what happens when those who can afford to live there increasingly view the world from expensive apartments and through Google Glass? We’re about to find out.

Note: the images included in this piece were all taken by me in San Francisco’s Mission District. Those interested in finding me on Twitter can do so @4thEstateWatch or @DmitriLs.

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Where Human Rights Meet the Internet: RightsCon Day One

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San Francisco, CA—technologists, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and others have gathered here in San Francisco to brainstorm solutions to the myriad human rights challenges that face the world in the digital age. I’m reporting live from RightsCon, a human rights conference hosted by Access, “an international human rights organization premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology.” While there’s no question that RightsCon represents a step in the right direction in terms of thinking about the intersection between human rights and Internet-based technologies, the journey has yet to come full circle. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch, I want to close the gap between a few things that others at the conference may have missed.

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– What I first noticed upon entering RightsCon was that event sponsors include various companies mentioned in the NSA’s PRISM slides: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. These are also the companies that voluntarily dismissed their pending case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in exchange for the ability to publish (allegedly)  more robust corporate “transparency reports,” a move that even the Washington Post has described as “mostly a PR stunt.” Despite the NSA and FISC controversies, however, I later discovered that a panelist for “transparency reporting for beginners” was a Policy Communications Manager at Google.

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– During the event’s opening remarks, Nnenna Nwakanma reminded attendees that “more than half of the world’s population still does not have Internet access.” This is a critical point that I feel does not deserve enough attention. As I have previously reported, there is a gross disparity in Internet accessibility between people (and countries) of varying wealth, and the rule of thumb is that greater wealth equals greater Internet access. It is important for those thinking about human rights, then, to keep in mind that vast swaths of (largely indigent) humanity do not yet use the Internet. Internet-based approaches to human rights tend to downplay the reality that many victims of human rights violations simply do not have Internet access, rendering them out of sight, out of mind, and out of the conversation.

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– Lastly, I want to note that while everyone at RightsCon seems to be talking about the Internet, no one seems to be talking about the environmental costs of the Internet. The question has critical implications. The New York Times has reported that “[m]ost data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner … [o]nline companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid” (emphasis ours). All of the Internet-based solutions to human rights, then, will require more and more data servers on which to store all of  that Internet-generated data. But yet, as seen above, data centers can waste “90 percent or more” of the electricity they pull. Human rights activists who champion Internet-based approaches to human rights problems must find a way to square the ever-increasing energy consumption of the Internet and the ever-decreasing natural resources of our planet. Failure to do so could be catastrophic.

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