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How Silicon Valley Millionaires Stole Progressivism | The Nation

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How Silicon Valley Millionaires Stole Progressivism

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A tenants’ march against evictions in December 2011 (Ted Gullicksen, Antievictionmappingproject.net)

The local left has responded to these charges with varying degrees of cogency. The claims about economic prosperity have been easily debunked. Among the nation’s fifty largest cities, notes San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, San Francisco has the second-largest disparity between rich and poor. It’s also the place where the income gap is widening most rapidly.

Another illusion that’s been laid to rest is the idea that the city can build its way out of the affordable-housing crisis. Tim Redmond, the former editor of the Bay Guardian, points out that “no matter what the ‘trickle-down’ marketeers…say, the history is clear: Only when San Francisco has taken units out of the private market, or strictly controlled rents, has the city been able to protect affordability.” (Disclosure: I write for Redmond’s new online publication, 48 hills.)

The true source of the problem, Redmond maintains, is not anti-development activism but official inaction:

If the state legislature would give us the tools, we could essentially bar all evictions for anything except failure to pay rent or creating a nuisance. We could ban all condo conversions and TICs [tenancies in common, a form of shared ownership that displaces tenants from multi-unit residential properties]. We could extend rent controls to vacant apartments.

A crucial task is reforming the Ellis Act, the California law that authorizes landlords who want to sell their rental properties to evict their tenants. In early April, the city’s Board of Supervisors approved a bill that requires landlords to pay “Ellised” tenants the difference between their current rent and the cost of comparable housing for two years. And with the support of four supervisors, an anti-speculation tax to discourage the “flipping” of residential properties—a proposal generated by the February tenants’ convention—will appear on the November ballot.

These are strong positions, grounded in the left’s commitment to economic equity, social justice and robust democratic governance. It’s when progressives grapple with accusations of insularity and conservatism that the rejoinders can get equivocal. Consider Rebecca Solnit’s response to Randy Shaw. In her 2000 book Hollow City, Solnit vividly described the havoc inflicted on San Francisco by the first dot-com boom; she’s also an assiduous critic of the devastation being wreaked on the city by the second. She came back at Shaw with an eloquent cri de coeur against the history of “invasion and eviction and evisceration” that dates back to the Ohlone Indians’ disastrous encounter with the Spanish conquistadors. The essential conflict, she argues, is more about “the powerful versus the vulnerable” than “newcomers and oldtimers.” The vulnerable parties she has in mind are the

refugees from conservatism, from homophobia, from small-town intolerance, from the dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s and the Jim Crow south of the 1940s and 1950s, seekers of education, liberation, social experiments, and cultural possibilities [who] have arrived here mostly as trickles, not floods. They’ve become part of the city, often its heart.

Now they’re being driven out, and with them, the city’s “welcoming” character. When Shaw deplores resentment against the tech dispossessors, he’s “blaming the victim” and “denying who has the power”—not only individual technologists but the “leviathans of Silicon Valley.”

The charge of denial is partly accurate. Though Shaw allows that techie affluence is inflating property values, he identifies speculators as the prime agents of displacement. “One often hears the objections,” Solnit writes, that “it isn’t the tech workers coming here who are carrying out the evictions. But they are moving into homes from which people have been evicted,” in a boom created by their arrival.

That said, Solnit herself skews the assignment of responsibility. Ignoring Shaw’s observation that gays and lesbians effectively raised rents when they moved into less affluent neighborhoods, she includes them in her roster of injured and deserving innocents. The implication is that ill treatment leaves people virtuous but weak. That idealization of victimhood distorts reality no less than the refusal to acknowledge the power of aggressors. Lacking political agency, Solnit’s imperiled San Franciscans can only weep at their fated exile, a scenario that belies the existence of the energetic anti-displacement movement under way.

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