I love many things about living in New York City, but one thing I hate is that I can no longer vote in my hometown, San Francisco. Elections in New York area boring. Elections in San Francisco really matter. Thanks to the city's small size and the unbelievable ease with which propositions can be put on the ballot, voters have a great deal of power in their hands.
Today's elections in San Francisco have come around at a particularly intense time. The civil war taking place there over the reach and influence of the tech industry has become an international story. From the soccer field face-off between some Dropbox bros and local kids, to Airbnb's recent cartoon-villain ads that got the company into so much trouble, to those Google bus protests, everyone has been given a front-row seat to what is happening to the City by the Bay—where, as the New York Times chillingly put it this week, there is so much money sloshing around that "the days when a regular family could raise children here are probably over."
This sort of change is hardly limited to San Francisco; cities everywhere are experiencing surges in inequality and an influx of mega-wealth. But San Francisco has been chosen as the epicenter of the tech industry, and so it has been subjected to a particularly rapacious transformation. If you are from there, you can sense it almost instantly.
This is actually the second time that tech has brought this sort of turmoil to San Francisco. The first dot-com boom at the turn of the 21st century was similarly contentious. (This is where I disclose that my family was evicted from our house during that period by owners who wanted desperately to raise the rent, which they duly did.) But that was nothing compared to what is happening now. There's a very good reason for that: The technology industry is now so integral to our lives that it's not going anywhere any time soon.
I don't know what it feels like for people from other cities to experience the kind of dislocation that is roiling San Francisco, but I am very aware of the specific feeling that comes from seeing this particular place be so dramatically altered.
San Francisco is small. Even the lengthiest journeys take about a half hour in the car. This means that, if you grow up there, or if you live there for any extended period of time, essentially every part of the city leaves its mark on you. You experience every neighborhood in some form or another. People from San Francisco have a particularly intimate relationship with their city.
So when you see what is happening in San Francisco—when you gaze open-mouthed at the vast pockets of money that have colonized places you once adored and turned them virtually unrecognizable—it is deeply, almost startlingly unsettling. It only becomes more unsettling when you are then told that your hidebound anti-development ways are the cause of the problem. (This is not true, by the way.) People are freaked out about what is taking place in San Francisco because they feel like this city that nurtured them and understood them and loved them back has been ripped from them overnight and given to people with no understanding of what they've done.
To give just one example: Last week, my sister—who has lived in San Francisco virtually all her life and knows it better than anyone I can think of—went to a party in Golden Gate Park, only to find that it was a "cholo"-themed affair, where rich white bros were dressing up like stereotypical Latinos. When she told me about it, the sheer strangeness of something like that happening in San Francisco hung over our conversation even more than the racism.
Neither of us should have been so surprised. Latinos are being driven out of the city at breathtaking rates. A recent study projected that the Latino population of the Mission—San Francisco's most precious neighborhood, its sunniest jewel, and the epicenter of its Latino life—is set to fall to 31 percent by 2025. That's down from 60 percent in 2000. I have read a lot of depressing statistics this year, but none made me so sad as this one.
That's where Tuesday's elections come in. From top to bottom, they are referendum on where the city's relationship with the tech industry is going. The most bitterly contested struggles in the race are happening over two ballot initiatives. One, Prop. F, would tighten regulations on Airbnb, which has been aggressively exploiting loopholes in local laws and, because it takes rental units off the market, has become a symbol of San Francisco's housing crisis. Airbnb has spent $8 million to defeat Prop. F. Another initiative, Prop. I, would temporarily halt the construction of luxury housing in the Mission.
Ironically, the one race that's a sure thing is the one for mayor. Ed Lee—who was installed as interim mayor when the last one left, then went back on a pledge not to run for a full term—is guaranteed an easy victory. Perhaps this is because the tech industry that he has so enthusiastically handed the keys to the city in recent years is backing him with enough ferocity to scare off any serious challengers.
Instead, people are putting their energy into one race for the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco's legislative body. The city is divided into 11 districts, and currently, the so-called "moderates" (read: the allies of Lee and his friends) have a one-vote advantage over the progressive faction. The race in District 3, between a Lee appointee and former progressive supervisor Aaron Peskin, could tip the balance in favor of the left, which would be a very, very big deal.
Whatever winds up happening, this is not just a fight about local ordinances. It's symbolic of the wider discussion we need to have about the kind of society we want to live in. The tech industry brings many wonderful things to our lives, but it is also a driving force behind the attempt to privatize virtually every part of public life, mostly to benefit the rich. San Francisco has become a breeding ground for this kind of experimentation, at a deeply lamentable cost. Even though I can't vote there anymore, I am hoping that the people can use their power to turn the tide back in the right direction.