Growing unrest in the Bay Area over rising housing prices burst into the public stage on December 9th, when a group of protesters halted a Google bus in The Mission. The bus, one of dozens Google uses to shuttle employees to their Mountain View campus, waited while protesters held signs denouncing Google’s use of public bus stops as pick-up locations for their private service. “Public $$$$$$ / Private Gains” one said. Another claimed Google owed a billion dollars in fines for blocking bus stops.
Though the signage complained mostly about the bus service, the protesters themselves focused primarily on housing prices, including the instantly famous confrontation between a Google employee and a protester who yelled at protesters things like “Why don’t you go to a city where you can afford [your rent]? This is a city for the right people who can afford it “ while the protesters chanted “Stop evictions now” in the background.
The confrontation went viral. Within minutes, however, the angry Google employee was identified as Max Alper, a union organizer and former employee of Making Change Media. When later pressed about the faked encounter, Alper insisted that “This was improv political theater” and that he made the decision spontaneously, despite having arrived to the protest dressed as a young professional unlike the other neon vest-wearing protesters.
Google made no official response to the event and continued the shuttle service, which they list as a “Green alternative” to individual commutes and a perk on their website. Google estimates 5,000 employees ride shuttles every day, a significant reduction in pollution and traffic.
The next week, on December 20th, three similar protests were staged. Two groups directly affiliated with Occupy Oakland stopped Google busses in Oakland while a third targeted an Apple bus in San Francisco. This time, the most exciting event was a shattered window which Occupy Oakland quickly took credit for.
— Occupy Oakland (@OccupyOakland) December 20, 2013
Google’s only response was through a spokeswoman: “We certainly don’t want to cause any inconvenience to San Francisco residents and we and others in our industry are working with SFMTA to agree on a policy on shuttles in the city.”
Other Google employees were not as placid. “I agree with you that SF isn’t for sale, but don’t hate on me for my job. You think I LIKE commuting to Mountain View? this protest is dumb,” one employee tweeted from the bus.
I agree with you that SF isn’t for sale, but don’t hate on me for my job. You think I LIKE commuting to Mountain View? this protest is dumb.
— Adelle (@FashionistaLab) December 9, 2013
She is not the only who feels tech employees make poor targets for the anger over housing prices. Mike Cassidy, a Silicon Valley veteran and columnist at the San Jose Mercury, argued the fault for rising housing prices doesn’t lie with tech companies, much less their employees. “Think of it as the downside of the upswing,” he wrote in reference to the economic boom tech companies are fueling in the Bay. “The solution is a heavy lift: More housing, ideally densely built near public transit in the urban cores of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.”
But new housing is difficult to come by in San Francisco’s famously draconian development and zoning laws. San Francisco’s affordable housing track record consists of imposed rent controls and now, government subsidy. Unfortunately, simple cost estimates bode poorly. San Francisco doesn’t have $25 billion to flood into housing subsidies.
Pundits increasingly compare San Francisco’s housing policies to Seattle’s. Since the birth of the Silicon Valley, developers build an average of 1,500 housing units per year San Francisco. But that number has been declining and 2011, only 269 units were built while 40,000 jobs were created in San Francisco. Seattle, meanwhile, has averaged 3,000 new housing units per year for decades.
“A strong labor market is a good problem to have – hundreds of American cities would love to have such a problem – but high rents can have serious social consequences. It is irresponsible to try to limit housing demand, because that would require limiting employment growth,” writes Enrico Moretti, an economics professor at Berkeley.
There is hope for housing in San Francisco, however. The last two years have seen skyrocketing housing construction – over 4,000 units in 2012 and 2013. These numbers may be a drop in the bucket, but if the trend continues to accelerate, a more competitive housing market is within reach. Moretti had one final warning, however: “For this to happen, it is first necessary that San Francisco’s political Left moderates its preconceived opposition to all new market-based housing,” Moretti concluded.
Google, meanwhile, has announced a pilot agreement with the city to continue their shuttle service using 200 of the 2,500 MUNI stops in the city. The city estimates the new policy would cost tech companies like Google roughly $100,000 per year. Google also announced a one-month trial ferrying program to offer employees a chartered ferry from the Port of San Francisco to the Port of Redwood City.