San Francisco’s Anti-Displacement Movement: Progressives against Progress?

Posted online July 17, 2014, by The Nation and published in the magazine’s August 4-11 issue under the title “How Silicon Valley Millionaires Stole Progressivism”

On a Saturday afternoon in early February, more than 600 residents of San Francisco gathered at the Tenderloin Elementary School for a citywide tenants convention. The attendees—a mix of old and young, veteran activists and political newcomers—came from neighborhoods all over town. They joined together to fight the soaring rents and mounting evictions that have accompanied the tech incursion into San Francisco, and that are threatening to turn a city famed for its inclusive, liberal character into an enclave of wealth and privilege.

These days, San Francisco has the most expensive housing in the nation. In late March, 43.5 percent of the homes listed for sale in the city were priced at $1 million or more, by far the highest such percentage in the United States. Residential rents are soaring: as of last October, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $3,250—also the highest in the country.

The backlash against dispossession has earned national and international notice via the blockade of Google buses, the mammoth vehicles that transport about 35,000 tech workers every day between their Silicon Valley workplace and San Francisco home. But the media have paid relatively little attention to the less showy tenants movement, which has become a major political force in the city.

The San Francisco Chronicle didn’t bother to send a reporter to the convention. But the day after the meeting, the paper’s lead editorial fretted:

So here we are again, staring at the seeds of a cultural and political revolution, with the old guard and new guard trading places. This time, the old guard is not the buttoned-down bankers and pillars of blue-blood society, but the progressives who are fearful that a dramatic infusion of new wealth is chasing out the city’s residents and distorting its values. This time, the new guard is not the hippies and gays who are transforming neighborhoods and challenging society’s mores but tech-savvy young minds who are drawn to a city that nurtures avant-garde thinking and lifestyles.

As the Chronicle recognized, the current conflict is not just a struggle about social justice; it is also a fight over political and cultural legitimacy—one that shakes up the conventional wisdom about progressivism, if not progress itself.

The paper would have us believe that the left’s identity is the only thing on the line, its supposed vanguardism and liberality contravened by the dynamism of the tech industry, whose beneficence the editorial takes for granted. But the antagonisms unleashed by the tech industry’s latest descent on San Francisco also unsettle assumptions about conservatism: defenders of democracy are denounced as reactionaries, while agents of global capital are lauded as revolutionaries.

This ideological churn embodies profound yet elusive shifts in historical consciousness, enabling aspersions from the right while compromising the left’s customary stands. Throwing these transformations into high relief, the discord roiling San Francisco merits the scrutiny of progressives. 

Start with the attacks. In the Chronicle’s tidy formulation, it’s “prosperity” that “allows this city to be progressive,” enabling policies like “health care mandates, elevated minimum wages and regulations…that would be unthinkable elsewhere.” And it’s “progressivism”—“San Francisco’s reputation for tolerance and nurturing of creativity”—that “allows this city to be prosperous,” serving as “a prime driver of innovation migration from the Silicon Valley.” Those who decry the changes wrought by that influx should bear in mind that “hundreds of Detroits, Allentowns and Fresnos…would gladly trade their problems with San Francisco.”

Admonitions against left parochialism have also emanated directly from the corporate lobby. The city does have an affordable-housing problem, opined the San Francisco Business Times, “but the scapegoating of the tech industry as the source of San Francisco’s urban ills, particularly regarding housing, is…misbegotten.” The real culprits are “[n]eighborhood NIMBYs and the city’s enthusiastic anti-development activists.”

But the strictures against progressive insularity aren’t coming just from the usual apologists for big business. In March, one of the city’s most prominent affordable-housing advocates and developers, Randy Shaw, noted that the influx of gays and lesbians into the Castro, Noe Valley, and other neighborhoods in the 1970s and ’80s also raised rents, but “progressives never suggested—as some are now doing with tech workers—that new arrivals get out of town.” Instead, they assailed the housing speculators who were victimizing tenants across the board, as well as the media that covered for them. What we’re seeing now, Shaw contends, is “a new nativism.”

A few weeks earlier, SF Weekly, which calls itself politically independent, featured a sweeping dismissal of the anti-tech movement. “Any human can stand in the way of a bus,” wrote Rachel Swan. “But he can’t stop the engine of progress behind it.” Today Google, Apple and their ilk are “embedded in our everyday lives.” Protesting their effects is a “quaint,” purely “symbolic” way to “purge anxieties about change that’s inevitable.”

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The local left has responded to these charges with varying degrees of cogency. The claims about economic prosperity have been easily debunked. Among the nation’s fifty largest cities, notes San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, San Francisco has the second-largest disparity between rich and poor. It’s also the place where the income gap is widening most rapidly.

Another illusion that’s been laid to rest is the idea that the city can build its way out of the affordable-housing crisis. Tim Redmond, the former editor of the Bay Guardian, points out that “no matter what the ‘trickle-down’ marketeers…say, the history is clear: Only when San Francisco has taken units out of the private market, or strictly controlled rents, has the city been able to protect affordability.” (Disclosure: I write for Redmond’s new online publication, 48 hills.)

The true source of the problem, Redmond maintains, is not anti-development activism but official inaction:

If the state legislature would give us the tools, we could essentially bar all evictions for anything except failure to pay rent or creating a nuisance. We could ban all condo conversions and TICs [tenancies in common, a form of shared ownership that displaces tenants from multi-unit residential properties]. We could extend rent controls to vacant apartments.

A crucial task is reforming the Ellis Act , the California law that authorizes landlords who want to sell their rental properties to evict their tenants. In early April, the city’s Board of Supervisors approved a bill that requires landlords to pay “Ellised” tenants the difference between their current rent and the cost of comparable housing for two years. And with the support of four supervisors, an anti-speculation tax to discourage the “flipping” of residential properties—a proposal generated by the February tenants’ convention—will appear on the November ballot.

These are strong positions, grounded in the left’s commitment to economic equity, social justice and robust democratic governance. It’s when progressives grapple with accusations of insularity and conservatism that the rejoinders can get equivocal. Consider Rebecca Solnit’s response to Randy Shaw. In her 2000 book Hollow City, Solnit vividly described the havoc inflicted on San Francisco by the first dot-com boom; she’s also an assiduous critic of the devastation being wreaked on the city by the second. She came back at Shaw with an eloquent cri de coeur against the history of “invasion and eviction and evisceration” that dates back to the Ohlone Indians’ disastrous encounter with the Spanish conquistadors. The essential conflict, she argues, is more about “the powerful versus the vulnerable” than “newcomers and oldtimers.” The vulnerable parties she has in mind are the

refugees from conservatism, from homophobia, from small-town intolerance, from the dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s and the Jim Crow south of the 1940s and 1950s, seekers of education, liberation, social experiments, and cultural possibilities [who] have arrived here mostly as trickles, not floods. They’ve become part of the city, often its heart.

Now they’re being driven out, and with them, the city’s “welcoming” character. When Shaw deplores resentment against the tech dispossessors, he’s “blaming the victim” and “denying who has the power”—not only individual technologists but the “leviathans of Silicon Valley.”

The charge of denial is partly accurate. Though Shaw allows that techie affluence is inflating property values, he identifies speculators as the prime agents of displacement. “One often hears the objections,” Solnit writes, that “it isn’t the tech workers coming here who are carrying out the evictions. But they are moving into homes from which people have been evicted,” in a boom created by their arrival.

That said, Solnit herself skews the assignment of responsibility. Ignoring Shaw’s observation that gays and lesbians effectively raised rents when they moved into less affluent neighborhoods, she includes them in her roster of injured and deserving innocents. The implication is that ill treatment leaves people virtuous but weak. That idealization of victimhood distorts reality no less than the refusal to acknowledge the power of aggressors. Lacking political agency, Solnit’s imperiled San Franciscans can only weep at their fated exile, a scenario that belies the existence of the energetic anti-displacement movement under way.

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Idealization of a different sort encumbers the call “to stand and fight to save our city” issued by another close observer of San Francisco politics and history, David Talbot, the founder and former editor in chief of Salon. Speaking at a business conference about Mid-Market (the area to which a controversial tax break engineered by Mayor Edwin Lee has lured tech firms like Twitter, Zendesk and others), Talbot—like Solnit—presented the city’s past as a series of often violent conflicts centered on “a simple but brutal question: Who gets to live here?”

Where Solnit focuses on vulnerability, Talbot highlights the left’s activism and signal victories. In his telling, what’s made the city progressive is not, as the Chronicle would have it, prosperity, but political vision and will. “So-called San Francisco values were not born with flowers in their hair—but howling, in blood and strife.” Thanks in large part to the coalition-building abilities of exceptional civic leaders—Talbot singles out Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, both assassinated at City Hall in 1978—San Francisco became a “beacon of enlightenment” that introduced “gay marriage, legalized marijuana, a livable minimum wage, city-wide green programs and bike systems, and guaranteed health care.”

For Talbot, contributing to the cause of “social diversity and the common good” is what distinguishes true—that is, progressive—San Franciscans. He uses that standard to vindicate the influx of gay people, who, he acknowledges, “were young white professionals with disposable income, while those they were squeezing out were poor and working-class and minorities.” But “they brought a fresh infusion of progressive energy into the city,” making it “more creative, enlightened and even prosperous.” By contrast, the current conflict “pits San Francisco’s bedrock progressive values—including a strong commitment to social diversity and the common good—against the defiantly individualistic, even solipsistic, world of digital capitalism.”

In Talbot’s view, that world also betrays technology’s liberatory promise. “I am no Luddite,” he declares, adding that he couldn’t have launched Salon in 1995 “without the miraculous digital infrastructure built by the architects of the web.” He’s “very proud that San Francisco is a beehive of this kind of buzzing innovation,” and he “know[s] that many of the rank and file people who work in the tech industry…share our progressive San Francisco values.”

Unfortunately, “the innovation bubbling up in the Bay Area has become much more market-oriented than socially driven.” Talbot blames tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and mayoral crony Ron Conway, as well as “the instant billionaires, three or four years out of college.” When these “selfish libertarians” aren’t “busy trying to run the world,” they’re “turning San Francisco into their private playground.” with supported sites like Enough already: “It’s time to take this city back from the arrogant tech moguls and timid city hall administrators. Additionally, the concept of numeracy playground markings highlights the importance of incorporating educational elements into playground designs. Furthermore, resources such as underscore the significance of educational infrastructure in primary schools. San Francisco’s public spaces, including parks and playgrounds, are in dire need of improvement. Additionally, the provision of outdoor school furniture is crucial for creating conducive learning environments outdoors.

Talbot is much too kind. Far from fearing the tech industry, San Francisco’s administrators regard the “office-based ‘knowledge’ sector” as the salvation of the city’s economy; indeed, they’re planning [6] to turn the area known as South of Market into a new, high-rise, tech-dominated downtown. And as Solnit showed in Hollow City, the first dot-com boom was plenty market-oriented. Since then, digitization has ravaged the newspaper industry, whose health is essential to the progressive urbanism Talbot cherishes. Moreover, the face-to-face solidarity that supports democratic urbanism is vitiated by the tech industry’s cloistered work culture. At the end of 2013, San Francisco had 53,319 tech jobs, more than triple the number in 2004. In the past, other groups new to the city have kept largely to themselves, but the tech rank and file take that insularity to an extreme, their alien persona reinforced by their hermetic mode of work, with its brutal hours, “hackathons” and comprehensive environments.

Even more estranging is tech’s vaunted iconoclasm (think: Steve Jobs). “Every programmer and engineer under the age of 40,” writes sociologist and journalist Darwin BondGraham, “is obsessed with being the next disruptive force.” Often accompanied by a fierce libertarianism, this fervent transgressiveness is hardly conducive to democratic civic engagement, which is rooted in mutual respect and a sense of shared obligation.

The civic disposition is also weakened by the geographic detachment that characterizes Internet “connectivity.” As the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner writes, “Perhaps the most enduring accomplishment of Silicon Valley” is the creation of “an ethereal reality” in which “decisions are made and actions taken in ways that eliminate the need for physical presence in any particular place.” True, the Google bus riders endure lengthy commutes in order to live in San Francisco. But so far, most of them have related to the city as consumers of its attractions, not as citizens committed to the locale.

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Like Solnit’s focus on dispossession, Talbot’s endorsement of tech’s “buzzing innovation” bespeaks a left at bay. The defensive posture reflects the left’s ambiguous relationship to a keyword in both its historic program and the fight over tech’s prerogatives in San Francisco: progress.

Progress is the name given to a faith that was born in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. “Roughly speaking,” writes the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, “it consisted of two principal ideas: liberation from the mass of inherited restraints and their presiding authorities, and the increase of human powers of all kinds.”

From the start, progress was intimately associated with science and technology. Scientific knowledge would dispel superstition and ignorance, while its application through technology would eliminate scarcity and hardship, rendering human existence more efficient, comfortable and salubrious.

But as Wolin shows, progress as democratic liberation conflicts with progress as the expansion of technological power. Democratic liberation entails the identification of political principles—say, freedom of speech and universal suffrage. Such principles are static; once established, they have only to be instituted and protected, not superseded or, as the techies say, “disrupted.” Moreover, their cultivation and defense require an engaged citizenry whose power grows out of collective efforts taken over time in a particular place. No such boundedness constrains scientific research and technological innovation: each discovery and innovation brings forth another advance.

Instead of moderating this turbulence, science and technology’s most potent agents—the custodians of industrial capital and the bureaucratic state—have intensified it in the name of modernization, productivity and development. The capitalist, the state bureaucrat and the scientist-cum-technologist all insist that cataclysmic change is essential to our economic competitiveness, educational achievement, national security and environmental sustainability. Dispensing even with these rationales, the tech industry pronounces disruption a good in and of itself. Question that dictum and you’re charged with opposing progress.

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The way to meet that accusation is to reclaim progress for democratic ends. Fusing a staunch defense of the city’s anti-displacement movement with a trenchant rebuke of Rachel Swan’s diatribe against the protests, Tim Redmond undertakes that assignment. The left, he notes, has always embraced “real progress”—“something that improves the human condition”—as opposed to “anything new at all.” Accordingly, he bows appreciatively to “the incredible communications revolution that we’ve seen in the past couple of decades.” But “it’s critical to separate what the tech companies do—some good, some bad—from the role they play…in a local community.” In that role, he argues, they do only bad, fostering economic inequality and eroding social cohesion. Redmond then takes that critique nationwide. “What’s happening in San Francisco,” he avers, “represents pretty much everything that’s wrong with the American economy today”—and that state of affairs “doesn’t represent economic ‘progress.’”

Redmond proceeds to jettison one tenet of modernizing progress: the belief in untrammeled economic growth. Anyone who thinks that trying to limit development is a misguided lost cause should study the last half-century of San Francisco history. Redmond cites the landmark grassroots revolts against urban renewal, a freeway through Golden Gate Park and runaway high-rise development. Official and unofficial power brokers envisioned the city as the West Coast Manhattan. Each time, dissenters were warned that they were “standing in the way of ‘progress.’” Each time, progress ultimately lost, and today’s city is all the better for it.

Now political and corporate elites are trying to turn San Francisco into “the tech center of the world.” As before, the city’s residents have been excluded from the decision-making, their protests denounced as reactionary. Redmond finds the censure outrageous: “When we…lurch into a fast, disruptive era that will change our community more than an earthquake, we have the right to ask: Why? Is this what we want for our city?” If the answer is yes, “we have to give up a lot of what we are as a city.”

But if the answer is no, something still has to be relinquished. “Without Twitter and the current tech boom,” Redmond concedes, “the city’s unemployment rate might be higher.” But he also argues that “many, if not most,” of the new openings in the tech sector have been filled by “people from somewhere else who came here for a high-paying job,” as opposed to unemployed San Franciscans. Why not find out what long-term unemployed locals need to get decent work and then help them get it? Condition the approval of new offices and luxury housing on the accommodation of present-day tenants who are priced out of the market. Even incoming techies can help: Redmond urges them not to rent or buy housing whose previous occupants were evicted.

Besides defying the growth imperative, these proposals eschew the futuristic outlook of orthodox progress. But the goal is not, as Swan contends, to preserve history by resisting change and embalming San Francisco in misplaced nostalgia. It’s to go slow and treat the city as a beloved home that needs careful renovation, not a quick, profit-seeking or tax-yielding teardown.

If being radical means challenging the dominant paradigm, this position is radical, all right—but it’s radicalism with a strong conservative bent. Progressives have long regarded “conservative” as a term of opprobrium—often for good reason. But that scorn is blocking a full view of political reality and the left’s own prospects. We need to stop calling free-marketeers conservative; they conserve nothing but their own power. Today, conservation is the office of radical democracy.