The following op-ed was Published in New America Media on December 6, 2013.
Blaming ‘Techies’ for Housing Crisis Misses Bigger Picture
There’s no question that the tech boom is transforming San Francisco. It’s brought jobs and tremendous wealth to the area, but also harmful side effects: gentrification, rising housing prices, the loss of San Francisco’s quirky and edgy culture. On all of these fronts, it’s the new workforce of “techies” that have taken the bulk of the blame.
However, placing blame for the housing and eviction crisis solely on “techies” is an oversimplification, and counterproductive in solving the aforementioned problems. Sure, it’s understandable – theirs are the most visible faces of the tech boom – yet the people who work in tech are far from being the only forces at play here.
For example, many articles, tweets and comments bemoaning the influence of “techies” in the city rarely mention the real key players:
- Greedy landlords and real estate speculators that invoke the Ellis Act to clear out entire buildings at a time, in hopes of cashing in on the boom while giving nothing back to the community, when they could just as easily allow tenants to stay. Same with the lobbying groups they form, which have stymied every attempt to close the Ellis Act loopholes that allow them to do this.
- Silicon Valley’s upper echelon (not the lower-level tech workers we all love to rag on), which continues to amass huge amounts of wealth, without giving back to schools, or community based organizations. Could this whole crisis be deliberate and strategic, part of their neo-Randian vision of utopia? And if so, why are we blaming the rank-and-file workers, and not the decision makers?
-San Francisco’s city government - led by Mayor Ed Lee - which gives lavish tax breaks to tech companies (Twitter being the most prominent example), encouraging them to set up shop here instead of the South Bay.
- An education system that is doing a poor job of giving local young people in underrepresented communities the skills they need to participate in the boom. Only 45 African-American students in California took the AP Computer Science exam last year - and it’s not for a lack of effort, but rather, a lack of awareness. Many minority students don’t even know a STEM career is an option for them.
- Finally, the people who don’t work in tech, but end up moving to neighborhoods that are being gentrified, not because they necessarily want to, but because that’s all they can afford. Similarly, what do we make of San Francisco residents that move to the East Bay because the City has become too expensive, only to contribute to Oakland’s own gentrification? Are they part of the problem, too?
The point is, “techies” are an easy scapegoat because they’re highly visible and easily segmented as “the other.” But this frame really doesn’t help anyone: has all the finger pointing stemmed the rising tide of evictions?
We may also be unfairly typecasting tech workers, a good number of who are not necessarily looking to get rich, but rather want to get by, just like everyone else. So, even the motives at play are more varied and nuanced than some would like to believe.
Don’t get me wrong – the role of individual tech workers in the housing crisis should be examined, and this is a conversation the “techies” should absolutely be engaging in with their neighbors. And the people who are being displaced have every right to be angry - after losing your home, which you’ve had for years or even decades, who wouldn’t be?
But these very real challenges should not give us a pass from being tactful and reasonable when framing the conversation.
America experienced something similar during the anti-war protests of the Vietnam War. Instead of focusing on the overarching, macro forces that started and continued the war, some protesters turned on the veterans, who were spat on and called murderers.
Now, we know that it was wrong to direct our anger at them, instead of the presidents that started the war and the generals that gave them their orders. So why are we so quick to blame the tech workers for trying to earn a living through their skillset (exactly as society tells them to do), and not the key players in Silicon Valley and local government who actually fomented the eviction crisis?
The accusations and name-calling imply that the tech labor force is monolithic – but this is problematic in that it excludes tech workers who choose to be conscientious members of their community. Just like many soldiers returned from Vietnam to protest the war, there are tech workers who try to make their communities a better place. Think about the volunteer mentors who teach minority youth how to code: I’d venture a guess that they didn’t go into tech with the intention of pricing immigrant families out of their neighborhood.
That being said, a common complaint about “techies” is that they come off as arrogant, entitled, and oblivious to a community’s history, cultures and personality. There is certainly some truth to this, and the “techies” could be doing much more to demonstrate that they are aware of this narrative, and actually care to counterbalance it.
However, respect is a two-way street. If we are to expect the “techies” to respect their neighborhoods, and all the culture and history that is wrapped up in them, they need to be met halfway, and not subjected to vitriolic rhetoric or derisive labels that are too often directed at them.