April 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 4

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Looking Forward to the 2014 ASA Annual Meeting

in San Francisco

John Stover, University of San Francisco

The city and county of San Francisco (“The City” as it is known to its residents) has long struggled to meet the housing needs of its citizens based on its geographic landscape and local political frameworks. Whether it be the mid-19th century fires, the great 1906 earthquake and fire, the 1950s urban renewal changes and displacement, the 1970s emergence of the Castro, or the 1990s dot-com boom, San Francisco’s geographic and cultural landscapes have continually shifted, much like the tectonic plates upon which it resides.  In other words, gentrification in San Francisco’s neighborhoods is, in historical and biographical perspective, an ongoing process. Efforts to expand the City’s housing stock are simultaneously and severely limited by the geography of the area. With the Pacific Ocean to the west and the San Francisco Bay to north and east, the San Francisco Peninsula’s total area spans 223 square miles, yet its central city is locked into less than 47 square miles. While landfill expansion into the Bay was stopped in the early 60s by organizations such as Save the Bay, much of San Francisco’s northern and eastern boundaries have already been extended past its original, natural boundaries. This extreme geographic limitation, combined with other factors, has led to San Francisco’s rise as the nation’s highest square foot cost for private residences. 

Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Travel Association photo

The public television station KQED explored San Francisco’s  gentrification trends throughout the 20th century in the documentary series “Hidden Neighborhoods,” which highlights trends in specific neighborhoods. For example, “The Castro” (1997) episode documents how 1950s suburbanization trends motivated Eureka Valley’s Irish and Italian families to move south to Daly City and down the peninsula, in the process leaving behind declining Victorian properties. What the Irish and Italian families left behind in the late 50s and early 60s became the $30,000 fixer-uppers for gay and lesbian refugees of the mid-60s and early 70s. As the gay presence increased, the last remaining straight, Catholic families exited, and Eureka Valley became “The Castro” in both residential patterns and cultural expressions. But the Castro’s gentrified success of preserved Victorians and healthy, local businesses attracted wealthy, heterosexual yuppies to the area in the late 90s and early 2000s; the neighborhood has become too expensive for younger Generation X and Millennial queers. In fact, several local realtors have taken to calling the area “Eureka Valley” again, demonstrating the extent to which the queer identity of the neighborhood is being challenged by gentrification.

The Noe Valley neighborhood is another example of how an already gentrified area was further gentrified. This neighborhood was an established quaint, quiet neighborhood with a strong commercial strip along 24th Street. Its surrounding, beautifully preserved Victorian housing provided homes to straight and LGBT families as well as shared flats for young people until the dot-com boom of the late 90s. With the influx of Silicon Valley workers eager to take advantage of the neighborhood’s close proximity to the I-280 corridor, a main thoroughfare down the Peninsula, began the extreme uptick in housing and rental prices in both Noe Valley and throughout the city. In 1999, the available rental stock dipped well below the 0.5 percent mark, driving rental and housing prices up.

Out with the Old, In with the New

These subsequent waves of gentrification in neighborhoods such as The Castro and Noe Valley are, like in other parts of the city, driving out long-term renters and rental units and creating in their place permanent homes, thus not only displacing former residents but also permanently removing rental properties from the market. Neighborhoods such as the historically Latino Mission District and geographically centered SoMA (South of Market), Lower and Upper Haight, Hayes Valley, and Mission Dolores have been particularly hard hit by rising rents and decreasing rental stock. When I moved to San Francisco in 1994, for example, I shared a three-bedroom flat in the unremarkable, yet walkable, centrally located, affordable Mission Dolores neighborhood for $900 a month, my portion of which—$290—landed me the Harry Potter-esque “bedroom” under the stairs. Twenty years later, three-bedroom flats in the same neighborhood are advertised starting at $4,800 a month, and two-bedroom apartments range between $3,500 and $8,950 a month. Non-tech twenty-somethings arriving in the City today are unlikely to find anything under $1,200 per month for a shared flat, assuming they can even afford such a monthly cost.

Late 20th and early 21st century citizens of San Francisco seeking to purchase housing in its fabled Edwardians and Victorians have always had to contend with stringent rent control and zoning laws. These policies have historically limited new construction through the preservation of remaining housing stock and enabled a mixture of socioeconomic statuses among its denizens. The policies of the City and County of San Francisco have limited owner’s rights to raise rents on valuable properties to market-level prices, leading to an explosion of no-fault evictions throughout the city. In fact, every neighborhood in San Francisco experienced low to high levels of no-fault evictions of renters as evidenced by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Since the Project started tracking the data in 1997, 11,766 no-fault evictions occurred in San Francisco, including 3,693 Ellis Acts (the property owner removes the unit[s] from the rental market permanently), 6,952 Owner Move-Ins (OMIs), and 1,121 demolitions. 

Evictions and More

Some, if not many, of these evictions were likely necessary for legitimate reasons involving building safety and family housing needs (OMIs allow for property owners to move in other family members into one unit within a property). In contrast, the Ellis Act—and/or threat therein—has been widely abused by property owners and real estate speculators as a means for converting rent-controlled properties into higher-valued condominiums and Tenancy-In-Commons (or TICs as they are more commonly referred). These Ellis Act evictions—which are meant to retire rental properties permanently—have been a key tactic for property owners seeking to undermine rent-control laws and convert properties to condos and TICs, both of which are exempt from San Francisco’s strict rental policies. As a result, low and middle-income citizens are permanently priced out of their neighborhoods, often necessitating moves to less popular neighborhoods in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The most passionate debates about the current impact of gentrification in San Francisco are taking place in the Mission District, San Francisco’s historic Latino neighborhood. The first wave of technology-based gentrification in the 90s brought small-scale start ups and many shifting, and often failing, businesses and entrepreneurs. However, the current wave of professionals from the infinitely capitalized Google and Apple, and increasingly profitable and culturally impactful Facebook and Twitter (to name a scant few) are increasingly separating “techies” from “everyday citizens.” This happens through the privatization of public services and the cultural isolation of the “new rich” from everyone else. For instance, the private, wifi-equipped, luxury, double-decker bus services of Google, Apple, and other Valley companies make full use of public bus (MUNI) zones in San Francisco, blocking regular MUNI traffic and drawing the ire of long-time residents. While the City recently implemented a “$1 per bus per stop” initiative amid growing criticism (as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on January 24, 2014), appeals could delay the implementation by months or even years.

The other major impact of these tech giants is on the local economy and culture of San Francisco. While the influx into San Francisco of new residents and successful tech businesses such as Twitter helps to create new opportunities for the city as a whole, the actual practices and tax incentives of these companies largely limits the potential economic benefits to the city. Take for example the 2011 Initiative, which successfully wooed Twitter into the former SF Furniture Market at Ninth and Market Streets through the payroll tax exemption of new hires as long as companies were located in the Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods (CBS Bay Area 5 on November 4, 2013). Twitter provides its employees with an array of services such as catered breakfasts and lunches, free snacks, and a stocked kitchen, thus decreasing the need for employees to patronize local restaurants. Twitter-based dry cleaning and laundry services also impact locally owned businesses who might otherwise gain this additional business.

Culturally, the “New Elite” seem to be taking a mixed approach to cultural integration among San Francisco’s storied characters and diverse cultural expressions. An alliance between “techies” and sexually adventurous communities has emerged in the last few months. In general young people, have more free time and interest in nightlife, eating out, and concerts. But the New Elite are also creating exclusive cultural institutions such as the establishment of the $2,400 per year, by-invitation-only club, The Battery. The Mission’s annual “Day of the Dead” parade in November 2013 was also transformed by protests against the increasing displacement of long-time residents, which transformed a traditional memorial into a political protest. In each of these instances, the essence of what it means to be a San Franciscan is being framed, debated, and challenged.

No matter what you call it—re-gentrification, hyper gentrification, super gentrification—these are just some of the many questions raised by the current trends. The situation on the ground is also constantly shifting: tech buses continued to be protested, rents continue to rise, long-term residents continue to be displaced, and stories of badly behaved Google Glass wearers (dubbed “Glass-holes” by the local culture) continue to plague an already culturally beleaguered tech sector. But with recent announcements of deep-pocket donations from big players such as Google ($6.8 million for free public transportation for low-income kids), two things are clear: the present wave of gentrification is here to stay and it is permanently altering what it means to live and work in the City and County of San Francisco.

At the 2014 ASA Annual Meeting, an invited panel of sociologists, housing advocates, journalists, and geographers will discuss the nature of San Francisco’s current super-gentrification trends and its implications both short and long term. What does the current luxury housing boom mean for the future of affordable housing? Do rising eviction rates and rental prices mean permanent displacement of long-time San Francisco residents? What challenges does the community face going forward in a city divided among the very wealthy, the creative class, and the working/permanent poor? These and many other questions will be raised, discussed, and debated. A walking tour within the City will also highlight some of the recently completed and in-progress housing and business developments re-shaping the landscape. 

John Stover is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco and is a contributing member of the 2014 Local Arrangements Committee.

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