The Bay Area's housing disaster: The affluent move in and the rest of us suffer

Something's wrong when a Silicon Valley 3-bedroom goes for $30 million. No wonder people can't live where they work

Published October 8, 2015 3:58PM (EDT)

In the San Francisco Bay Area it's impossible to miss the graphic signs of an upheaval in the number of people who are able to live with a roof over their heads.  The gap between those who can afford rental housing, let alone own a home, and those who cannot is widening daily. Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, and more and more people are being thrown out of their apartments and homes, or unable to find them in the first place.

People are responding by resisting this situation. The San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition was successful in getting the Board of Supervisors to pass a measure that includes the following protections:

  • Limits rent increases or evictions based solely on the addition of roommates
  • Limits the ability of landlords to evict tenants for minor violations (no- and low-fault evictions) as well as limits landlords’ ability to raise the rent on units after securing a no-fault eviction
  • Strengthens tenant notification requirements (requiring landlords to provide notifications in the tenants' primary language)
  • Requires landlords provide a written refusal with a “reasonable" explanation when denying tenants the ability to bring on a new roommate

In short, this is the strongest set of tenant protections that has been passed in San Francisco in a while and the impact on the lives of working-class people could be huge.

Yet now Mayor Ed Lee is considering vetoing the legislation, due largely to pressure he's feeling from the small landlords association. He has until Friday, Oct. 9, at 5 p.m. to do so. For those in the Bay Area concerned about this, it is time to act, but for everyone in the U.S. and beyond, it is time to learn more about how the struggle in San Francisco is part of a global phenomenon that affects millions around the world, and more each day.

The most extreme case of this vast difference in the ability to afford housing may be that of 1950 Cowper Street in Palo Alto, which recently was bought by Google executive Ruth Porat for the sum of $30 million. That’s right, $30 million.  For a three-bedroom house of 5,000 square feet. Contrast this with the massive displacement of ordinary working-class people and the diminishing if not evaporated chances of owning a home for what used to be called “the middle-class family.”

Along with the increased frequency of people being evicted from their homes and forced to live elsewhere, more and more people can't afford to live where they work.  Commute time adds more unpaid labor hours to one’s day—in effect one pays a tax to be employed.  And with the distance between work and home increasing, resulting in more time spent away from home, people spend less time in their neighborhoods and communities. Between these two new phenomena, the social glue that holds people together and binds communities and cultures is being dissolved.

Presidents from Hoover to Obama have stressed the importance of homeownership, precisely in terms of social cohesion and community. Hoover stated, “home owning is more than the provision of domiciles; it goes to the roots of family life, public morals and standards of living”; and Obama called it “the heart of what it means to be middle-class in America.”  Indeed, the tax break U.S. homeowners enjoy was put in place in part to “root” people and stabilize (if not stratify) social class.

But what we find today is that this “class” is not the middle class but rather the affluent and super-affluent class, and this class stratification, not surprisingly, is accompanied by racial stratification as well. The social mobility narrative has stalled at the same time that the post-racial fairy tale has been punctured—we are living in a new era of segregation that marginalizes racial minorities, as well as low- and even middle-wage earners, and senior citizens. And instead of homeowners, more and more people are renters, dependent entirely on the market and the will of landlords, with few legal protections. These people are increasingly out-lawyered and thrown out of their dwellings.

A study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University predicts that the growth in households paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent will top 13 million by 2025. Titled “Projecting Trends in Severely Cost-Burdened Renters 2015-2025,” the report finds “the largest increases expected among older adults, Hispanics and single-person households. The findings suggest that even if trends in incomes and rents turn more favorable, a variety of demographic forces—including the rapid growth of minority and senior populations—will exert continued upward pressure on the number of severely cost-burdened renters.” It does not take an economist to figure out that what we are witnessing is yet another instance of the massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a few, as more and more people work longer hours and turn a larger and larger portion of their wages—and in more and more cases pensions and Social Security checks--over to their landlords, who are often national landlords, not small local property owners.

This rip-off, supported by the political institutions of this country, deprives growing numbers of people of a basic human right. The United Nations has established that “the right to adequate housing covers measures that are needed to prevent homelessness, prohibit forced evictions, address discrimination, focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, ensure security of tenure to all, and guarantee that everyone’s housing is adequate.” What the Harvard data shows is that conditions today are endangering this basic right, and things are going to get worse unless we act collectively and purposefully.

Tony Roshan Samara, an activist at Urban Habitat, makes the link between the specific case of Silicon Valley, national trends and a global pattern of displacement:

We have increasingly entrenched inequality linked to a relatively few high-paying jobs and a massive demand for low-wage work to underwrite the affluence of the more affluent. Displacement, gentrification, the rent fights, and growing poverty in the suburbs reflect a geographic realignment to match the socioeconomic realignment. It’s important to note that the urban-regional form taking shape closely matches that found more commonly in underdeveloped global regions: concentrated affluent urban cores surrounded by sprawling poor areas where the workforce (active and surplus) lives.

In fact, what we find is the emergence of what the group Right to the City calls the “Rise of the Renter Nation,” and again, this nation is disproportionately racialized:

The crisis of affordable housing over the next generation will be concentrated among renters. At the center of this crisis are low-income people of color living in urban areas. Households from these communities have been overrepresented among renters for decades, and in the recent housing market collapse, they have been disproportionately the victims of foreclosure and foreclosure-related evictions… Federal housing policy and the private housing market, rather than providing social and economic stability for historically marginalized households, have instead been the cause of chronic housing insecurity.

It is crucial to note that this is not only a human rights issue, it is also a civil rights issue.

Samara emphasizes that

Renters are often ignored as constituents by local governments, and passed over when solutions to the housing crisis are discussed. As financial capital continues to pour into the region, working people struggle to remain in their communities and grass-roots organizations struggle to reclaim land being hoarded by affluent residents and an out of control real estate aristocracy.

The growing power of anti-democratic market forces has only spurred tenant organizers and community members to fight harder in defense of their homes and neighborhoods. In response to these phenomena, the “renters nation” is rebelling. Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 saw coordinated protests and actions around the Bay Area named “Regional Day of Action for a #RighttoaRoof.” I spoke with Aracely Mondragon of the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action group. This organization, which played a vital role in the demonstrations, is a network of faith communities committed to ensuring that the dignity of all members of the community is upheld and “through leadership development, civic engagement, and lifting up of our faith values strives to address racial and economic injustices facing our communities.”

She told me that on those two days faith leaders, housing rights organizations and tenants across the region organized coordinated actions in San Jose, Mountain View, San Mateo, Redwood City, Burlingame, Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco and Fremont, arguing that “exorbitant rent increases and mass evictions are disrupting the lives of individuals and families, and destabilizing entire communities as working-class families are forced to abandon their jobs, schools, places of worship. A displacement of poor and working-class tenants is being driven by economic growth, gentrification and unregulated speculation. We must resist this new kind of segregation.”

Speaking to these two organizers after the event, Mondragon said:

With several hundred people participating in events across the Peninsula, it is clear that more and more people are seeing the need to mobilize and fight against the uprooting of their community; that it is no longer a problem facing one’s family alone but a threat to the security and stability of many.

More and more renters are grappling with the contradictions of Silicon Valley, what it means for wealth to continue to pour in, and the economy continue to grow as they are further pushed to the margins and their homes taken and their stability threatened for the sake of economic profit. And more and more people are ready to stand up and push for a solution to it.

Organizers said that several hundred people in each of the locations gathered, each sensing common purpose with others across the Bay region, and each adopting different tactics as appropriate to their local issues.

Samara said, “One thing that is really key about this regional organizing is that we recognize that different jurisdictions and subregions are really different in terms of their political culture, in terms of their organizing, the constitution of the city council and the political elite. So the idea was not to have everyone do the same action, but to do an action that was really relevant to their own location. For example, in Fremont, which does not have the same historical situation as Oakland or East Palo Alto, they passed out pointer sheets that had key facts about Fremont, like Fremont has the second-fastest-rising rents in California, and that is a very striking statistic. On the other side they suggested actions and strategies, and went to the BART station [Bay Area Rapid Transit], because a lot of people who live in Fremont work in Oakland and San Francisco, and took the sheets to their workplaces. So it was a guerrilla action that spread a very important local fact and connected it to other areas. They handed out hundreds of these sheets, and everyone who received them seemed to have their own story too. And so allies from San Francisco came down to help them out. It not only built awareness as to the existence of the coalition, it mobilized people to act.  This was a real shift and pivot in the campaign, which had previously been very site specific."

These sorts of local to regional actions in turn link up with others nationwide and across the globe.  For example, two years ago the Right to the City group convened a “Trans-Atlantic Roundtable” on these issues; participants included organizations from Hungary, Greece, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany.

The notion of “the Right to the City” comes from a book published in 1968 by French intellectual and philosopher Henri Lefebvre.  For Lefebvre, “the right to the city cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life.” We must claim the right to a just and equitable life within cities—we have to recognize our new historical situation and organize against these new forms of precarity, inequality and discrimination, and that is what the groups mentioned in this article are doing.

In this spirit the emerging movement is not anti-development, per se; but it is for development that, as Samara insists,  “benefits communities, not tears them apart; development that contributes to the social, economic, political and cultural progress of people; for development that affirms the right of people to shape their communities and destinies.”  This project is described in a 110-page report titled “Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area,” produced by Causa Justa:Just Cause.

These recent, coordinated protests and actions demonstrate the potential of a broad movement, composed of an increasingly large number of people who are now affected by this crisis, and those who stand in solidarity with them.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Gentrification Housing San Francisco Silicon Valley