Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

They're being targeted as harbingers of evil as their buses chug through otherwise inaccessible, gentrified neighborhoods. Now San Francisco's tech workers are fighting back with a networking event called the Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour, that, in addition to sounding like a whole lot of fun, hopes to gather attendees who are "sick of being blamed for SF's housing crisis."

The thing is: They're right. It's not their fault.

This week, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton tries to tackle the issue in his story "The Housing Market With Nowhere to Go (But Up)," where he talks to various real estate leaders and city officials about the real problem facing San Francisco. Which is this: Even though everyone says they want more housing, the people who live there don't necessarily like bigger buildings. Or more construction. Or anything that changes the city in any way.

"Our approach to housing in San Francisco is very dysfunctional," said Scott Wiener, a San Francisco supervisor who is a proponent of new housing. "The system is intentionally designed to make it as difficult as possible to build new housing."

There are long lists of rules, regulations and hurdles developers need to get around before building in the city that Mr. Wiener said were created to curb new construction. Real estate experts say the only way to build is up, but many longtime residents have shot down proposals for high-rise housing.

Here lies the true conflict about what's happening in San Francisco: The city is not being ruined because tech workers are moving to the city. The city is in trouble because San Francisco does not want to build the housing that could sustain both the new, well-paid residents and the other residents like firefighters, teachers and police officers who need homes in the city, as well.

Bilton says that, according to Redfin, there are no homes currently on the market in San Francisco County that the average public school teacher could afford on the average salary of $59,700 a year. Not one.

"The city is surrounded by water on three sides, and there is nowhere for people to go," said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, tells Bilton. Which is patently false: San Francisco has plenty of room to build, if they would just look up.

Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

BIG's Market Street project is really not all that big

But San Francisco doesn't like vertical growth. For example, a new development by Bjarke Ingels Group has been proposed for the city's Market Street—specifically Mid-Market. This is the same area where Twitter recently located its headquarters and one of the few places in the city where you can see some serious vertical growth. According to the newest renderings, the 180-foot tall building will house 316 residential units, 250 hotel rooms, 15,000 square feet of retail, and a 75,000 square-foot art space.

Pretty much a totally normally scaled building that will not look in any way out of place on the street—but it's already freaking everyone out. To quote SFist: "Holy God 950-974 Market Street Is Going To Be Huge."

And that's a medium-sized, good-looking development by one of the world's most well-respected architects.

The problem is only going to get worse unless attitudes start to change: Over the last decade, according to Bilton's article, 75,000 people moved to San Francisco, but only 17,000 units of housing were created. Those figures only tell half the story. This excellent article by SPUR (an urbanism think tank that has held its own events hoping to find a solution to the crisis) explains how the lack of housing stock drives rents even higher:

In 2011, only 418 housing units were produced in the city on projects that started construction during the recession. Once the 148 units that were removed from the market are accounted for, the net addition to the market was only 270 units. Between 2011 and 2012, 36,423 jobs were created in San Francisco, but the lag in housing construction to meet increased demand for apartments means that several years will pass before that housing meets the market. The scarcity of new units on the market means that the buildings opening now can charge much higher rents than have been seen in existing stock. For example, NEMA—a new apartment building on Market Street across from Twitter's headquarters—managed to pre-lease all of its Phase I units in 2013, before the building was complete, with one-bedroom unit prices starting at around $4,400 per month.

Those 36,423 jobs created? Those are just jobs in San Francisco. Now think of all the rapidly expanding companies in Silicon Valley and how many of those employees want to live in the city, too.

A concept by graphic designer Alfred Twu was floating around last month, imagining what it would look like to house all the employees of Apple, Google, and Facebook on their own campuses. His idea is that creating walkable, urbanized culture in Silicon Valley will lure workers away from San Francisco and Oakland. I don't think this would work—although it would be great if the solution was as easy as cramming tech employees into high-rises an iPhone's throw from their central office. But there's something else that's notable about these concepts: These drawings each help to illustrate just how much real estate is needed to house roughly 10,000 residents.

Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

Look at those buildings—look at the number of high-rises needed to house all those people.

Now compare to Curbed SF's list of 41 projects going up in the SoMa area. Adding up all the number of units featured in the project descriptions, these 41 buildings will bring 7,149 units of housing to the area over the next ten years. That's a start, but it's important to note that only a very small corner of the city is zoned for this kind of high-rise growth. These are the structures that San Francisco residents don't want in their backyards.

Sorry, It's Not Tech Money Ruining San Francisco

NEMA is one of the new high-rise residential towers to open in SoMA

There have been plenty of proposals from San Francisco residents to solve their housing crisis, from instituting a land tax to changing the city's archaic height restrictions. And, while San Francisco has been successful in getting Silicon Valley corporations to pay meager amounts to use the city's bus stops, maybe it's time for them to work on something bigger together.

The tech money coming to town isn't ruining the city—in fact, it can help fix it. How about if tech companies started investing in great housing for their workers who want to live in San Francisco and Oakland? Google is already donating $6.8 million in free transit rides for youth to improve its image. Facebook is building housing near its Menlo Park headquarters. What if they used their cash and power to help spark some high-density development in the cities where most of their employees live? It would be a feel-good collaboration for San Francisco, and a smart investment for the corporations.

Here's another thing to consider: Instead of the single-minded focus by anti-gentrification demonstrators to protest the tech shuttles run by companies that are not located in San Francisco, those folks might want to turn their attention and energy towards changing their own city's policies. San Francisco's phobia of tall buildings is not only stunting its economic growth, it's poised to completely ruin its dense, environmentally sustainable urban culture. If residents don't act fast, there won't be much left to protect.

Top photo: Jeff Chiu/AP