High Rents, Eroding Communities

Residents of San Francisco spend an average of 46% of their income on rent, making the City the second most expensive place to live in the nation after Manhattan. Oakland residents clock in at 36%, with a rental cost increase of almost 4% since January of last year. Both cities are rapidly becoming more expensive to live and it’s a particularly acute problem in Oakland, which has suddenly become extremely trendy for a variety of reasons, forcing rents up very rapidly and changing the landscape of the East Bay in a way that bodes ill for the area’s long-time residents as well as its history and future.

The Bay Area has always been an expensive place to live, and during the earlier tech bubble, rents in the City became quite absurd. Now they’re rising again, as high earners move into the City and commute down the Peninsula to work — or settle in at companies with headquarters downtown or in SoMa. Consequently, low-income people in the area are having trouble finding places to live, and a gaping class divide is getting even bigger.

There’s a reason the private buses run by tech companies have become such a symbol of class struggle, and why Google Glass is being banned from some bars because owners are concerned about fights and simple theft. San Francisco’s working and lower classes are getting frustrated, and angry, and rightly so, seeing a techocracy taking over the City, running roughshod over it, and refusing to acknowledge the high cost of its domination. First it was the Mission that was being flooded with hipsters, trust fund babies, and tech kids, and now they’re spreading everywhere — to SoMa, to the Outer Sunset, to anywhere they can reach within San Francisco County, and it’s causing rents to skyrocket as landlords take advantage of the hot competition for rentals.

More and more evictions are happening to make way for high rises, fancy apartments, and new corporate headquarters. Landlords are breaking even more laws that ever before, especially with low-income tenants. I see more and more rentals listed as ‘highest bidder,’ with landlords forcing tenants to compete for not just luxury apartments and houses, but also more modest places. Across the Bay in Oakland, a similar issue is happening, with prices climbing and climbing and pushing people out — the area around Lake Merritt, for example, used to be a slightly sketchy (in white people terms) neighbourhood with cheap rents, and now it’s becoming a pricey enclave of hipsters.

Oakland has become the refuge of people who can’t live in San Francisco, but it’s also the new hipster paradise. They’re in Temescal, they’re around Lake Merritt, they’re taking poverty tourism trips to Fruitvale. They’re there because Oakland is cheaper, and it’s viewed as more rough and gritty and ‘authentic,’ whatever that means, and they’re there to gentrify, with their farmers’ markets and boutiques and organic grocery stores. Close on their heels are coming rising property values, increasing rents, and growing pressure on people who’ve been living in Oakland for generations — or simply since before it was cool — to utterly change their ways of life.

White people hire private police forces because they’re afraid to live in their ‘cute’ Oakland neighbourhoods. They push to have local businesses shut down because they don’t like noise, or the way they smell, or the kind of people who frequent them. In the name of ‘improvement,’ they radically change their communities…but don’t actually engage in them, meet the people they live with, or try to understand that they are moving into settled communities with their own culture and their own histories. Hipsters want to forge a ‘new’ and ‘authentic’ history, and they refuse to acknowledge that there is already a history.

Oakland has long been a city rich in people of colour, with a lively, vibrant immigrant community as well as one of more established communities of colour. It’s long been heavily Black. It’s long been heavily low-income. This history is being erased and overridden by white people who want to create their own identities and a sterile version of Oakland where they feel safe, comfortable, and progressive. Meanwhile, Oakland’s former residents are being pushed into tighter and tighter spaces, or they’re being forced to flee the city altogether because they can’t afford to live there anymore.

Even with rent control, even with community activists pushing back, Oakland is still shifting. Lots of people say it’s ‘for the better,’ and lots of those people are white, coming from privileged backgrounds, and unfamiliar with Oakland’s rich history and culture. At what point do people colonising historic neighbourhoods and pushing people out stop to listen to community activists and people who know Oakland intimately? At what point do they question their own actions and start evaluating ways they can engage with and slip into communities, rather than eviscerating them?

These are questions that people eager to jump on the Oakland boat need to be asking themselves as the city’s rents climb and its culture is forcibly shifted. Oakland stands to lose a great deal in the next five years — it’s already lost a great deal in the last five — and that’s on the people who refused to acknowledge Oakland as its own independent entity when they moved in, instead insisting on making Oakland into some idealised version of a hipster city built for them. As rents climb in both cities on the Bay, as class rage mounts, people need to be aware that oppression rarely ends well for the oppressor.

Photo: San Francisco Bay Bridge, Spiros Vathis, Flickr