dirty rag

Economics - Survivors - from Boom to Bust - Sarah Town

The other night I had this crazy dream. In the background there were police in riot gear cordoning off the surging masses; you couldn't really hear what they were saying. Right smack dab in center foreground was a roller coaster. It was kind of a generic-looking roller coaster; maybe its hills were a little taller and steeper than usual. So like all these people in suits and nice clothes would get on the roller coaster holding scotches and martinis, chatting and making business plans. A minute or so later, they would get off at the other end, hair windblown and clothes slightly sweaty and wrinkled. But the weirdest thing was the scene at the end of the ride, which was swarming with press and official-looking people flashing photos, patting everyone on the back, and handing out shiny little trophies that read, "SURVIVOR."

According to the mainstream media, the story goes: First came the boom, then came the bust, then came the "survivors": the rugged individualists of entrepreneurial spirit who put their college degrees, personal connections, and millions of dollars in venture capital to good use, creating an industry that boomed and busted in the space of a few years.

But there is another side to this story: the dot-com boom trashed San Francisco. Throughout the city, long-term residents, community-serving local businesses, arts and cultural organizations, and even charter schools were displaced by skyrocketing rents and replaced by dot-coms with inflated budgets. San Francisco's Mission District, long an important Latino, immigrant, working class, and artists' community, was particularly hard-hit.

According to the San Francisco Rent Board, 1000 Mission District households were evicted from 1990 to 2000. The Rent Board's numbers do not include evictions that went unreported, such as legal or illegal evictions that went unchallenged; false owner-move-in evictions (OMIs), where the owners later changed their minds about occupying the units; and effective evictions through unchallenged legal or illegal rent increases. The drastic and permanent increase in market-rate rents made possible by these evictions has contributed to a severe loss in affordable housing in the neighborhood and the city.

The fact that 84 percent of neighborhood residents are renters contributed to the severe level of displacement of long-time residents by newly arrived owners. About half of the 1,000 registered evictions in the Mission District were through OMIs. Ellis Act evictions - where property owners remove their units from the rental market for ten years - increased dramatically in the late 1990s, from 61 to 881 units per year throughout the city of San Francisco. Many Ellis Act evictions were for conversions to condominiums - single housing units free from rent control. San Francisco's Planning Department reported that in 1999, while 854 units of affordable housing were lost under the Ellis Act alone, only 240 affordable units were built.

Community-serving non-profits, small businesses, and industrial jobs were also displaced by a disproportionate increase in commercial rents and conversions to office and live/work spaces or lofts in the city's Industrial Protection Zones (IPZs) - designated to protect lower-priced industrial land and local blue collar jobs. In a massive eviction in the heart of the Mission District, Bigstep.com displaced twenty-six non-profit tenants in the Bayview Bank building. The San Francisco Planning Commission allowed thousands of square feet of office space to be developed in the city's IPZs. Developers and realtors took advantage of city agencies' lax enforcement of zoning guidelines, using the live/work loophole to dodge affordable housing and childcare fees. Companies like Zephyr Realty then illegally converted live/work units to house cyber-businesses such as Zing.com and Sony's ImageStation.com.

The real survival story can be told by any low- to moderate-income tenant or community organization - the people who were here before the boom and who remain after the bust, who held on and fought for what they could and are now pulling together the scraps - vacant commercial spaces and luxury lofts where landlords are slowly, slowly letting go of exorbitant rent expectations - and rebuilding their community. The dot-com roller coaster for communities across the San Francisco Bay area and the country was not an entrepreneurial thrill, but only the latest crisis to real social and economic stability, growth, and sustainability.

In San Francisco's Mission District, community organizations pulled together and ran a campaign denouncing the mass displacement of community members and institutions in the name of free-ranging development and this latest economic craze. The San Francisco Day Laborer program, for example, compared their ten-year struggle for a building to house their program to the ease with which cyber-serving developers rolled right through zoning controls to slap up more and more unaffordable housing and now-empty office space. This work recently resulted in passing important interim zoning controls for the neighborhood that will limit any live/work, office and business services development and promote affordable housing and community spaces for the next twelve months. In the meantime, members of the Mission community will use this hard-won breathing room to implement a community planning process, establishing community priorities and long-term controls for development in the neighborhood - a direct and permanent counter to the capital-driven development that has trashed this neighborhood and others across the country.

With all the media's current fascination with "survivors," where are the real survivors? How about just a tiny corner of the public consciousness, a moment of reflection devoted to the entire communities that continue to struggle with the displacement of thousands of long-term residents - disproportionately elderly, disabled, and families with children - community-serving businesses, and community-based organizations in exchange for the latest ephemeral thrill of the moneyed, entrepreneurial, and now survivor class? In my book, they are the real survivors and the heroes of this story. If there is any stability and sustainability in our communities and our economy, we have them to thank.