Google Sets Example By Trying To Offset Perils Of SF Gentrification

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While San Francisco’s gentrification issues aren’t solely caused by the tech boom, the tech industry should aim to help the communities impacted by the influx of money and people it has brought to the city. Yesterday’s donation by Google is a great example of looking out for one’s neighbors.

Google has given $6.8 million to fund two years of the Free MUNI For Low-Income Youth program that provides SF kids free bus passes to get to school, after-school classes, and work.

Let’s be blunt. A lot of people in SF and the Bay Area are mad at the tech industry. They’ve seen rents and prices for local goods and services rise as more high-paid tech workers move in. The cushy commuter shuttle buses provided to SF employees by South Bay tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook have become a lightning rod for this angst. Protests have blocked them and shattered their windows.

But as I see it, tech didn’t cause this problem, but it exacerbated it. And that doesn’t mean it’s not responsible for fixing it.

Increasing rents stem from poor city planning and a mired bureaucracy. Though it was obvious that the tech industry was growing, the city didn’t build more apartments across the income spectrum. An average of just 1,500 new housing units have been built each year, while 75,000 new residents flocked to the city over the past decade. When there were movements to develop more residences, neighborhood associations would frequently block their construction, citing that taller buildings would ruin the skyline and city’s character. What they didn’t say was that by constraining the availability of housing, their own property values would increase.

Image Via Steve Rhodes

San Francisco shot itself in the foot (or the gut depending on how severe you see the problem) by failing to increase the number of places to live in the city limits. Other smaller cities in the Bay are compounding the problem by refusing the allow denser housing to be built near the tech giants’ campuses. Meanwhile, the regional transit system is unreliable, slow, and with inconvenient stops. Both push people to SF.

In the end, it’s the city governments and organizations that have caused the lack of housing supply. The only way to really alleviate the problems of gentrification is with better public policy.

But the tech industry delivered the demand that turned these issues into a housing crisis.

Tech companies settled in the Bay to take advantage of the venture capital and talent centered around Stanford and Berkeley. But an increase in consumer technologies and the fast-moving landscape led to a younger workforce willing to trade shorter commutes and more living space in the quiet South Bay suburbs for the culture, community, and nightlife of San Francisco.

In the tough fight for top talent, the tech giants began offering shuttle buses to recruit people who wanted to live in the city. This further increased the demand for housing in SF, and filled the city with people able to afford to pay more for everything. Low supply and high demand led to skyrocketing rents and costs for basic staples, especially in neighborhoods closer to the South Bay like the Mission, SOMA, and Noe Valley.

While those with tech salaries can endure the high prices, others in the city can’t. Long-time residents, service workers, and artists are feeling the squeeze of gentrification. The worry is that as they’re pushed out, the city could become a culturally soggy monoculture. Things got worse as greedy landlords took advantage of the Ellis Act to evict rent-controlled residents so they could jack up the prices for new tenants. Widely publicized incidents of gross intolerance and classism by certain technology workers combined with all these issues to create a general anger towards the entire industry. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Many of the tech giants and their executives are serious philanthropists. But often times, they’ve focused on data-driven giving where their dollar can have the most impact. That might mean fighting malaria or providing education and job opportunities overseas. Those are all big problems, but for the most part tech didn’t play a part in causing them. Meanwhile, Google, Apple, Facebook, and startups of all sizes are having a direct impact on the standard of living of the people who live next to their employees. Sure, they bring jobs and revenue to local businesses, but they also make things more expensive for locals.

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That’s why I believe tech companies and their teams should re-focus on what I call hyper-local giving, or philanthropy that benefits people in the immediate proximity of their employees and offices — the people they’re impacting. And that’s why I think Google’s support for Free MUNI For Low-Income Youth is an initiative that other companies should look to. It falls in line with community service projects undertaken by companies like Square and ZenDesk, and non-profits like HandUp and MissionBit.

By paying for free bus tickets for these kids to get to school and work, Google is helping them stay engaged with their education, support themselves, and gain the skills necessary for employment tomorrow. If a student can take the bus across town to attend an after-school program or internship, they’re more likely to discover their professional passion, become an expert in their field, and find a job that could afford them the freedom to live where they want.

It’s also a way for Google to compensate the city for allowing it to use public bus stops for its private shuttles. Unfortunately, law prohibits the city from just charging private companies a significant fee for this privilege, revenue that could fund other initiatives that offset gentrification. Instead, the city can only charge them enough to fund a program for…charging them for using the bus stops. The city can’t generate a surplus from these fees, so with the Bus Donation, Google’s just giving directly to other initiatives that need funding.

San Francisco residents are rightly frustrated that we don’t pay more to use city bus stops,” Google said in a statement. “So we’ll continue to work with the city on these fees, and in the meantime will fund MUNI passes for low-income students for the next two years.”

MissionBit

Will Google’s donation fix gentrification? No. And in fact, it really just addresses one of the symptoms rather than attacking the root. But it’s a step in the right direction and an example other tech companies could follow. Meanwhile, it’s good to see the Mayor’s office committing to getting more housing built.

Regardless of industry, the goal of all  San Franciscans should not be to assign blame for who caused problems, but to cooperate to find solutions. Big companies can make big hyper-local donations and organize service projects. And individual employees can donate too, volunteer for worthy causes, support independent local businesses, and try to be compassionate towards their fellow humans. The city’s a lot more fun when no one has to hang their heads.

[Additional reporting by Greg Ferenstein and Kim-Mai Cutler. Image credits: Robert McCall, Chris Martin, Steve Rhodes]