What the Fuck is Wrong With San Francisco? Income Inequality

Hello my babies. I’m back from vacay and man. On the one hand my life is awesome and I’m so grateful. I have wonderful friends and family who went out of their way to make me feel really special on my birthday. On the other hand I’m behind on absolutely everything and my elimination diet showed me how much power food has over me mentally.

I keep telling myself I’m doing several hard things at once in a hard city with an autoimmune disorder. When I’m not telling myself I’m a lazy, stupid fuck. In the first version of this I wrote that my love life is a shitshow. Which isn’t really accurate. I have one partner who doesn’t want to see me, sure. Not ideal. But another who adores me, and I him. Plus I’m seeing a few other swell people. Happiness is an inside job, and step one is focusing on the positive. That, my friends, is not easy for me. Never has been. I’m working on it.

Anyhoodle. Here’s the third installment in my What the Fuck is Wrong With San Francisco series. Here are parts one and two if you want to catch up.

My first year in SF I lived in Noe Valley with a software developer in an apartment situated between an artisanal cheese shop and a store that sold mainly small-batch olive oils. To get to YIMBY events I’d walk through the Castro and into SOMA. In 20 minutes I went from strollers and sunshine to open sores, dirty needles, and the smell of human excrement. 

I remember the first time I saw someone sprawled out on the sidewalk with a head wound and couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive. Unsure what to do, I called the police. I gave the dispatcher the block and left. 

Looking at the numbers, San Francisco has the largest gap between rich and poor in the nation. 

Or you can just look around. The examples are everywhere. A friend told me he saw a homeless man take a shit on the sidewalk outside the Tesla showroom. 

“Yes, tech money is driving the freaks, the queers, the broke artists and ordinary working-class families out of the city, helped along by 30 years of backward housing policies, greedy landlords and inefficient social care,” Laurie Penny wrote. “That much is obvious.”

Another tell: In San Francisco, businesses consisting primarily of women caring for the rich are making up the majority of retail growth. MIT economist David Autor calls these low-skill, low-pay, jobs  “wealth work.” 

SF’s insane levels of income inequality are only getting worse as high housing costs push all but the super-rich out of their homes.

Over the past decade, Bay Area rents have increased 43%. The poorest of the displaced become homeless, while middle-income families move to the suburbs or out of state altogether. California’s housing affordability crisis “hampers economic growth, makes income inequality worse and keeps people from pursuing their dreams,” writes New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty. 

“San Franciscans are rightly annoyed when recent visitors boggle at their city’s social contradictions,” Penny wrote. “Unfortunately, it’s the first thing you notice. When you get used to not noticing it – because otherwise you’d never be able to drink your coffee and get on with your day – that’s a different problem altogether.”

Today, when I see someone sprawled out on the sidewalk with a head wound I don’t stop. Can you imagine seeing multiple sick and injured people living on the sidewalk every day? Can you imagine seeing it in a city with an annual median household income of nearly $100,000?

It’s not just that we don’t notice it. It’s worse than that. 

“In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the centre of the city,” wrote Greg Gopman, a former start-up CEO, on his Facebook wall last December. “There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.”

This is hard to write. And I’m probably going to do a bad job. But I do think it needs to be talked about. The above quote is absolutely vile. The dehumanization is sick and twisted.

But also, for many of us, the reality of living in SF means after a while compassion and alarm turn into fear and disgust. You can only get yelled at and assaulted, and hear about your friends getting assaulted, so many times before it starts to color your feelings toward people on the streets. The reality is that the vast majority of homeless people are neither mentally ill nor violent. The reality is also that the majority of homeless people you have interactions with and are aware of as a resident will be frightening to you in some way.

I fear walking past the man yelling obscenities to no one and that fear makes me angry. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, “Why does he get to yell at me and make me afraid just for walking?” Instead of, “Why don’t we have a mental health bed for him?” Maybe it won’t happen to you. It happens to a lot of us. It helps explain, I think, why we don’t do more to help the homeless.

Here’s another thing that helps explain it.

Penny again:

For the luckier San Franciscans, the argument that techno-capitalism is a good substitute for the state isn’t hard to make – not when their employers provide everything social democrats expect the state to supply, from transport and health care to yoga rooms, video arcades and laundry service at the office. There is little reason to believe in solving local problems collectively when evidence of the failure of collectivism is sleeping in the sun on every sidewalk.

SF city government has had ten-plus years and spent millions of dollars on fixing homelessness, and the problem has only grown. Residents could be forgiven for thinking the city cannot and will not actually solve this problem. They’re wrong. But it’s a reasonable thing for people to think in the worst-run city in America.

The most important thing to understand about income inequality in a city like SF is that it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

Because there’s no middle class in San Francisco, we have only two groups of people: the people who rely on the city for basic services — trash cans and public toilets, mental health beds, and affordable housing — and the people who can rely on their employers to meet all their needs. The former don’t vote or give money to candidates and tend to move often. The latter vote, give money, and tend to stay in place. So who do you think the Supervisors listen to?

The people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care. 

What do the people who have their Supervisors’ ears want? Economic segregation. Homeowners consistently choose to oppose or downsize new housing to keep their property values high, their amenities to themselves, and their communities rich and white. Residents in the richer, white-and-Asian west side of the city downzoned to ensure no new multifamily homes and the poorer, browner people who tend to live in them enter their neighborhoods.

“The transformation of the Mission, SoMa, Hayes Valley and other east-side neighborhoods is in part a product of the utter lack of change across the west side,” Benjamin Schneider recently wrote. “Due to outdated zoning laws and an inordinate amount of political power, the wealthiest, least dense neighborhoods have all too successfully shielded themselves from desperately needed new housing and homeless services, leaving a handful of east-side neighborhoods to bear these burdens for the entire city.”

Renters and homeowners alike want to make sure the poop and needles stay in SOMA and the Tenderloin. And they’ve done an excellent job from what I can tell. You can literally tell where Districts begin and end based on the condition of the streets. 

Not building enough housing causes low- and middle-income families to have to leave, leaving only the super poor and super rich, fueling income inequality. Sky-high income inequality has concentrated power among elites who support policies like discretionary review and downzoning and deprioritize social services. These choices then exacerbate the housing crisis and further income inequality and economic segregation. And so on.

Income inequality is a self-perpetuating problem that causes real social and economic harm. While we must get people off the streets as quickly as possible, the only effective, long-term solution is to build abundant housing to keep the middle class in place and actually house the homeless. 

This is part three of a series. See parts onetwothree, four, and five.

One Comment

  1. Jim Ausman

    I appreciate your essay and while it is more reasonable than most of the “sky-is-falling” essays about San Francisco it is not really nuanced enough to describe what is going on. There are still many middle class San Franciscans who either live in rent controlled apartments or are bunked up with roommates in communal households or are perhaps living in their parents home, either on their own or not. The percentage of San Franciscans who are middle class has steadily decreased though, so I get where you are coming from. I have lived here for 30 years and watched the changes. But San Francisco 30 years ago was much worse in most ways, in spite of Boomer nostalgia: it is much safer today, with much less violent crime. The streets are cleaner. The schools are better, as it Muni. There are no longer hoards of gay men dying of KS walking the streets of the Castro.

    The idea that income equality if all being driven by tech is not borne out by the statistics. Only 1/8th of San Francisco workers are in tech, according to the Census. It is hard to see that 1/8th being the driver of all the homelessness. It is is probably a factor but there is more than that going on: a nationwide defunding of HUD and anti-homelessness programs, leading the bulk of the problem to fall on those few cities that are actually making an effort. San Francisco has moved over 6,000 into supportive housing and off the streets since 2013. In the meantime we have another 8,000 who have either moved here or been evicted for some reason. The exact numbers are disputed but most are either mentally ill or drug or alcohol addicted. We have a severe nationwide lack of treatment for the mentally ill.

    As a bipolar wealthy white man facing extreme difficulty getting treatment when I needed it, I can’t imagine what it is like for someone on the streets. It is only because my friend, who is a physician, referred me to someone, that I was able to get treatment. And it costs me $1000/mo out of pocket even though I have a tech job with good benefits.

    Any discussion of tech without talking about the demographics of the people moving here top work in tech is ignoring an important part of the discussion: over 70% are immigrants and most are Asian. Anti-tech backlash is fundamentally racist and anti-immigrant. The mostly white commentators who complain about tech never get this right.

    I agree that the solution, such as we can execute it, is to build more housing for the poor and middle class. And the wealthy too, as their inability to find housing leads to displacement and rising rents. And the only way to afford middle income and poor housing is to raise taxes on the wealthy, both new-found and old money, which San Francisco has in abundance.

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