Tech workers often have a complicated relationship to place. Many of us long left our hometowns for school and work, and the ease of remote has also enabled the rise of “digital nomadism”: hopping from city to city, but never staying for long. This geographic transience can make it difficult to connect with the places we live. In conversation, I often hear — and have been guilty of — cities collapsed to a set of feature sets like cheap rent, good jobs, or tasty food. We compare neighborhoods like laptop models, forgetting that we can be agents of change in our communities, not just passive consumers.
In today’s guest essay, Reboot fellow and Stanford CS student Michelle Gan makes the case for tech workers to contribute to their communities by learning and fighting gentrification, from product design to civic participation.
A preface from Michelle: This essay intends to address specific steps that can be taken by tech workers who are concerned about their impact on accelerating gentrification in their communities. It does not cover all factors driving gentrification in the Bay Area, including exclusionary zoning and housing policies which primarily benefit wealthy landowners, like Prop 13.
taking and making space in san francisco
By Michelle Gan
The Muni makes its slow crawl across Mission Street. It passes a combination of taquerias and mom-and-pop shops, weaves by a man selling relish-topped sausages on the corner of 24th Street, and comes to a stop. Just a few blocks over, a man outfitted with a tight Lycra top and shorts bikes to Ritual Coffee on the way back from his morning ride. The sunrise dances on sleepy Valencia Street — the 9-to-5 workday hasn’t started yet.
Both located in the Mission District in San Francisco, Mission Street and Valencia Street are two sides of the same coin. Historically a working class neighborhood home to Latinx communities, the Mission has been chosen by many tech workers as a trendy, cultural backdrop for their day jobs. From 2000 to 2013, the Mission’s Latinx population decreased from 60 to 48 percent of the neighborhood’s total population, fueling a loss of culture, community, and neighborhood diversity.
On Valencia Street, once popular spots were replaced by luxury bike stores and restaurants marked by their minimalistic menus, high prices, and long weekend lines (think Tacolicious and Craftsman & Wolves). In an interview describing Valencia Street in the late 1990s, long-term resident Kristi laments these changes, predicting, “Soon, all you'll be able to do here is eat. Valencia is like a Xerox machine for businesses. You put one in that seems to work and three more pop out."
Gentrification in the Mission reflects broader demographic trends in the Bay Area. The tech booms of the late 1990s and 2010s saw the migration of affluent, often white and male, tech workers into San Francisco. This didn’t come without a price. Big Tech-sponsored private shuttle buses made it even easier for suburban tech workers to live in the city while fueling evictions and rising rent prices near shuttle stops. During the pandemic, even with emergency tenant protections like rent moratoriums, 817 families were evicted from San Francisco and displaced to surrounding cities as far as two hours away. Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city has only grown.
While many tech workers might choose areas like the Mission for their walkable streets and trendy restaurants, this extractive notion of cities as a collection of products and services, as opposed to spaces cultivated and maintained by their communities, is one that drives gentrification. This attitude silos them from the rest of city residents and separates them from involvement in local politics and communities. Some in the tech industry even see their economic prosperity as proof of their benefaction. For example, in a recent interview with tech investor Ellie Cachette, she says, “In San Francisco, VC lives matter. We’re the ones employing people, bringing business, buying properties, you know, paying property taxes.”
In other cases, the tech industry’s deeply embedded notions of individualism and meritocracy cause tech workers to dismiss the inequities in their own neighborhoods. In a 2017 master’s thesis, Emma Slaats interviews a 22-year-old Stanford grad, Zach, about the Google bus protests in the Mission. He responds that “Silicon Valley is misunderstood. We do it for the people, we want to change the world. If you protest, you feel anger, you are not satisfied. Through meditation, you can overcome those feelings. San Francisco is a revolutionary place and so are we.” However, the expectation that people can easily “overcome” their problems through mindfulness is a violent denial of the structural impact of housing inequality. It also absolves local politicians, organizations, and residents of their complicity.
working with and for our communities
While the Mission has become one of the symbols of advanced, tech-induced gentrification, the rapid transformation of neighborhoods continues around the country in cities like Boston, Seattle, and Austin. In the face of this crisis, it’s critical that we ask: what can tech workers do for our communities?
Engage with the issues your local community faces – support candidates and local organizations who are committed to defending tenants’ rights and maintaining affordable housing.
Local tax breaks have allowed tech companies and workers to rapidly relocate to the Bay with limited tax contributions. But tech migration to the Bay Area is not the only reason that housing prices have drastically increased. Policies like single-family zoning, which places strict limits on a building’s density, and Prop 13, a regressive tax which rewards legacy landowners, continue to drive up already unaffordable rent and limit access to affordable housing.
We can support grassroots leadership and volunteer with local groups who have spent decades organizing for tenants’ rights and affordable housing. In the Bay Area, San Francisco Rising & San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition are two such organizations. The TechEquity Collaborative also regularly hosts educational spaces to bring tech workers into the housing and labor movements.
Take responsibility for how your company and products could accelerate gentrification.
As the tech industry attempts to creep into city-building (e.g. Alphabet’s failed plans to build a “smart city” in Toronto), we should think critically about how technology designed for cities and safety may put communities of color at risk.
While Airbnb claims that it provides positive economic impacts to neighborhoods, studies have shown that the growth of short-term rentals often leads to a scarcity of long-term rental availability and a rise in rental gaps – all eroding neighborhood identity.
Even more subtly, technologies like the Amazon Ring, marketed as a smart doorbell to catch package thieves, have been used to increase the surveillance of communities who don’t have access to this technology. The Ring also ties gentrifiers closer to the police, as surveillance footage has been used to support reporting suspicious activity.
At each stage of the design and implementation process for these products and services, there are engineers, product managers, designers, and others involved. All these actors should consider how products that are touted as fostering safe or vibrant cities can end up inflicting harm.
Harness power in the collective. Create generative spaces with coworkers to ensure that your company is proactive about its contributions to gentrification.
The last several years have seen the tech worker movement strengthen. At Google, employees have been effective in forcing leaders to publicly address or halt ethical oversights, including a project that weaponized machine learning to improve drone targeting.
In January 2021, employees at Google parent company Alphabet announced the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union, which includes both full-time and contract workers. This was a notable culmination of a chain of white collar tech employees joining service and contract workers to engage in organized labor efforts. Since then, more tech workers have begun unionizing, like the New York Times Tech Guild (recently featured in Reboot!) and the Mapbox Workers Union.
With control over the production of profit and, often, access to similarly well-paying jobs at other companies, tech workers have unique leverage when it comes to collective bargaining. Thus, unions can be a key way for tech workers to ally with and support their coworkers who are most impacted by housing instability, for example, by advocating for higher pay and more comprehensive benefits for contractors.
Tech workers have a stake in displacement in both their personal and professional lives: from our apartments in the Mission to the products we work on. We all have a role in ensuring that our city can be home for all who want to play, learn, and live in it. And as we watch the Muni crawl past 24th, 20th, and 16th, we can think of the driver it leaves behind, who on his way home to San Mateo, remembers the old apartment he only gets close to on his day shift in the Mission.
Michelle Gan is a 2021 Reboot Fellow and a Computer Science student at Stanford. She’s currently a Product Management Intern at The Washington Post and is probably thinking about Mediterranean food, running, or her next book. Find more of Michelle on Twitter.
How did you become aware of gentrification and housing issues in the Bay Area?
I grew up in a part of North Carolina that was rapidly developing, and I remember regularly seeing housing projects around my elementary school demolished and replaced by high-rise apartment complexes. Gentrification and displacement was always in the back of my mind.
When I moved to the Bay for college, the signs of displacement and housing instability were everywhere. There were lines of mobile van homes right outside of campus that presumably belonged to people who worked in Palo Alto but couldn’t afford housing there anymore. I remember talking with service workers who had to commute to work from their homes 2+ hours away.
What have you learned about yourself and your goals during your gap year?
I’ve rediscovered a curiosity and love for learning that I definitely lost a bit during my first two years in school — a lot of which has been through reading and communities like Reboot. The gap year has given me the time to marinate in questions about how I align my work with my values & how I want to move through the world. It’s probably (definitely) left me with more questions than answers.
What’s one book you loved this year?
On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal — I would not stop talking about this book for weeks after reading it. Naomi Klein’s writing is incredible and urgent!
🚖 Jason Prado, an engineer who helped build The Drivers Cooperative, explains an alternative to both techno-determinism and folk technologism: for tech workers to embed ourselves in the struggles of other workers.
🌇 I’ve personally always been interested in place: my physical and social environment shapes how I feel and what I believe I can become. I’ve written a few personal essays on dating my favorite cities, why I hate moving, and most recently, being a pandemic nomad.
🗺️ This Logic article completely changed how I move around the city, attuning me to the ways location-based service apps like Google Maps and Yelp shape movement patterns and drive gentrification.
🐇 Patricia Mou’s Wellness Wisdom just culminated a three-part essay series on virtual and physical “third places,” filled with wonderful images, links, and inspiration.
💝 closing note
More shoutouts for the Reboot community!
Bianca Aguilar (who wrote this guest essay on maintenance) won the 2021 Adobe Design Circle Scholarship.
Jacky Zhao created a zero-config, p2p, encrypted, live folder syncing tool for syncing photos/videos/code between multiple devices without using third-party services. You can upvote it on ProductHunt here.
P.S. If you’re a young person looking for a community thinking critically about tech, humanity, and power, Reboot runs a private Discord — more on that here.
Make space for your neighbors,
— Jasmine & Reboot team