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Gentrification, Google Buses, and The Mission

I live in The Mission, in San Francisco. Recently, we have been having some issues with anti-gentrification protesters, where the voices of the protesters are being given greater weight than either the people that they are protesting against or the people that they claim to be protesting for. In this case, we have a bunch of white people attacking another bunch of white people because the second group of white people is a local scapegoat, on behalf of minorities who haven't given their input on the problem.

I Displaced Zero People to Move Here

For full-disclosure purposes, I'll hit you with some facts about my life. I live in The Mission, the current target neighborhood of the gentrification protests. I have lived here for over 10 years. The person who lived in my apartment before that was a doctor in a residency program at San Francisco General Hospital, who was not a San Francisco native. The people who lived here before her were a gay couple; I do not know their ethnic identities or their places of origin, just their names, which are not Latino. The people who lived here before them were—nonexistent.


You see, my apartment is a converted back room of a bodega, a corner store. The apartment next door to mine was the bodega, and mine was the office, stock room, employee bathroom, etc. I even have a door-shaped alcove in my apartment where there used to be stairs to what is now the apartment next door, an alcove that remains because the upstairs residence bathroom pipes go over what was the doorway and then down the wall. Thankfully, the alcove is just larger than an Ikea bookcase.

Rent Control

My building is under rent control. Here's how rent control works in San Francisco: if a building was built prior to a specific date (1979), the units in the building are under rent control. My building survived the 1906 earthquake and apparently is covered in lead paint, so my unit is under rent control. In fact, the vast majority of legal rental housing in San Francisco is under rent control. Under rent control in SF, after a major upgrade, a unit's rent is set by the Rent Board. After that, every year, a landlord is allowed to increase the rent up to an amount determined by the rent board according to inflation. A tenant may only be evicted with cause or under the Ellis act. It is very difficult to evict a tenant under rent control unless the building is purchased and the new owner evicts someone to personally move in. Rent control does not—as it does in some other cities—prohibit a landlord from raising rent as long as a tenant is in the unit; in fact, if a tenant leaves the unit, the landlord does not obtain a new power to raise rent on the unit. Rent control applies to the building, not the tenant.

This protection is not fully applied to people renting single family homes; however, single family homes are rare in this part of town. On my street, for instance, every residential building has multiple address numbers—whole numbers with no letters, which means that any home division took place prior to a street renumbering that happened decades ago. (I am omitting the reason for the renumbering and the time-frame of the renumbering, since that would disclose my street.)


I am also a tech worker. I am a currently unemployed tech worker*, but I'm working on that. I am also white and originally from Louisiana. I have several friends who work at Google, two of which live in the area that I will discuss in detail later. One of these is an old friend, my exboyfriend, a guy who does tons of research on an issue before coming to a conclusion on it, a guy who has been helping me to not get evicted, a guy who is opposed to gentrification but still gets attacked over this because he works for Google. I'll call him Ace because he shows up again.

Anti-Gentrifications Protests and Google

Recently in San Francisco and Oakland, there have been some anti-gentrification protests, only not really. It started out as people protesting Google buses for blocking public transit access to bus stops by using them for corporate bus stops. Then after Google offered to pay to use the bus stops, the issue became gentrification. Then came a protest in Oakland in which a Google employee was blocked from leaving his home and was his neighborhood flyered to denounce him as a Google employee that was accused of working on invading your privacy, based on… his previous employer having had a military contract.


OK so now let's summarize: the problem is Google buses, gentrification by tech workers, and Google invading people's privacy, for which the appropriate response is keep Google employees from getting to work, and vilify them even if that requires making things up about their work and posting that as fact or pretending to be a Google employee and acting badly on video, then publicizing the video to show "how terrible Google employees are" without even clearing that with the woman you berate. There's a Google office in San Francisco. There are lots of tech offices in San Francisco for companies that use private buses. This is not where the protests are happening. The protests are happening in the neighborhood of people who are being protested against for working for the wrong company.

So why Google?

Google makes a good target for press coverage. It's easy to hate Google; their motto is "don't be evil" but they follow the law that requires that they give our info to the government! They track your online behavior to give you better ads, which you can avoid by changing your browser settings, not being logged into Google, and using an ad blocker. Oh, of course, they also use that info to give you better search results, but whatever. Tech workers have been scapegoats in San Francisco for a long time—at least as long as I've lived here and I came here just post-dot-com-bubble. The anti-tech backlash dates back to at least the dot-com-bubble, which is now almost 20 years ago. Google is not that old. Google is the current poster boy.


Contrary to the claims of the anti-gentrification protesters, Google employees are not "the rich." They are middle class. Most of them are pretty solidly in the middle of middle class. Now, this may be rich by some people's standards, but calling them upper class is absurd. Yes, they make more money than most wait staff and bus boys and other people who provide services to them. They also tend to be pretty liberal and in my experience, that means that they tip well. They also voted to pay extra at restaurants to ensure that restaurant employees got health care and sick days. What terrible people! But I digress.

The anti-gentrification claim is that Google employees and other tech workers are displacing the "legitimate" residents of the neighborhoods, the people who give the neighborhoods color, and since we're talking specifically about The Mission, that is code for "immigrants from Mexico and South America, and the descendants of those immigrants." The protesters come armed with a study about housing cost increases in relation to Google bus stops, which according to the protesters, implies causality between the Google bus stops and displacement of poor Latinos who work in restaurants (hi stereotypes!), people who the white protesters with tons of free time are standing up for. For those unfamiliar with social justice work, what I just implied is that white savioring may be at play. Only, by white savioring, what I actually mean is "standing up for your own benefit and when people get mad, say you're speaking for the brown guy."


So let's talk about the study and what it doesn't say. There is some really important information that is being omitted from the discussion and frankly, I'm fed up with that.

The Google Bus Study

The whole study is available here. There is some coverage on io9. I took issue with the io9 coverage but I'm going to take even greater issue here because I am done. Here is a handy map of the results, which I have doctored a bit.


This research does not prove causality, and there are several confounding variables that I was unable to control for, but it does provide evidence that the location of the shuttle stops has an impact on rental prices.


What I want to talk about first is those compounding variables, specifically in regards to The Mission, which is the focus of the protests. Firstly, let's talk about that map. The second to bottom circle is the Mission bus stop, which is one street light away from the BART station, which I marked inside the circle with a red dot.


The first compounding issue that hasn't been accounted for is that the center of the circle is both a Google bus stop and a BART station. What's not on the map, however, is housing prices near the other BART stations, which I have also marked with a red dot. Of the BART stations in SF, there are only two that fall in residential neighborhoods, both in The Mission. (The exaggerated section is the Market St stops, which when you're on Market street seem to have entrances approximately every block. I decided to be lazy rather than identify them on a map that has no street names.) Housing prices should be expected to rise more near major transit hubs like the 24th St BART station.

BART is the commuter train system for the SF Bay Area, although it does not connect to Silicon Valley or San Jose. This means that the Mission Google bus stop is not just for SF residents who work in Mountain View; it is also for people who come from other cities via public transit and transfer to the Google bus because transit doesn't go all the way to Google. There is additionally a train that goes from San Jose to Mountain View, but not near Google, so there is also transit from the CalTrain station to Google, likely private transit. BART does intersect with CalTrain at one stop between SF and Google.


The second uncontrolled variable that I'd like to cover is that most of the Google bus stops are in neighborhoods that are traditionally or at least stereotypically white, unlike the Mission stop. These are neighborhoods that aren't likely to undergo gentrification due to the Google buses in the first place. One of them is near The Marina; this is an expensive neighborhood to begin with. Additionally, if you look at the pricing increases in those neighborhoods in comparison to The Mission, the increase is greater in all but one other covered areas. That apparently doesn't matter either.

The third uncontrolled variable that I'd like to cover is that we aren't told what the rental housing prices are doing in other parts of town, so for all we know from this study, the Google buses are driving up costs in those areas and driving down costs in other, less accessible, areas. We are currently in another housing boom; if the expected rate increase is 15% across the city and it goes up 20% in The Mission and up 10% in The Outer Sunset, did the localized increase denote an overall trend? Newp.


The fourth uncontrolled variable is rent control. As I said in the section about rent control, most of the housing in The Mission is under rent control. A non-rent-control apartment in SF is easily $3k for a one bedroom; poor people do not live there. An apartment that is under rent control is rarely vacated so it would not be covered in this study, since this study only looks at new Craigslist apartments. In addition, rent controlled apartments can't have their rent raised more than 3% in any year according to city rules or 4% according to state rules, so what's with this 23% increase in price?

This means that the units in question are newer than 1979 and thus not under rent control OR they are illegal dwellings and thus rent control can't be enforced OR the landlords are breaking the rent control laws OR the landlords have made such significant improvements to the unit that the rent board has allowed a major rent increase OR the unit was held off the market during the recent economic slump and is now back on the market at a price similar to its previous price. The sampling can only include housing that undergoes wide market force trends and thus it only shows that the market force in those locations has a current upswing on units that undergo turnover.


The fifth uncontrolled variable is OMG people, this is based on craigslist ads, which are neither indicative of an entire market nor free from fraud. There's a common scam in SF where people list an apartment on Craigslist with an address that exists but the apartment is not for rent. The scammer delays in scheduling an apartment showing and then sends an urgent message that they have an offer on the apartment and they're moving out of town right now, so to get the apartment, you need to wire increased first month rent, increased last month rent, plus a security deposit via one of the money transfer services that allows pickup in Nigeria without ID. These Craigslist apartments do not even necessarily exist. Do you know who these scams target? Relatively affluent people with little free time, moving in from out of town, ie the tech workers supposedly causing gentrification.

The sixth uncontrolled variable is the assumptions about who this is happening to. The claim is that this is causing gentrification, but that means that the people who are voluntarily leaving their apartments and being replaced by what is assumed to be a tech worker, are not tech workers. Tech workers do not just appear out of a vacuum. Many already live here. In fact, one of the reasons that Google and others started the buses is that people who lived in SF didn't want to make the commute, so they wouldn't take jobs at Google. That's why I turned down interviews there. Also, Latino tech workers do not exist in the nice Latino neighborhood.


What I'm saying here is this study is bullshit. It does not denote that people are being pushed out of their homes for Google employees, as the protesters are claiming. For one thing, that would require evicting rent controlled tenants without cause, which is illegal and really hard to do. There has been a rise in evictions, but that's combining with and without cause evictions. For cause evictions are not a gentrification issue. If people are poor I guarantee you that they are living in a rent controlled unit, which means with cause or Ellis Act evictions.

For another thing, it would require a high number of Ellis Act evictions. "Oh," but activists say, "there was a recent surge in Ellis Act evictions!" Yes, to 116 per year, following a sharp decline in Ellis Act evictions that brought it down from 384 to below 100. What we are literally talking about here is an additional maximum of 16 evictions without cause. SIXTEEN.


Sixteen additional evictions in the entire city of San Francisco. Now, if you look at these on a map, the highest concentration is in The Mission. That's a 74 Ellis Act evictions in that section of town over 5 years, 14.9% of Ellis Act eviction in SF. This means that an additional TWO Ellis Act evictions happened in the second from bottom zone, assuming that the overall 15% trend is accurate for 2013 and that every eviction in the larger "Inner Mission" zone happened within that purple circle.


Oh, by the way: an Ellis Act evicted unit can't legally be rented out immediately, so they are unlikely to be included in the study. The Ellis Act, like Google, is a scapegoat. The study consists of fake listings, evictions not under rent control, evictions with cause, and new units.


The Norteños and the Sureños

Here's something that I think is important to this discussion that is being omitted by everyone. The Mission has two rival gangs, the Norteños and the Sureños.


A few years back, to address a gang violence issue in The Mission, the city obtained gang injunctions that disallowed gang members to associate with each other within certain safety zones, areas designated as high prevalence gang activity zones. I'm not going to address the validity of this action or its results but on the left is the map of the Norteño safety zone, with marks to denote the BART station and the Google bus stop.


And then I'm going to overlay the Norteño safety zone on the "Google Causes Gentrification" map, denoted in yellow. Note how much of it is inside the "gentrification" circles.


So what have we discovered?

The supposed gentrification is happening in a neighborhood with heavy gang presence, where people potentially two additional homes are facing eviction via methods that do not greatly increase rental prices nor greatly affect the poor, at the same time that rental prices increase on brand new apartments that may not even exist. OMG YOU GUISE. People who are probably tech workers to begin with are being pushed out of their places in gang territory and having to move to a place with higher rent, unless they're being scammed.


Okey dokey then.

Now what have the supposed displaced Latinos have to say about this? No idea. They appear to not have been consulted, if in fact, they exist.


Now Why Am I Fed up with This?

Because last night, there was a meeting at a bar in the Mission to address the problem. It was called "Tech Workers Against Displacement." I read the writeup in this morning's paper (by which I mean website), and since I expected that my friend Ace would be there, I paged through the pictures until I found him. You see Ace has lived in The Mission for longer than I have and he is strongly opposed to gentrification. He also has pointed out repeatedly to activists—as have I—that the problem is lack of new units in a city that people want to move to. We need to build up and that's not happening.


Additionally, many of the rental units in town are owned by a handful of companies, which allows those companies to use their combined market advantage to jack up rental prices. These problems cause rent increases, not tech workers and not Google buses. But those companies aren't easy scapegoats; they can retaliate and try to evict you or raise your rent. Those companies don't have workers that are routinely vilified locally, scapegoated the way that tech workers are.

Now, tech workers are certainly privileged, especially financially, in comparison to many people who live and work in SF. This is absolutely true. But I have had service industry workers groan about "asshole tech workers" in regards to a table full of marketing reps, to me—a tech worker. If someone has a bad attitude, they're assumed to be a tech worker, which is proof that tech workers are assholes. Hullo confirmation bias!


Even the name of the meeting bothered me. It sounded like "ok, we capitulate. We are on your side. Stop yelling at us."

But last night at this meeting, one that has now been called a "bait and switch," people who hate tech workers berated tech workers for well over an hour before a tech worker interrupted to ask when tech workers would get a turn to speak. Ace checked his watch: 75 minutes. This was met with anger… and then this:

she found enough confidence to tell tech workers that they benefit from privilege when it comes to media coverage, since reporters dotted the room that night but are usually absent from activists' protests.


Oh really? So those times that you attacked the Google buses and damaged them, requiring police to come break up the riots, the time that you blocked an employee in his home, those protests weren't covered in the paper? THEY HAD NATIONAL COVERAGE. Oh, but tech workers have privilege because sometimes, the activists have protests and the media doesn't show up, just like the media doesn't hang out in front of Google every freaking day getting the opinions of tech workers. Hullo selection bias.

Just like the media implied that the interruption happened after 25 minutes rather than 75? The media has been reporting this in an anti-tech worker way the whole time but they don't show up to every protest, which is tech worker privilege. Someone needs to have privilege defined for her. Just because you don't get your way every single time doesn't mean that some other person is privileged.


Finally, the tech workers had a chance to speak. One asked what people want tech workers to do to help. One man "told tech workers to leverage their companies' resources and encourage employers to 'do the right thing.'" And one of the activist leaders said:

"Well, our website could use a redesign."

Cause, you know, people aren't trying to get free web design for their cause or business from tech workers oh, every day. Clearly, the way to accomplish getting free web design is to harass people who work at Google until one decides to work for you for free, even though Google doesn't even employ people who do the kind of work that you want done.


If I had been there, I would have gone hoarse from yelling curse words.

Do you know what happens when you aggravate data analysts: they analyze your data.


* I can be reached at petti at petticoatdespot dot com

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