SF/Bay Area: "Se Renta Piso"

Revolutionary Worker, No. 1113, August 5, 2001 posted at http://rwor.org

Economic growth in the 1990s was in part fueled by the rapid growth of the high-tech industry, much of which is centered in the San Francisco Bay Area (including the city of San Francisco and Marin County in the north, Oakland and Berkeley in the East Bay, and San Jose and the high-tech Silicon Valley in the South Bay). This rapid growth has turned the Bay Area into one of the tightest, most expensive housing markets in the U.S. Housing costs have skyrocketed, while most wages and salaries have failed to keep pace.

Between 1994 and 1999, Silicon Valley added 133,700 jobs--but not the needed housing to accommodate these new workers. Instead, for every nine jobs created in the 1990s, only one housing unit was built. While this wild overall unplanned expansion was taking place in Silicon Valley, most of the cities ringing the Valley had conscious no-growth policies. The result has been an explosive rise in housing prices in Santa Clara County. Here, the median new home now costs five times the median household income--nationwide, new homes cost on average three times median income. And apartment rental prices have soared 29% in the last three years--above overall inflation.

This crisis has hit proletarians--the backbone of the high-tech industry, often working for under $8 an hour--very, very hard.

Immigrant workers have been especially hard hit. One Bay Area researcher found that the typical immigrant living situation in Silicon Valley was four working adults and three children living in a two bedroom apartment. Of 32 Malaysian immigrant working mothers interviewed--all making $8 an hour, doing overtime, and working a second job--not one could afford to rent their own apartment. All had to double up with another family and typically they lived seven people per two bedroom apartment, with at least four adults present and working.

Many immigrants are forced to forego a home altogether and just rent space to sleep on someone else’s floor. The San Jose Mercury News (6/16/99) described how this has become a major feature in the Latino community. In laundromats and on bulletin boards everywhere, signs are posted--"se renta piso" (floor for rent). Over a recent two-week period 35 similar ads ran in local Spanish-language newspapers. The going rate is $150 to $200 a month, which buys you eight hours a night in the corner of somebody’s living room. In Santa Clara County some 28,000 families are waiting for federal housing assistance.

The Bay Area’s housing crunch is not only making life extremely difficult for the proletariat, it’s also sending shockwaves through the middle class and surrounding regions. Many in the Bay Area’s broad middle class--teachers, technicians, professionals--have found that in order to find houses they can afford, they must buy 50 or 100 miles or more from where they work. Many working in Santa Clara County and Silicon Valley have been forced 70 to 100 miles east to cities like Tracy and Stockton in the Central Valley or 50 to 70 miles south to towns like Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister. Some are giving up their jobs and moving out of the Bay Area altogether because they can’t afford a home.

In the 1960s young people moved to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district--to join the counter-culture and because housing was inexpensive. Today the average house in the Haight costs $1 million! Rents in Alameda County in the East Bay increased 44% between 1993 and 1999, bringing the average monthly apartment rent to $1,096; in Contra Costa County to the north, rents went up 36%. Recently, rents in San Francisco have started to go down slightly due to the "dot com bust." But rents are still far, far above what they were a decade ago, and in much of the Bay Area rents are still increasing.

The anarchic economic upswing in Silicon Valley has also outstripped the existing infrastructure of roads. Public transport is almost non-existent--so commuters, especially long-distance commuters, are often forced to spend two and even three hours stuck in traffic getting both to and from work. One software engineer told us that when he and his colleagues have to work late into the night, they often sleep under their desks rather than drive home only to face a grinding commute in the morning.

A New York Times article titled "Homeless on $50,000 a Year in Luxuriant Silicon Valley" described people working three jobs or making $15/hour who slept on busses because they couldn’t afford an apartment in Silicon Valley. The article noted that "people who make more than $50,000 a year and would be comfortably middle-class in many other places are seeking the services of area homeless shelters."

Gentrifying People out of San Francisco

High-tech growth in Silicon Valley and San Francisco itself, as well as growth of financial, legal and real estate services industries, has led to a brutal housing squeeze in San Francisco. There the median price of a home on the market is $530,000. This means that only one home in 16 is affordable for the average household--despite the fact that the Bay Area’s median household income is $74,900! Rents have followed suit. Between 1995 and 1999, the median rent for a vacant one bedroom increased more than 56%--from $800 to $1,245 per month. Only 38% of all San Francisco households could afford the median rent for a vacant apartment today.

As rents have increased, there has been a feeding frenzy of landlords trying to find ways to profit. One way has been a sharp rise in the number of "owner-move-in" evictions--up 345% from 1996 to 1998 alone. Since San Francisco has rent control, these evictions are one of the main ways that owners get rid of lower-paying tenants and raise rents or sell homes or apartments--often as condominiums.

And just when the poor are in need of governmental housing assistance, the state is helping to drive them out of the city. Five public housing developments in San Francisco have been or are slated to be demolished. And one-third of the 778 residents, mostly Black, who have lost their public housing have been forced to leave the city. In 1993 San Francisco had 100,000 low income tenants in need of affordable housing. By 1997 only 369 such units had been built.

San Francisco has a long, rich tradition of being a place where diverse populations and creative communities can find a home. It was, after all, a birthplace of both the "Beat" movement in the 1950s and the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Yet now, escalating real estate prices are driving out many artists--such as bands who rented lofts as rehearsal spaces. The S.F. Bay Guardian argues that San Francisco is now turning into "a one-dimension city, a more conservative city" with the new arrivals "younger, wealthier and transient…displacing long time working class residents who have a ‘folk-memory’ of the city."

More and more people are ending up living on the streets. In 1989, the city estimated that 6,000 people were homeless on any given night. A decade later the number stands between 11,000 and 14,000. Homeless deaths increased from 16 in 1987 to 153 in 1996 and 183 in 1999. In 1998 the city vetoed a $75,000 eviction-prevention program for families--even though it had a $100 million budget surplus.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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