Tourists from around the world walk the narrow alleyways of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood to see the murals that plaster garages and houses. This is in large part thanks to René Yañez, who founded a gallery here in the 1970s that became central to the local art scene. He famously exhibited Frida Kahlo’s work after the Museum of Modern Art told him it wasn’t interested. And he started the Day of the Dead procession, a now iconic annual event that draws thousands to the area.
Then, just two days before Christmas, Yañez’s landlord delivered a red and green card saying that Yañez had to take a buyout. After 37 years, and at a time when his partner is battling cancer, Yañez is being forced out of his home.
“I had a feeling because of what was happening around the neighborhood,” he told America Tonight. He added: “I thought that we were going to catch a break cause I’d been there so long.”
His landlord used something called the Ellis Act, which allows owners to take a building off the rental market if they intend to convert it to a single home or condos. But recently, as housing costs have soared sky-high, it’s become a blunt instrument for dislodging long-term tenants. The average apartment rental is now $3,400 a month, the highest in the country. And in the last three years, Ellis Act evictions have jumped 170 percent.
Yañez hasn’t been able to find anything comparable to his long-time home.
“It’s a shattering experience,” he said. “The days that you leave go out to look for a place, you cannot imagine how depressing it is after spending hours and going through Craigslist and following up on tips ... it’s very depressing.”
From ‘hippie feel’ to homeless
The Mission, an area once dominated by artists and Latino immigrants, has in recent years become the playground of young tech workers, and ground zero of the city’s housing wars.
“I’d say about a third of our employees live to close to the Mission,” said John Kobs, who co-founded the startup ApartmentList in San Francisco two years ago. “Everybody wants to live in the Mission.”
The so-called Google buses have become one of the greatest symbols in the ongoing battle for the soul of San Francisco. These large, unmarked luxury shuttles ferry thousands of tech workers to Silicon Valley, and make it easy for well-paid tech talent to reside in San Francisco proper. Protestors say that the 100 or so Google buses that rumble through the city each day are turning San Francisco into an overpriced bedroom community for the tech industry, forcing out longtime residents.
In areas within walking distance of those tech shuttles, rents rose 20 percent faster than in other parts of the city, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley study. And the majority of the shuttles leave from the Mission.
“I got a nice apartment here in the city for relatively high rent that other people may not be able to afford, so I see their problem,” Google employee Jur Vandenberg told America Tonight. “I’m a techie and they like the hippie feel of the city, and maybe they’re afraid that the hippie feel gets lost a little bit by people like me moving in.”
For Paula Tejada, who owns a local empanada shop, it’s not just the feel of her neighborhood that’s at stake, but her livelihood. Many of her longtime customers are being priced out of the city.
“Everybody I know is either fearing to be homeless, homeless or on their way,” she told America Tonight.
She too is being evicted from her home just a few blocks away from her business. She hasn’t found anything affordable in San Francisco, so she said she might have to leave her 17-year-old business and go back to Chile.
“My entire balance of being able to keep this going depends on being able to live in the Mission,” she said.
‘Stop blaming tech companies’
Some say neither the tech companies nor the landlords are the real villains, but rather antiquated laws. Daniel Bornstein, a San Francisco real estate lawyer, points to a 1979 law, signed by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, which caps the amount landlords can raise rents each year.
“So we have a duplex, and we have one person who’s living in a one-bedroom apartment who’s lived there for 30 years. The individual may be paying $400 a month,” he explained. “When the other duplex is vacant, a new individual moves in and may be paying $3,000 a month for the very same configuration.”
“The question fundamentally, is that fair?”
But it’s the tech companies that have faced most of the protesters’ wrath. And the city has been careful not to join the chorus. After all, the Silicon Valley tech boom has boosted San Francisco’s economy, filling the city’s coffers with an extra $600 million last year alone. Two years ago, the city offered Twitter a $22 million tax break to stay in San Francisco. And Mayor Edwin Lee meets weekly with tech companies and has a reputation for defending their interests.
“People, stop blaming tech companies,” he said recently. “They want to actually be part of the solution.”
Last week, the mayor announced that Google would be donating $6.8 million over the next two years so that thousands of kids from low and moderate-income families could ride public transport for free.
Some titans of the tech industry are aggressively unapologetic about the shift in neighborhood dynamic. Last month, Tom Perkins, founder of Silicon Valley venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins, wrote a letter in The Wall Street Journal that compared the protestors to Nazis. He later apologized on Bloomberg TV for his language, but refused to back down from his message.
“I think Kleiner Perkins has created close to a million jobs,” he said. “It’s absurd to demonize the rich for being rich and doing what the rich do, which is get richer by creating opportunity for others.”
‘I have no regrets’
In December, the city built 60 new affordable units and received 2,800 applicants. David Compos, a city supervisor who represents the Mission district, admits that those units are nowhere near enough.
“Well, I think it’s an amazing city and I think that, in some respects, we’re victims of our own success,” Campos said. “But I also think that there have been abuses in terms of the real estate market. I think that speculators are taking advantage of some of the loopholes in the state law.”
Campos has cracked down on landlords who harass tenants into leaving, and this month he introduced legislation to help curb Ellis Act evictions. Many residents say such protection is necessary, absent more affordable housing, and they want to put it to the voters.
Any ballot measure, however, will likely come too late for Yañez. He expects to leave the neighborhood he helped build, with murals depicting the painful process of gentrification now dotting its winding streets.
“I have no regrets,” Yañez said. “I do not apologize for the life that I chose and if I have to leave San Francisco, I’m going to leave with my head held high.”