From the tall windows of WIRED’s offices in San Francisco’s South-of-Market neighborhood I’ve watched almost a decade of radical change made physical in concrete and glass. The city’s forest of new skyscrapers is at least in part the legacy of Mayor Ed Lee, who died early Tuesday morning after almost seven years in office.
San Francisco is rolling into the second quarter of the 21st century with the purposeful but cautious stutter-step speed of a first-generation self-driving car—the wealthiest, youngest, smartest people on earth live alongside some of the poorest; utopia and dystopia are barely a few blocks apart. That’s the city Ed Lee built.
It’s a cliché to say upon a politician’s death that he or she had a complicated legacy, but here we are. Lee was a housing advocate who presided over a city in a deepening housing crisis, facing massive gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. He was, by most accounts, a quietly competent bureaucrat in charge of a city undergoing a tech boom, fueled by Silicon Valley’s weird strain of technolibertarian, oligopoly-friendly capitalism (and its handmaiden, #disruption). Not everything wrong in San Francisco was his fault or even under his control, but hey, he was the mayor when it happened.
As always, San Francisco is surfing the wavefront of the future. Every American city will have to deal with increasing inequality, housing problems, and the concentration of wealth in businesses that need fewer human workers and endanger independent retail. The policy decisions that those cities make, and how they think about their relationship with capital, will be shaped by San Francisco’s outcomes.
It has always been a city of booms. When Richard Henry Dana came to the Bay Area in 1834, having bailed out of Harvard for a couple of years on a trading ship, he found a whole lot of nothing—rolling hills, beautiful views, and backbreaking work moving hides. But as Dana wrote in an afterward to his book about the experience, Two Years Before the Mast, when he returned in 1859, a city had spread across the hills, the staging point for gold miners headed up the Sacramento River and steamers to the southern part of the state. Dana himself was a celebrity; Two Years Before the Mast had been one of the only books about California many of the new Californians had read about their adoptive home before moving.
California has always been America’s spatial instantiation of the idea of the future if not the actual future itself; the booms the state periodically emits are iterations of the idea that westward equals forward equals onward. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries San Francisco was a lab for technological advance alongside social experimentation. There’s a reason Star Trek locates Starfleet Academy and the United Federation of Planets headquarters there. It just fits.
As a civil rights lawyer and then administration appointee, Lee was already fighting for improvements to public housing in San Francisco when the dotcom boom came in the mid-1990s. He was a respected bureaucrat with limited political ambition in 2010 when then-mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor. As The New York Times reported then, Newsom and the Board of Supervisors thought they had the juice to appoint a progressive to the job, but former mayor and political macher Willie Brown, and Rose Pak, head of the powerful Chinatown political machine, rolled over the more left-leaning possible replacements for Newsom and instead found … Ed Lee.
Granted, being politically moderate in San Francisco is like being a communist anywhere else. And Lee was generally well-liked. He’d be the first mayor of Chinese descent in a city with a large Chinese-descended population, and while he’d still be an advocate for affordable housing and LGBTQ rights, he’d also look for compromise with the city’s real-estate developers.
Indeed he did. Under Lee’s leadership the city passed the so-called Twitter Tax Break, more formally the Central Market-Tenderloin Area Payroll Expense Tax Exclusion, which exempted companies from paying payroll taxes on new employees if they signed negotiable community-benefits agreements and moved to the Tenderloin, a multiblock area of squalor and poverty that abuts the glossier Financial District. Twitter was an early beneficiary, moving to an old furniture showroom on Market Street.
Also during his tenure, Google became one of San Francisco’s largest commercial tenants, with over 720,000 square feet of space. Is that a lot? Uber has more than a million. And arguably the crowning development achievement during Lee’s time in office is the tallest building in the city, still under construction, named for and mostly to be occupied by Salesforce.
With all that tech money and with all those tech workers—170,000 jobs—came sidewalks clogged with Apple earpods and Boost electric skateboards. The “Google buses” almost got to use San Francisco bus stops for free, until Lee came around to charging $7.31 per stop. The annual Salesforce conference closes down much of the South of Market neighborhood; an expanding convention center ensures lots of pedestrians are always wearing lanyards and badges. Billboards advertise software of indeterminate or indescribable function.
Oh, but the region forgot to build any new houses for those people.
San Francisco’s social progressivism masks a deep conservatism. Some of it is a consequence of the success of those mid-20th-century social experiments, the gains from which few San Franciscans, longtime or recent, want to lose. (Of course, the embrace of sex and gender diversity hasn’t extended to racial equity; in 1970 San Francisco was 13 percent African American, and in 2016 it was 6 percent. More than 2,000 African Americans left the city every year between 2010 and 2014.)
Really, though, the baby boomers who bought cheap houses in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s benefit from Proposition 13, a 1978 law that allows California residents to pay taxes on the value of their house when they bought it, plus negligible increases, and to pass on that benefit to heirs. For almost two generations, some Californians have not paid as much for the services provided by cities and states—like, say, schools and infrastructure—and have accrued huge amounts of value in their property. But if they move, their taxes will skyrocket. So anything that they see as jeopardizing the value of their homes, like denser development or difficult parking, is a near-existential threat.
As a result, California has a housing crisis, and it’s most acute in the Bay Area. The New York Times notes that Zillow says the value of a home in San Francisco when Lee became mayor was $685,000; today it’s $1.25 million. Median rent is $4,450 a month. Since 2010, San Francisco added 70,000 people and has built just 14,000 new housing units. (Or maybe it’s 11,000 new units; numbers vary by source.) Since 2011 there have been 16,000 evictions; at least 7,500 people are homeless.
In some neighborhoods, like the Mission, gentrification has brought displacement. All the new bike shops, third-wave coffee shops, and yoga studios used to be something else. Also, weird stuff. The headquarters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the Mission District deployed autonomous security robots to keep people in nearby homeless encampments from trespassing. The owners of new restaurants and bars that hope to cater to the booming tech population complain that staffing is difficult because servers and kitchen workers can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work. (The other problem is that techies don’t eat out that much, and their offices have ultra-luxe cafeterias anyway—often free.) The Twitter Tax Break brought Twitter, but the Tenderloin is still the Tenderloin.
As one of my favorite urbanists, Darran Anderson, puts it, everyone’s dystopia is someone’s utopia. San Francisco gleams at night. A new Bay Bridge connects to Oakland. The new Transbay bus terminal, with a probably fabulous rooftop park, is just months away from opening. A subway to Chinatown is almost open, a last legacy of Rose Pak, who died in 2016. It’s a great city in which to eat and drink. It has bike shares and dedicated transit lanes and electric buses.
For some people, San Francisco is better. Young techies who had been content to live in suburban Silicon Valley during the dotcom bubble want to live here. That’s what brought the buses, the gentrification of the Mission, and ultimately Google, Facebook, Uber, and others opening offices in San Francisco skyscrapers instead of suburban office parks. Lee wasn’t just a bystander for that change. He was an advocate.
So what happens now? Lee’s replacement, at least until a June election, is London Breed, head of the Board of Supervisors. She’ll be the city’s first African American woman mayor. Ed Lee vetoed a law that would have limited the amount of time owners can rent out units on Airbnb; Breed was the law’s author. If tax breaks and coddling couldn’t get California’s tech giants to be better citizens, maybe some old-fashioned suspicion—or animosity—will. More housing would also help.
Breed is part of a new generation of politicians poised to win in a wave next November. They’re women, especially women of color, and they aren’t baby boomers like Lee. This is Generation X and (hang on, I’m looking for a “shudder” emoji) millennials. Whatever changes she brings to San Francisco, her political contemporaries will bring echoes elsewhere. The companies whose names are synonymous with not just the San Francisco boom but the American economy are taking heavy fire for enabling hate speech, for damaging the fabric of society, for monopolistic business practices, for undermining the press and democracy itself. Now they will have to contend with more trouble at home, too.