Heading East: The flight from San Francisco

Oakland's cultural ascendance is an indicator of SF's short-sighted prioritization of the rich


EDITORIAL There is no simple free-market solution to gentrification and displacement. There's no way a crowded city like San Francisco can simply rely on the forces of supply and demand to protect vulnerable populations. And there's no way the city's flawed housing policy can prevent the loss of thousands of San Franciscans — particularly young, creative people who help keep a city lively — from fleeing to a town where they can actually afford the rent.

Richard Florida, the famous social and economic theorist who coined the term "creative class" argues that artists and writers and geeks and musicians are the forces that drive modern economies. His pioneering 2002 essay in the Washington Monthly was titled "Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race."

Florida's something of an elitist and he ignores the contributions that tens of thousands of others (including retired people, union members and nonprofit workers) make a community. He idolizes tech culture and often ignores issues like class and race.

But he's got a point: Nobody who's doing anything cool wants to live in a city where everyone is rich and everything is clean and boring. And that's the danger San Francisco faces.

Just go over to Oakland for a few days and talk to all the people who were once part of this city's cultural scene. They'll tell you what anyone with any sense knows: You don't attract creative people to a city by giving out tax breaks for corporations and building fancy office space. The rock bands that Florida talks about aren't going to stay in a city because it has high-end jobs for people with advanced degrees. Artists need a place where they can afford the rent.

San Francisco is still a great urban center, by any possible standard, and has all the qualities of diversity, openness, energy, politics and fun that have made generations of immigrants from all over the world want to make it their home. But at a certain point, housing becomes more important than all of the other development issues that local government can address.

Take Andy Duvall, a musician we interviewed who was part of San Francisco for 15 years before he was literally priced out of town. For half of what he was paying in the Mission, Duvall has more than twice the space in Oakland — and the situation is just getting worse. While most of the country is still mired in a deep housing slump (and parts of San Francisco are facing a foreclosure crisis), rents in this town are soaring, beyond the affordability of almost anyone who currently lives here. According to the city's own statistics, only about 10 percent of San Franciscans can afford the rent on a median market-rate apartment. That means if they're evicted or lose their homes, they have to leave town.

The supervisors held a hearing April 9 on affordable housing, and the message was profound: "Affordable housing preserves the neighborhood in more ways than one; residents are the foundation on which the economy is built. From any angle, if we can't afford to live here, there is no city," observed Val Sinckler, a Western Addition resident.

But while the mayor is working to attract companies that will pay high-end salaries to people who can afford to pay far more rent than the average San Franciscan, he's a long way from coming up with the money to even begin to mitigate the problem.

An effective policy to preserve San Francisco requires strict regulation (to prevent evictions and displacement), a mandate that commercial developers build housing for their workforce and that residential developers meet the needs of low- and moderate-income residents — and a large investment of public money in affordable housing. If Lee isn't willing to talk serious about those three crucial elements, then he's presiding over the decline of one of the world's coolest cities.


Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

This is our motto and this is what matters.

Posted by Bob on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 8:31 am

SF is teeming with young, creative people. It benefits the entire region to have some of them decide to move to Oakland. What SF should concentrate on is families and children. It is a travesty that SF has the smallest percentage of children of any major US city (13.4%).

I say we should apply our efforts toward improving public schools and fostering more home ownership opportunities.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 10:22 am

Just wandered over to SFBG tonight and the battle's still being fought. I'm a native of New York City, where the past two mayors have spent much time and political capital making the city safe for boring people with too much money. They are turning Manhattan into a playground for tourists and the rich. And they are turning Brooklyn into Manhattan.

I left San Francisco in the late 90's. At the time, this same fight was perhaps just beginning. Anybody with not enough money was being priced out of SF, moving to anywhere affordable (I moved back east as my parents began aging). I live in northern Vermont now. This is a liveable state where the government shows the residents as much respect as I have ever seen a government show. In return, the citizens show each other more respect then I have seen in NYC, SF, NJ and other initials in which I have lived. It's not perfect. For one thing, we have this weather here. Sucks, truly. There are the resident rednecks, homophobes, and racists. But it's as good here as it's going to get in this twisted country. VT was the first state to vote in same-sex marriage (instead of having a judge make us do the right thing, and there was very little subsequent rancor, even from those who hated the idea. There is health care for most people who need it. And I'm two hours from Montreal.

I miss San Francisco, very much. Same for New York - I spent my first 30 years there. But these two cities I miss no longer exist. It's like missing the world of an Astaire-Rogers movie. Your article made that clear. Thank you for bringing me back to Earth. And good luck to everyone who makes San Francisco what it is, or was, or could be again.

Posted by SF2VT on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

You can never go back home. I divorced New York last year because it had turned into an upscale theme park for whites and Asians and bears no resemblance to the diverse cultural ferment where I grew up decades ago.

The problem with New York is that nobody from New York lives in New York anymore.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

I thought we paid a whole raft of (largely) Oakland residents in the nonprofit sector to have San Franciscans' backs on these housing issues?

Could it be that the City is selecting nonprofits that are known to be ineffective at advancing their stated policy goals to be sure that gentrification wins?

In politics, it is never your opponent's fault when you lose. It is always your fault.

I am at fault for failing to convince our side that their approach was doomed, as history has demonstrated. It was not for lack of trying, they ignored me and disparaged me as a conservative. I could not throw money at them and it is not my way to "liquidate" my political opponents. So now all we are left with is public shaming.

Now, who on our side failed to mount a coherent and successful campaign to stop the roll of capitalism through our communities, what was the nature of their failure so that future comers might learn from those errors, and when will these people most of whom still are on the nonprofit payroll be held accountable for the drastic consequences of their actions?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

This article's mention of Oakland parallels much of what I've been saying for several years. (I am a former Bay Area resident, having lived in San Francisco twice and San Jose three times.) Everyone I know heads for San Francisco on a vacation, yet I tell them don't overlook the East Bay: Berkeley and Oakland have neighborhoods with character, and in there's plenty to do. If I returned to the area, I'd definitely consider Oakland (which, in many ways, has similarities to my current city--Long Beach).

People here in SoCal think I'm nuts when I see a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment renting for $1,100 and tell them that's cheap! Then I go on to tell them that a studio apartment in my old neighborhood (the Castro) would easily go for $1,400, maybe more. I know all too well: My very small studio apartment (which is OK as I don't need a lot of space, but for comparison's sake it was no bigger than an average bedroom) in SF back in '89 went for $525. In '05 I saw my old apartment--my same former studio--renting for $950! Today I'm sure the rent would be even higher. And unlike that above-mentioned $1,100 apartment, no parking, no in-unit washer/dryer, etc.

Then I compared rents in Oakland, and a nice studio in Adams Point is maybe $900 give or take, but that even includes a place to park and laundry facilities, not SF's $1,400-plus and another $150 if you want a parking space! So not only are the rents reasonable (by Bay Area standards; interestingly apartments in the New York City Borough of Queens are cheaper than SF), but hardly any need to cross the Bay to SF, and get shafted by those bridge tolls. Those BART fares add up too.

Lower cost of living, plenty to do. I'd gladly live and work in Oakland, rather than commute across the Bay.

Posted by Tony on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

"particularly young, creative people who help keep a city lively"

You mean young, unskilled and unemployable people who can't get or keep real jobs. They are leaving because they aren't willing to abandon this hipster fantasy that a society can function while being composed entirely of a "creative class" that doesn't really work. They want to get paid to play all day and are shocked when they can't make enough peddling their "art" to afford housing so of course it's a vast conspiracy by the government to help the rich and push out the poor.

Or maybe the problem is that they are a bunch of dead-beat adult children who need to buck up and get a real fucking job because their shitty band isn't going to make it in the long run.

Just a thought.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2012 @ 8:29 am
Posted by Sambo on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

powerful rhetoric does not equal facts

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

ooh, ouch, cuz your band didn't make it and now ur shitty wife naggs at you all day long to chenge the shit out of ur kids pants..? Just a thought

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

Interesting that no one has mentioned crime.
In 2007 I moved to North Oakland/Rockridge border and had the most amazing bi-level Deco apartment ($1400 for a 3-bedroom with skylights, parking, views of the Bay Bridge and warm sunny weather! I told all my friends back in Boston it was shangri-la) and then I learned it came with a real price. 1 week after moving in, I walked home alone at 10pm on a Friday night from the Piedmont Theater (yes, the area that everyone says is "safe and quaint"). I walked vigilantly in the middle of the street, completely aware of my surroundings, 2 blocks from the theater. In the darkness across the street, I saw a person wearing a ski mask, looking in my direction staying totally still in the shadows. Before waiting to see what would happen, I ran up the street in the opposite direction screaming at the top of my lungs, "Help me! Help me! 911!!!" He chased me for a block and I was cornered into a car and he struggled to get my purse before giving in as he pointed a gun at me. Since he took my house keys and phone, I had to knock on doors to get someone to help me and the police took 45 minutes to get there and pretty much just shrugged when I told them what happened. Thank you Oakland police! I lived in that place for another 2 years (never walked anywhere) as I couldn't afford to move at the time. About a year after being mugged, I was biking home from the gym in the afternoon and saw police tape all over the corner of Piedmont ave and Pleasant Valley. I learned later that there was a robbery at the gas station across the street, the bullets went all the way through the studio where children took piano lessons after school. One of the bullets shot a 10-year old child in the back who was waiting for his lesson inside, paralyzing him from the waist down. After witnessing many car break-ins and more crime (and yes, in the middle of the day in the "nicer" parts of Oakland as well as Berkeley), I broke up with the East Bay and live in my semi-affordable tiny apartment in the boring, un-hip Inner Sunset, and even learned to love the fog. Oh, and I could finally sell my car as the East Bay is too spread out to try to get far on a bike, and BART is sucky AND expensive ($137 a month to commute SF?)

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

There's a reason it's cheap.

And many house prices there are down by 50% in the last five years. That's not a place going anywhere but down.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

More conservative old school SF bromides anyone? Let's freeze time (and rents) at about 1968 and everything will be perfect. Where is the righteous anger that will create more OPPORTUNITY for low and middle income people, rather than just bitching about the rent? SF schools suck. There, I said it. The system stinks. Low expectations, entrenched bureaucracy, no money (except, of course, for the bureaucracy). SF really is 2 cities: Oakland + a more crowded version of Palo Alto, with a few hipsters in between.

Posted by dannoinsf on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 6:24 pm