Backlash against Google bus exposes San Francisco’s identity crisis

Protesters stop a private bus driving Google employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Photo courtesy of Max Batt.
 
They’ve become a symbol of what some call the “techie invasion” in San Francisco. The big buses that Google employees who live in the city use to get to the tech giant’s headquarters in Silicon Valley have drawn the ire of activists, who blame affluent tech sector workers for driving rents up in the city and pushing poorer residents out.
 
The resentment has been brewing for months, with flyers and graffiti attacking the Google buses – and other private buses run by tech companies – popping up on the streets of San Francisco. On Monday, a group of protesters even stopped one of Google’s buses for half an hour, issuing fake citations for its use of public bus stops. The protest ended with a verbal altercation between one of the protesters and a man who pretended to be an irate Google employee, but was later revealed to be an actor who had decided to stealthily join the protest, unbeknownst to the organisers. This controversy further stoked passionate online exchanges between San Franciscans about how rapidly their city is changing.
 
Rents in San Francisco have skyrocketed by 10 percent in the last year, more than in any other major city in the United States. The median price for a 2-bedroom apartment currently stands at $3,250 per month (about 2,360 euros). The tech boom has put a strain on the city’s limited housing market, as many companies based in suburban Silicon Valley – which is located about 45 minutes away by car – are offering private bus services that make it easier for new employees, recruited from around the world, to live in San Francisco rather than the valley.
 
A rash of evictions has ensued, pushing many long-time San Francisco residents out. Many have been evicted under the Ellis Act, a law that allows owners to evict tenants if they take their properties off the rental market. The owners are then free to sell them.
 
The protesters who stopped Google's bus on Monday objected to - among other things - the fact that the buses use public bus stops. Photo courtesy of Eric McElroy.

“Most of my friends have been displaced”

Erin McElroy was one of the Google bus protest’s organisers. She is an anti-eviction activist who works as a nanny and as a caretaker for the disabled.
 
I’ve lived here for nearly a decade now. Things have really started to change in the last two or three years. The tech industry has brought a lot of wealth into the city, and has created a “tech class”, people who can afford to pay exorbitant amounts for a one-bedroom apartment. With rents going up exponentially, most of my friends have been displaced.
 
Tech people have a lot of their needs met through their companies [many of which offer a wide array of services on-location, like food, dry cleaning, gyms, health care, day care and much more] and thus don’t frequent a lot of the small businesses in their San Francisco neighbourhoods. Mom-and-pop stores are being pushed out by fancy wine bars and coffee shops that cater to the folks working in tech.
 
For many people here, the Google buses have become a symbol of gentrification. They’re this big, looming presence. You see lines of young people, all staring down at their smartphones, pile into them. They use public bus lanes, and don’t pay for them. [Editor’s Note: Companies will, however, pay fees starting next year.]
 
“There’s no easy answer, but we need to start by curbing evictions”
 
Our protest was a way to call for dialogue, for people who work in tech to realize that they are having an effect on the city. A lot of them are great people but they’re often oblivious to their surroundings. It would be nice to see them get more involved in the community and ask what, perhaps, they can do to help.
 
There’s no easy answer on how to fix this problem now that the trajectory has been set in motion, but I think that curbing evictions of current San Francisco residents is key. Loopholes in the law need to be fixed to make it harder to evict people, and to stop speculators from buying up whole buildings, declare that they’re going out of business, and flip them. If big tech companies want to help out, financially or otherwise, that would be nice, too…

“They’re targeting the wrong issue – the buses help alleviate traffic and reduce pollution”

T. Baxter Denny works in marketing for a San Francisco-based tech company. He moved to the city from Washington, DC three years ago.
 
The protest against Google buses made me angry, because they are targeting the wrong issue. If the region had a good public transit system, folks who work at tech companies could rely on that to commute. Instead, their companies pay for shuttles, which helps alleviate the already extremely congested roads and reduce pollution.
 
“I think we should always welcome new people as long as they contribute to the city”
 
If protesters are mad about rent, they should focus their attention on people who make public policy, not Google employees. Not everyone in tech is well-off. Most people are just trying to work and live and enjoy life like everyone else in San Francisco.
 
If we discourage new people from moving here, it reduces taxes that the city can collect and use for transit improvements, programs for lower-income residents, and so forth. Whenever you have a lot of success as a city and new people move in, some folks will be unhappy with that change. But I think we should always welcome new people as long as they contribute to the city, with new ideas, investment, etc. If you want to see what happens when a city is impacted by jobs leaving, look at Detroit. That city never thought those jobs would go away – we can’t take tech jobs for granted here.

Anti-tech signs spotted in San Francisco:

Photo published on Twitter by @JennaKitchell. (Many owners are evicting renters and turning their property into expensive condominiums.)
 
 
Photo published on Twitter by @itsWanda. In Spanish: "Danger! Fight against displacement!"
 
 
Photo published on Twitter by @NielsHoven.
 
 
Photo published on Instagram by duffro. (Note the last line.)

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Ellis Act Eviction Map

Check out this map detailing Ellis Act evictions in SF. Horrifying. http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/ellis.html

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