Tech is both our scapegoat and savior

Two steps forward

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The shining city across the bay is known for its amazing technological feats — brilliant men and women in very tall buildings cranking out apps and gadgets to make our lives more futuristic. As Silicon Valley’s satellite campus, San Francisco has become synonymous with startups and tech culture. And it’s growing fast.

According to the Examiner’s recent look at San Francisco’s population and housing market between 2000 and 2010, the city gained almost 30,000 inhabitants in that decade. The 2020 census will likely show far more growth than that. Unemployment has been hacked in half, dropping from 10.1 percent to 4.8 percent, but this comes at a (literal) price: The cost of housing is higher than in any other American city, at a median of $3200 per month — though that varies greatly from district to district. Unemployment has fallen due both to job creation and rent exclusion: Either you get a high-paying job, or you go live somewhere else that you can afford.

My initial impression upon learning these facts was that the tech boom is the singular cause of the city’s skyrocketing prices. But as it turns out, this is not the case. A Time Magazine article from February explores this assumption, coming to the conclusion that tech is not, in fact, solely responsible for San Francisco’s ridiculous costs. Instead, the problem lies with the city itself. Unreliable infrastructure, underdeveloped public transportation and a lack of new construction are the real issues, and those — far from being compromised by the tech industry — stand to be greatly improved by technological advances.

Right now, San Francisco has a reputation as a playground for the rich. Good food, beautiful views and expensive boutiques all contribute to the idea of a metropolis inhabited by the nouveau-riche, used for their own pleasure — practically with a sign on the door that reads, “Millionaires Only.” But that doesn’t have to be the way things are. The tech industry has done some amazing things for the underprivileged: Apps like Link-SF aim to connect the homeless to available food and shelter, while Project REACH is encouraging innovation for the economically disadvantaged. Larger companies are lending a hand as well — for instance, Twitter has pledged almost $400,000 to benefit the Tenderloin district. Yammer and Zendesk have each pledged $50,000.

Another example of a beneficial startup is Uber. San Francisco’s taxi cab service is floundering, and cabs are known to avoid low-income areas for fear of missing out on fares or being robbed. Uber has come to the rescue, providing convenient public transportation to the large and growing percentage of Americans with smartphones. The Wall Street Journal provided statistics, through some good old investigative journalism, showing that in all major cities except New York — which has the best public transportation in the world — apps like Uber and Sidecar are both cheaper and faster than cabs. So while Uber might seem like a rich man’s luxury, it is in fact a democratizing force in San Francisco’s subpar taxi-conomy.

The question, then, is whether the aforementioned brilliant men and women in their very tall buildings can turn their minds to fixing the city’s other problems. Housing, perhaps the most serious of the city’s money-related problems, is approaching a breaking point. In this case, the tech industry is doing more harm than good. Airbnb, renowned for its convenience for tourists and renters alike, is quietly circumventing stringent rent control and other tenant-protection laws by allowing the rich to rent their homes to the rich while on vacation, rather than putting them on the market where they could house people in need.

This is an area where the tech industry has to use its immense power to change things for the better. The city’s gentrification is not entirely tech’s fault, but it would be cruel to ignore the housing crisis partly caused by the influx of wealthy entrepreneurs and investors. We must attempt to connect the often ephemeral tech sphere with the concrete housing market. Companies like TaskRabbit may be part of the solution, allowing people to work for competitive prices often far above minimum wage, but making a large poor population a little bit richer doesn’t help them get into nonexistent apartments. The fact is that right now, there just aren’t enough houses in the city. Short of banning Airbnb and its kind — which some are trying to do — the answers aren’t easy ones. Perhaps affordable-housing skyscrapers are the solution, or perhaps an expanded public transportation network leading to and from less expensive suburbs. Regardless, something has to change, and the tech industry is poised to help.

Going forward, this is the way we have to think if we don’t want San Francisco to become a gated community for the hyper-rich. The tech industry has so much potential to better the quality of life for everyone — so let’s use it.

Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.