SAN FRANCISCO - Protesters in San Francisco and West Oakland neighborhoods spotlighted the growing poverty and evictions in the area by targeting the private bus services provided by Silicon Valley tech companies to transport their employees to and from work.
Protests here Dec. 20 concentrated on Google and Apple buses, stopping three buses during rush-hour traffic - two in Oakland and one in San Francisco. The mostly peaceful action was marred by vandalism of one bus in West Oakland, taking up much of the media's attention.
The perception of favor shown to higher wage earners in the tech sector who have settled into desirable neighborhoods where low-income people used to live has been exacerbated by the private bus services provided by tech workplaces to shuttle employees down the freeways to Silicon Valley, in lieu of commuting by auto or public transit. These luxurious buses have become a flashpoint of resentment, taking up space at public bus stops to pick up the tech workers and often taking up considerable space in street traffic. They have come to symbolize a high-wage working population that isolates itself from the neighborhoods which it inhabits, displacing the older population that once made the neighborhoods thriving and unique.
A flyer passed out to bus riders at the West Oakland protests highlighted the frustrations of the area's displaced lower-wage workers. "In case you're wondering why this happened, we'll be extremely clear," said the flyer. "The people outside your Google bus serve you coffee, watch your kids, have sex with you for money, make you food, and are being driven out of their neighborhoods. While you guys live fat as hogs with your free 24/7 buffets, everyone else is scraping the bottom of their wallets, barely existing in this expensive world that you and your chums have helped create."
Critics have pointed out that protests against the buses, which transport people who are also workers themselves, might be misplaced.
However news outlets have reported on the lack of parity that the buses bring to urban residents: "Realtors say being near a corporate bus stop can add 20% to rents or selling prices. Nearly 40 companies operate the cushy, mostly unregulated coaches that make more 200 stops a day - mainly in public bus zones - across the city. Google runs more than 100 buses that make 380 trips daily around the Bay Area," reported USA Today.
The divide in Silicon Valley income levels has reached the greatest point of separation between the lowest and highest incomes in history - leading to a wave of evictions in the more sought-after Bay Area neighborhoods.
The evictions, referred to as "Ellis Act evictions," have hit lower income people the hardest, often forcing the elderly and/or disabled Black, Latino and Asian families out of the homes where they have lived for years. The Ellis Act allows a landlord to evict his or her tenants if it can be shown that the landlord is getting out of the rental business and taking the property off the rental market. While there are restrictions on re-renting a property in the wake of Ellis Act evictions, there are no such strictures on converting the property into another form, such as a condo or tenancy-in-common housing for sale.
Desirable neighborhoods in San Francisco and the East Bay have seen a spike in evictions, rising 170% in the last three years. Landlords force out long-term tenants who are renting at rates considered to be below market rate, and then flip the property in favor of higher wage earners who can pay the new, higher rents demanded.
Low-wage earners, in turn, have a difficult time finding a replacement for the affordable apartments from which they have been forced out, especially in a city like San Francisco - which now has the highest median rental price in the country, at around $3,400 a month.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is currently considering reforms of the Ellis Act to help prevent speculative rushes to evict vulnerable tenants. Analysts at the California Budget Project, meanwhile, have issued recommendations to help fix the present economic divide, noting that it will take political will to address deep inequities.
California-based Google and Apple have long enjoyed the goodwill of progressives and the Bay Area for their seeming contributions to the local economy and for their technological innovations. However, both corporations are listed among the top 15 companies in the nation who place their profits offshore into tax-free havens, $33.3 billion and $82.6 billion respectively, representing billions in lost potential tax revenue to California. Finding a way to recover tax revenue from these profits could reach a long way toward balancing the desire for a thriving tech-based economy and the need to make sure the economy isn't further victimizing vulnerable citizens.
Photo: A Google bus protest in San Francisco, Dec. 9. cjmartin CC 2.0