Tech Support: How the SF Housing Crisis Goes Beyond Google

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Metonymy is when one refers to something not as itself, but as the place where it resides. Think: “Hollywood” instead of the film industry, or “Wall Street” as the placeholder for the American stock exchange. It comes up a lot in journalism. Reporters will discuss new actions taken by “the White House” rather than saying “the executive branch of the American Government”. “The Kremlin responded aggressively to criticism in Washington,” for example. When it comes to tech, we have Silicon Valley, but it gets more specific depending on the company. Apple Inc. is in Cupertino, Microsoft hails from Redmond, and Facebook set up shop in Menlo Park. Tech bloggers will often use all three when referring to each.

Mountain View is the metonym for Google, and it’s one that comes up a lot; particularly in the San Francisco area where stories focusing on the out of control housing crisis regularly name drop Google as a major antagonist. There’s a lot of truth to those arguments. The tech industry carries a brunt of the blame for the lack of affordable housing in and around SF. For its role, the problem is definitely Mountain View’s fault. But it’s not Google’s.

Let’s take a look at the crux of the issue. The housing costs in the Bay Area are astronomical, and the explosion of the tech industry did indeed coincide with a major jump. Google’s infamous shuttles which ferry employees back and forth from the Googleplex to SF neighborhoods became a symbol of anger directed toward gentrification, rising property values, and the occurrence of longtime residents getting priced out of their neighborhoods. Yet the housing issue is complex, and it’s one that began far before Google set up shop, or before the idea of a smartphone could have ever been anything more than science fiction.  

The heart of San Francisco’s housing dilemma is one of supply and demand. With a relatively limited amount of square footage available for housing development, as the population boomed so too did housing costs. However, contrary to the popular perception, this boom predated the arrival of the tech giants. One of modern San Francisco’s most significant booms occurred in the 50s, and many of the housing policies set in place at the time would make sustaining demand all but impossible.

These policies centered around zoning laws which prevented the development of higher density buildings like apartment complexes in favor of more modest structures and single family homes. Neighborhood organizers and leaders often opposed development to both preserve the city’s quaint appeal while attempting to protect existing residents from being displaced. Ironically, these efforts helped exasperate a future housing crisis, and would do a disservice to the residents it was trying to protect due to skyrocketing real estate values. By the arrival of tech, residents were already struggling to afford to live in their neighborhoods.

These issues are in no way unique to San Francisco and, by the 90s, had spread to the Bay Area at large. Nearby locations like Oakland and suburbs like Lafayette were already feeling the squeeze from residents wanting to leave the high prices of the San Francisco urban area behind in favor of nearby commuter cities. When the startups came it certainly didn’t help the issue, but they were issues that were already in motion.

Today, Bay Area residents view big tech as one of the biggest threats to fair housing policies, and a symbol of gentrification because well paid employees from the likes of Google have flooded the city. These workers purchase and rent the homes that locals can’t afford which contributes the transformation of neighborhoods leaving many long time San Franciscans feeling like they have no place in their changing city. Though these frustrations are understandable, companies like Google play a much more nuanced role than what is popularly believed.

First and foremost, the economic benefits to local economies due to tech companies like Google simply cannot be understated. Cities rely on big businesses to come to town, and go through great lengths to attract them in the first place. Like many major American cities, San Francisco’s population and economy were in decline during the deindustrialization of the 70s and 80s. The 90s and the advent of Silicon Valley saw a reversal of those fortunes.

Secondly, any desirable location with a surging economy will see higher housing prices. Property values are a direct reflection of desirability after all, and no one can fault tech for helping the Bay area become a more desirable destination for well qualified workers. Without a doubt, if Google or any of the other local tech giants threatened to leave, the city of San Francisco would be the first to rally to stop them.

It certainly begs the question that, if the Bay Area needs tech, then why all the hate? What role does Mountain View play in gentrification beyond simply being a successful business, and what policies are they responsible for that worsen the issue. Thankfully the answer is a simple: none.

Private companies like Google do not set housing policies. While Google can be blamed for both rising population and property values, the lack of housing is not Mountain View’s doing. In fact, a lack of housing options doesn’t help Google’s business, it hinders it. The search giant wants its employees to have places to live as much as it wants the cost of housing to be low to help attract workers to their company. Google has long been in favor of increased housing development and higher density zoning to support multi unit apartment complexes. It’s Mountain View – not Google’s metonymy, but the city itself – that gets in the way.

Mountain View, like many suburbs in the Bay Area, is highly resistant to zoning for anything other than single family homes; homes that aren’t feasible or affordable to young professionals or low income families. There are several reasons for this. Some are economic and aesthetic—a development of houses at a million dollars a piece is far more lucrative for developers than an apartment building. Other factors may be discriminatory or racist with movements like Sue the Suburbs stepping up to put pressure municipalities for utilizing what they claim to be exclusionary tactics against low income residents.
Whatever the causes behind the housing crisis may be, the fact remains that the Bay Area’s woes are a direct result of a lack of units. The success of the tech industry may be a double edged sword for local neighborhoods, and gentrification is a complex issue, but supply and demand is not. More units is the answer, and Silicon Valley isn’t the problem. And while putting pressure on Google might not change anything, placing Mountain View in the crosshairs certainly might.