People who recently moved here wonder why there’s so much anger. Please take a moment and listen

Why are tenants angry? Let us count the ways
Why are tenants angry? Let us count the ways

By Tim Redmond

APRIL 2, 2015 — I am getting really sick of the San Francisco narrative that I keep hearing, mostly recently in something called UpOut. It’s a radically naïve analysis of what’s going on in the city, and it goes like this:

Gee, we aren’t enemies here. Some of us are richer and just got here, and some of us are part of its “traditions and unique culture,” and if we just stopped with the name calling and all held hands in a love circle, we could work this out. Really, we could. Please? Over a bottomless mimosa? Or a flat white?

Or maybe we could  meet at a “unique” Mexican restaurant on 24th, where there are still a few left. Wouldn’t that be nice? Text me a date and time.

Not to be an old curmudgeon but: I wish it were that easy. It’s not.

What is going on in San Francisco today is a microcosm of the battle for the future of urban America. It’s a class struggle, writ large: For the current residents to survive, for the city to maintain a middle class and a working class, the interests of the landlords and the speculators must be acknowledged, confronted, and defeated.

I don’t know how else to say it to the newcomers: You have moved into a city at war. People who have lived here a long time are in a constant state of intense stress over the possible, sometimes very real, loss of their homes – and it’s not a bit surprising when that stress boils over into anger.

As long as the evictions continue, there is no visible truce at hand. I’m not sure at this point that peace is even possible.

Please understand: If you moved to San Francisco in the past 24 months, and you live in an apartment or a TIC, theres a decent chance that someone was forced out to make room for you. Maybe not; there is turnover in any city. People give up apartments, sell condos, move out voluntarily. I hope you refused to move into any place cleared by eviction. I hope and want to believe that you support tenant rights and don’t want to see the evictions either.

But many of the apartments on the market in the city today had prior residents who were driven out – by the Ellis Act, but landlord harassment, by bogus evictions they didn’t know how to fight, or with buyouts that seemed a better option and fighting a hard battle against an eviction.

Many of the new restaurants and hip cafes that serve the tech workers took the place of much-loved local businesses forced out by higher rents.

That’s not your fault – you didn’t evict anyone. You are getting exploited by insane rents and housing costs just like everyone else. (Although you really should find out who lived there before you and why the unit was vacant.) But you should understand that the anger you are complaining about is not random, is not some kind of anti-tech sentiment. It’s a response to intolerable conditions that have been created by policymakers who decided that bringing in high-paying tech jobs was more important than protecting existing “unique culture.”

I don’t want to argue again about whether we can build enough housing to make the difference. But there’s something we can all agree on, something that cannot be denied:

San Francisco – and Cupertino and Mountainview and other cities – went out of their way to attract companies that would be importing tens of thousands of new workers from other parts of the country – without FIRST making sure there was enough housing for them. It was an epic failure of urban planning.

Mayor Ed Lee says — now — that we need to build 30,000 more housing units. He didn’t say that before the Twitter tax break started the local tech boom. He didn’t say: We’ll offer tax breaks for tech companies, just as soon as we can build enough housing for their workforce (oh, and by the way, the commercial landlords getting rich of these tech leases ought to be forced to pay the money to do that.)

No: He created the crisis, and now is scrambling (too late) to solve it.

At this point, it’s not enough to say we need to build more housing. First, you have to protect existing communities. You think someone who has lived peacefully in a neighborhood he or she loves and helped build for 20 or 30 years who now faces eviction isn’t going to be mad about it? You think we can all just get along when that’s going on every single day?

It’s easy to blame “Nimbys” for not allowing enough new housing (although the Left in this city has been demanding more housing for 30 years. It’s the developers who for years refused to build it, since office space was more lucrative.) But the real winners are the landlords and speculators, who just love this crisis. They are the equivalent of storekeepers charging $50 for a bottle of water after an earthquake. And when we tolerate them, we empower them.

This is not about you and whether you got called out in a bar. It’s not about you at all. It’s about economic power, and economic power never gives up without a fight.

In some areas, the housing crisis has created the worse kind of class struggle, the slightly better off against the slightly less well off: A couple with decent jobs (but not riches) who just want a stable place to raise their kids buys a TIC – and in the process, a couple with slightly less lucrative jobs who can’t quite raise the cash to compete (who, by the way, were maybe here for 20 years and might have a family of their own) are forced out.

The only real winner, or course, is the speculator who bought, cleared, and flipped the building. He screwed everyone – the TIC owners paid far too much for their modest flat, the longtime tenants found their lives ruined, the community was damaged … and he took a million bucks to the bank.

We can work together to stop this, but not by pretending it’s easy. You can join the tenant and housing activists who are trying to address the crisis. But you have to understand that we can only solve the problem by strict regulation (which will, by definition, favor existing residents and make it harder for others to move here), building housing for the existing workforce (which the private market can’t and won’t do right now) — and by taking on the Bad Guys who are at the heart of the destruction of the city.

See, all this talk of “coming together” never acknowledges that anything is anyone’s fault. It’s all some mysterious force, like Gamma Rays or the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith, that created the housing crisis.

Wrong. There are powerful political players who decided that San Francisco should be a tech hub, with enormous profits to landlords and real-estate speculators, and there are powerful players fighting every day to make sure nothing changes.

They don’t want consensus; they don’t compromise. But they do exceptionally well, and they have created a wonderful support system for their greed by suggesting that we stop calling names and just pretend there are no winners and losers. And that maybe we can build our way out of the problem — because that way nobody who is currently milking the system has to give up a penny.

The United States is facing an enormous crisis of economic inequality. Even the Republicans are starting to admit that. San Francisco is Ground Zero – and a lot or longtime residents are demanding that justice and a sustainable economy requires the 1 percent to give up some of its wealth. The landlords and speculators making a killing evicting tenants won’t accept that by playing nice; rules that limit their ability to get rich by throwing longterm tenants onto the street has to be forced on them. This kind of politics isn’t always pretty – and all the talk at City Hall of “consensus” just ignores the reality on the ground.

You who are writing these open letters are not the enemy – but you are caught in the crossfire. And at some point, you’re going to have to take a side.