San Francisco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, boasting attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and Pier 39. Many people consider San Francisco a great place to live, as well, with its mild climate and brimming cultural diversification.
Ever since the tech boom, however, housing prices have been going nowhere but up. Many of tech’s biggest names are located in the city itself or the surrounding Bay Area, such as Twitter, Uber, Adobe and Facebook. Many people want to work for these tech companies, which provide generous salaries and benefits, driving up the cost of living in the area. 63% of houses in the city are valued at over $1 million, which prices out all but the wealthy.
As a Bay Area resident myself for more than 20 years, I noticed a surge of migration away from San Francisco and the Bay Area as more tech companies have taken up residency here. This raises an important question: have tech companies made living in San Francisco better or worse?
Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, also noticed the exodus of those who were displaced by the tech boom. “I started noticing how everyone I knew was leaving. Growing up, a lot of my friends were musicians and artists, and I know a lot of people who are filmmakers. Those people couldn’t afford to stay in the city, and I started to hear them complain about getting pushed out of San Francisco. I thought it just sounded like whining,” she said.
However, former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley) began to change Pelosi’s mind. “Then I went to see Robert Reich give a speech at Berkeley, and he talked about how, for democracy and capitalism to work, we have to have rules, and they have to be fair so that people can live together in a society,” she continued.
Pelosi’s new documentary, San Francisco 2.0, explains how San Francisco is becoming a city of haves and have nots as a result of the tech boom. The Brookings Institution states that San Francisco ranked second in income inequality across the country. Tech companies have taken notice of their displacement of non-tech workers in the city and have been scrambling to right the ship in terms of public relations. “The big tech companies obviously know that they have a PR problem because they’re hiring some of the best political PR people in the business,” Pelosi said.
While many pre-tech boom residents believe that tech has divided the city, several members in the tech industry are giving back. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has invested in San Francisco public schools and hospitals. “It’s great to write a check,” Benioff said. “But money alone doesn’t help schools. What helps schools is all of us embracing our schools, our school board and our great superintendent,” he said at an August event at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco. Benioff contributed $6 million to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to educate children in computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula. However, Benioff’s donation is just a small percentage of the 2015-16 SFUSD budget.
While tech companies are being blamed for San Francisco’s current state of affairs, they can also be the solution. CEOs of these companies should focus on helping make the city livable again for its other residents so that the city’s economy doesn’t become heavily shifted in favor of tech companies. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has offered incentives for tech companies to move to the city and create jobs in the form of tax breaks. The incentive, called the “Twitter tax break,” has created 42,500 jobs and reduced unemployment to 5.2% in just two years while revitalizing the Tenderloin, which is generally seen as a poorer part of town.
Pelosi said that there is both good and bad that comes with the current tech boom. “We’re happy that jobs are in San Francisco. Cities have to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant. We all sleep with our iPhones at night, and we’re all addicted to everything the tech companies are making for us, and we’re grateful,” she said. “But at the same time, there is a dark side of gentrification. There is a dark side to all this disruption.”
While the answer to whether tech companies have made San Francisco better or worse is still hotly debated, Pelosi does pose some more thought-provoking questions in her documentary. “There’s something deeper going on here about how people co-exist and the social compact. Is there a safety net? Should there be a safety net? Should cities just be for rich people, or should we try and find a way to make it possible for the middle class to be able to stay in the city? And the teachers and the firefighters and the lower-income families? Shouldn’t we make it so they can? That’s the type of conversation I want to have,” she said, encouraging San Francisco residents to raise questions and concerns about their city so that tech companies can be aware and work with city residents to make the situation better for both parties.