Trouble In Techtopia?

I’m going to take a break from my regular topic to post some thoughts on something I’ve been reading a lot about recently, how the growing tech market is changing San Francisco and whether there is “trouble in techtopia”.

When the woman I had been dating for a few months (and later would marry) moved to San Francisco in May of 2010 I was excited. After living up in the mountains of Lake Tahoe for 6 years I was ready for some city time. San Francisco had always been one of my favorite cities, one I had almost moved to several times before.

Market Street from Twin Peaks - Is there Trouble in Techtopia?In 2010 San Francisco seemed to be weathering, if not thriving through, the Great Recession. Unemployment was high and housing prices had come down (at least in most neighborhoods). On the other hand, a new start-up boom seemed to be gaining momentum, fueled by the advent of social media, smartphone apps, “big data,” and the “angel investments” that the previous generation of Internet successes were pumping into the ecosystem. There also seemed to be a steady stream of jobs (at least for the young and well educated) at companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech, and the consulting firms. Finding a place to live in the city is never easy, but friends seemed to always find something that worked and, when it became obvious that my girlfriend and I were in it for the long term, I was able to buy a house in the Inner Sunset neighborhood at the end of 2010 for what seemed (by city standards) to be a pretty good deal.

Things weren’t perfect in the city, but they seemed, largely thanks to the new technology companies that were sprouting up, to be getting better. Taxis were nearly impossible to get in our neighborhood when we first moved, but within a year Uber launched. Now a ride was only a few clicks on my smartphone away (and with the launch of Lyft and UberX prices quickly started competing with Taxis). Parking has always sucked in the city, no problem, ditch the car and join ZipRide or City Car Share. Every week there seemed to be a new company that would deliver me healthy food, take care of small tasks for me, better connect me with my friends, or tell me what “cool” things were going on. Unlike the tech bubble of the late 90s, something seemed more sustainable about this boom. Companies talked about traction, being lean, customer development, and PROFITS. Investors also seemed smarter this time around. And, the city of San Francisco was making a concerted effort to keep tech companies in the city as opposed to letting them launch in SOMA and then move down to the peninsula as they grew. It turns out, this generation of young tech workers and entrepreneurs didn’t dream of moving to the suburbs, they preferred an urban lifestyle and all the benefits of living in the city (arts, music, dining, bars, and walking to it all). This trend was becoming so strong that companies like Apple, Google, and Genentech started offering their own private shuttle buses between the city and their suburban corporate campuses, making up for the severely deficient public transportation in the greater Bay Area.

And wasn’t this all great? Living in the city is “greener” and less impactful on the environment, and riding the bus helps alleviate traffic and uses less fossil fuels. The tech industry was once again “changing everything” and making the world a better, more democratic, more open place to live.

What a difference a couple years can make. Earlier this month, protesters stopped a Google bus in the Mission District, complaining about high rent prices and gentrification. Their argument is that private buses are using public infrastructure to the benefit of these private companies and their employees. The new “tech-elite” seems to be putting its foot in its mouth weekly, starting with Peter Shih listing the 10 things he hates about San Francisco and more recently Greg Gopman complaining about the homeless.

And it’s true, rents and housing prices have skyrocketed as companies like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yelp go public and create a new crop of millionaires and the next generation of recent college and MBA graduates decide to move West in search of the their technology success story. Developers and landlords smell opportunity and take every chance they can to evict rent-controlled tenants and convert run down housing to luxury TICs and apartments. And while the city attempts to increase affordable housing, those attempts simply can’t keep up with demand.

While this problem isn’t going to go away quickly, it seems like there are some easy ways to help alleviate some of the problems. San Francisco and the greater Bay Area need to work hard and fast to improve the terrible public transportation system. If tech employees commuting out of the city are pricing out restaurant, shop, and other non-tech employees, then the latter are going to need a reasonable way to commute into the city. Perhaps these large, successful companies should help invest in the public transportation infrastructure (a proposal to have these shuttles pay for the use of the bus stops is already in the works). Real estate developers should be required to supplement their luxury developments with some percentage of affordable housing. And maybe Mark Zuckerburg (amongst others) could invest some of those billions in newfound wealth in improving our city’s public schools system (in addition to Newark, NJ’s) otherwise a lot of those young employees will start moving out as they get older and have kids.

But most of all, we all need to remember why we moved to San Francisco in the first place. San Francisco was built on the imaginations, hopes, aspirations, and hard work of the adventurers, gold prospectors, Beats, Hippies, artists, authors, geeks, techies, and weirdoes. That’s why we live here, that’s the environment that has fostered the creativity that brought us Google, the iPhone, Levi Jeans, The Grateful Dead, Burning Man and countless other innovations. We also must remember that everything is cyclical. I remember the dot com boom and bust, Sept 11, 2001, and 2008. What goes up must come down. So while things are good, let’s not act like whiny idiots (um, Shih and Gopeman), let’s work towards and invest in turning our city into the bright example of what we all believe Techtopia could be for EVERYONE (i.e., Gotham City).

  1. Hey Rick, this is Jon from Vashon, a friend of Matt and Janna. I appreciate your comments here, and I want to note that you are defining what I see as a concern with the rise of unlimited wealth and not to denigrate any of the positives you identify. “…maybe Mark Zuckerburg (amongst others) could invest some of those billions in newfound wealth in improving our city’s public schools system…” Although the notion is a good one, this leaves policy making in the hands of wealthy individuals rather than in the hands of society as a whole. Big money has already utilized the infrastructures that were put in place and are part of the public domain; roads, electrical/communications grids, etc., to make massive profits for individuals. As well, we already have a system in place where all of the big earners can contribute to programs like public schools, health care and affordable housing; they’re called taxes. Rather than watching as less scrupulous millionaires put their money into buying candidates; elections, and gerrymandering voting districts so that they are bullet-proof political havens, perhaps these smart and benevolent people that have made such wealth would work towards tax equality and fair elections throughout our income spectrum. Then all of the other social programs that they “maybe” would invest in, would be taken care of.
    Happy New Year and thanks for thinking.

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