Barroom backchannel

Can tech workers and progressive activists cooperate in the fight against displacement? Maybe, but don't tell their bosses.


Amid the political turmoil in the city around evictions of longtime San Franciscans, tech workers and progressive political activists are beginning to come together to brainstorm ways to address displacement.

Tech workers have started to attend meetings meant to spark conversation between the two opposing groups, hosted by local restaurant Casa Sanchez. Those interviewed by hyperlocal website Mission Local described the dinners as "heavy and charged," with blame for the housing crisis pointing to all sides.

Last week, Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour was the latest opportunity for the two communities to come together and talk. But can tech workers become effective partners in the search for solutions to the affordable housing crisis? The happy hour was promising, but it exposed some of the obstacles.

The happy hour was partially organized by a politician running for office (Sup. David Campos, who is now running for the California Assembly), but was mostly the brainchild of two unlikely allies: SEIU labor representative Gus Feldman and Rolla Selbak, an employee at a multinational tech giant that she asked us not to name.

And therein lies one of the challenges: Will the well-paid tech workers be willing to rise up and challenge the corporate and capitalist interests that have overheated the local economy and fed the displacement crisis, the very forces that have allowed them to afford skyrocketing local rents?



Virgil's Sea Room was an apt choice for the happy hour. Five months ago and just a few blocks away on 24th Street, hundreds marched in the "Our Mission No Eviction" protest, where 71-year-old Mission muralist Rene Yanez told a tale of an artistic, vibrant Mission District in danger of losing its Latino population and its character.

The night was a mostly positive exercise in bridge-building, though it started under a blanket of tension. Activists spoke of the housing crisis at a microphone to an audience of nearly 200 tech workers and activists. Sparks flew and some left early, unhappy with what they called "activist lecturing."

But as the empty beer cans grew in number, many tech workers came up to the microphone, and even more still mingled with the housing activists in the crowd. Riders of corporate buses figuratively (and maybe literally) clinked glasses with Erin McElroy, one of the leaders in the Heart of the City protests that have blockaded Google buses.

Yet most tech workers didn't want to come out of the closet and identify with this nascent movement. Seeing a reporter with a notepad in hand, they shrank away. Those that did speak identified themselves in hushed tones accompanied by furtive glances. One man who identified himself as a tech worker laid down some rockin' slam poetry at the microphone. When we told him we tweeted his performance, the tall, broad-shouldered techie flew into a panic.

"Please, please, please, you have to delete it. They can't know I was here," he told the Guardian, with panic in his eyes and sweat dripping down his forehead. He wasn't alone in his worry.


activists in their vision of the city never changing. Techies are less than 10% of the city population. It's a non issue.

Oh, and there were just two Ellis evictions in January. What crisis?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 04, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

Yes, the focus on Ellis Act is obviously a distraction. Local politicians rally behind it because they know it's going nowhere in the State Legislature (even more so now that the Dems have lost their super-majority).

Posted by Guest on Mar. 04, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

Dude it rained last week - what drought?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 05, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

In the 30 years that Ellis has been around, it has affected less than 1% of SF's housing stock. Far, far more tenants have lost their homes for not paying the rent.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 6:52 am

A building doesn't get Ellis'ed because somebody buys it. It gets Ellis'ed because the numbers don't add up and it cannot be sustained as a business.

On that basis, it really doesn't matter who Ellis'es it. The building is doomed because the rents barely cover the costs.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 04, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

Gee, that's funny. I got Ellis Act evicted in 2004 when my landlord sold the building to a speculator. It'll be back on the market this year and the owners will earn enough in the first year to recover any loss from it being of the market for 10 years. But I guess you know better...

Posted by Guest on Mar. 05, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

Truly sorry you got Ellis'd.

The new owners aren't recovering from a loss because they never took one. The PREVIOUS owner was the one taking a loss. That is most likely why he sold the building to begin with. Small property owners are being squeezed out of the business because it's not worth all the hassle and work to operate a rental property in San Francisco. The truth is, no one is going to take a loss on their money so that someone else can have cheap rent. We should reform rent control in order to make it a more feasible and realistic housing plan. Small-time landlords are, by and large, very decent and caring people, but, given a choice between perennially losing money and getting out of the business through Ellis, they're going to choose Ellis.

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Posted by stay lyrics on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

appropriate rent and the owners got sick of subsidizing a freeloader.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 6:53 am

and residents who are facing displacement or have been displaced is fine. Invite the press and politicians and you have a public relations event rather than a constructive discussion, which could take place outside the spotlight.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 04, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

while the "usual suspect" activists went on a whinefest. As professionals, I gather they were privately appalled at the immature behavior of the activists who showed little respect for anyone who doesn't share their views.

The irony. San Francisco values, tolerance and respect for diversity being shown by the tech workers but not by the progressives.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 04, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

many of the younger tech types fall for the progresso speak.

A studies grad blabbering out non sense is often considered deep thinking by tech types, its all part of the college experience to not laugh at frothing outraged people.

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Posted by on Jun. 15, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

Golly! The tech workers are just so smart, patient, and tolerant.

There's a tech fix for everything!

Oh, and so perfectly dismissive with the ongoing arguments about whining and "usual suspect activists".

Activism is a traditional San Francisco value, as is whining.

Get over yourselves techies! You're not that intelligent, and you certainly lack perspective!

Any of us who have lived in SF for more than a decade have had to put up with the all-activism all-the-time subset. I'll take them over rude, self absorbed, and entitled techie-types any day.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 05, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

It was the "usual suspect" activists, who apparently cannot engage in a debate without being unpleasant.

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Posted by Joe Fitzgerald on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

Interesting that you mention how it would be better if bigger people in the tech sector would come out for progressive causes. Made me think about how Seattle has Nick Hanauer who's calling for a $15 minimum wage... AND a Burner!

Meanwhile San Francisco is stuck with Ed Lee's techno-Rasputin Ron Conway. Yuck.

But really, we need to get out of this mindset of waiting for the largesse of the modern day aristocracy, and empower ourselves. That's why Seattle's Weekly, The Stranger, while praising Hanauer for being an ally in this particular fight, also called out the mainstream press for appointing him as some sort of "leader," correctly pointing out that leadership on the issue is coming from the grass roots.

And that brings me to the larger issues.

It shows just how insane things have become, when tech workers themselves are feeling the pressure of the housing crisis. Granted, not all tech workers are making 6 digits. But even those who are, still aren't immune. Billionaires are making money building cages for millionaires, and the rest of the city is being squeezed out entirely. And if you're one of those tech workers making $150,000, and you just bought one of those cages and now you're spending half your after-tax income on house payments, you're nothing but a highly paid wage slave. You're not a homeowner. You're a bank owe-r. You're beholden to the bank and to your boss, because if you say the wrong thing and you get fired, you're SCREWED. If you don't like the concentration of wealth in society, too bad. Not that you'll have too much time for political participation anyway, because you're too busy working 70-hour weeks, and your $900,000 condo is your own private 800 square foot prison cell, owned by a private prison corporation known as your bank.

Not a healthy state of affairs for any democracy. In fact, I would argue that it's NOT a democracy, when people cannot fully participate in the public sphere when they have to look over their shoulder to make sure their overlords aren't displeased.

These people may be the immediate instruments of gentrification, but ultimately they are not the enemy. Really, anyone who makes their living doing actual work, shouldn't be thought of as the enemy. Even if they act like it sometimes. Yes, many of them adopt the mentality of their bosses, but so do a lot of lower caste workers. It's a misguided sentiment. Ultimately they're just trying to keep up with the rat race, thinking they can win the rigged game. And some of them do. A few win the IPO lottery in the grand pyramid scheme of the stock market. But ultimately, the game is not rigged for the likes of even these high-end wage slaves.

It's rigged for the .001%, and that's who we need to focus our rage against. If we really believe in democracy, then the truly progressive thing would be to extend the concept of democratic rights to the place where ordinary people spend most of their waking day: the workplace. If we can ever manage that, we'll solve a lot of problems including the housing crisis.

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Posted by rencontre libertine on Jun. 11, 2014 @ 10:50 am

We voted for Lee and, before that Newsom, Brown and Jordan. so clearly the voters of this city want things like growth, development, tech jobs, new condos and prosperity.

Just because some people lack the ability to fully benefit from the new economy doesn't mean that we should freeze the city in time like some loser-hippie theme park.

You're correct that techies aren't the problem. But neither are the people who create jobs, success and prosperity here.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 6:58 am

I'm still shocked that every time I read one of these articles nobody talks about the fact that if the peninsula wasn't a low-housing-density suburban cultural wasteland with no appeal to anyone with an interest in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, SF might be less plagued by real estate speculation and the accompanying displacement of long time residents.

A good portion of the blame should live with the urban planning powers that be (and yes, the Googles, Apples, and Facebooks) for not pushing for denser downtowns in the Valley—places with something besides the Cheesecake Factory as a dinner option, y'know?

Low-density single family homes carpeting the Peninsula coupled with SF's byzantine, NIMBY-infested planning process and a constant influx of new residents means (surprise, surprise) that housing prices for purchase or rental only have one way to go. Welcome to Bloomberg's Manhattan, kids.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

500,000 people commute into SF every day, proving that SF has too little housing and the burbs have too much

Posted by Guest on Mar. 06, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

I am a techie. I work for a company you have heard of and that some people have disparaged.

I came to the city for other reasons, before things went crazy. I have lived in the same place the whole time. When I came here to try to start a startup, it wasn't impossible to find housing. It WAS impossible for me to get health insurance. I took a job for the insurance, which my partner and I need.

Since coming to the city i have been assaulted for SFPD for defending homeless kids in the Castro. I have been threatened with arrest for photographing the police harassing them. I have also fed a lot of hungry people and will continue to do so. When I walk to my gym that has become overloaded with dot com people who are there in pairs with their per-hour trainers, I take $5 in my pocket to buy food if anyone asks me along the way. I am engaged now with a couple of different groups who are trying to stop the destruction of the city, the subversive back-channel torture of homeless youth and mentally ill adults on the streets, the starvation we see in our front yards, and the uncaring that pervades what once was a city that apparently somehow managed to make it all work despite the carnival of humanity that it attracts.

Please don't hate on me too much. The job gives me health care, rent money, additional money that i can use to help people who need help right in my neighborhood. I don't own a car. I don't own jewelry or expensive clothes. I buy everything I can from local merchants. I feed hungry people. And I assure you that I am NOT the only person in tech doing these things... far from it.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

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