As you may have heard, Oakland protesters recently smashed the window of a Google bus in protest of gentrification. I am of many minds on this issue. Of course it’s always fun to smash windows because … punk rock. Then the rationalist in me pipes up and questions whether Google employees are really the cause of this gentrification, but it doesn’t really matter. Smashing stuff makes the news and generates discussion. The realpolitiker in me scoffs at the idea that generating some idle conversations will have any impact on housing policy. Occupy supposedly changed the national discourse on the topic of wealth inequality, but clearly the Tea Party approach has had more policy impact. Of course Occupy wouldn’t have attracted the sort of cash that the Koch brothers et al. dumped into the Tea Party, but still.
I was at a party with some rationalists recently, and it was readily agreed that the real solution to rents being driven up by Silicon Valley engineers is to create more housing, which should drive prices down again. And at first this seemed to make sense, but then again, surely there is still plenty of cheap housing down by the coliseum here in Oakland. What is this gentrification thing we speak of? There is probably plenty of cheap housing all down the East Bay from San Leandro to Fremont. The engineers are flocking to Oakland because it’s hip. Oakland is awesome, by the way. Then I spoke with my frequent sparring partner, Robin, and he mentioned another point worth considering. These office drones getting crushed by the high pressure 9-5 grind at these world class tech companies have little to offer the culture of Oakland other than their cash and bottled up tension.
The problem of gentrification for the poor is that it pushes them out of familiar areas, close to their work, where they have social connections. It’s more of a hardship for them to find new housing than it would be for the engineers. The flip side to this is that these engineers do bring cash along with them. A fellow at Cro cafe in Temescal Alley commented that he was doing good business selling doors and doing carpentry for these well-heeled folks coming to town. The answer clearly isn’t for Googlers to get the fuck out of Oakland; the money they bring will boost the economy. As far as the poor are concerned, there just needs to be more low income housing available for them. Possibly the Bay Area counties could form a new meta-association to help address this issue.
But then again, gentrification is a problem for the gentrifiers as well. Presumably they are choosing Oakland over San Leandro for its culture and proximity to SF. What happens when the stressed out engineers force out all of the anarchists, artists, and other hipsters? They will be left with a sterile strip mall of a city that used to be cool. You may think SF is cool, but SF’s First Friday can’t hold a candle to Oakland’s First Friday. As a matter of fact, I have often remarked that the low rent down in pre-Katrina New Orleans lent that city far more gnarl per capita than SF has today. Even my downtrodden hometown of Buffalo in the 90s seemed to have many more music and art venues than one should expect from a rust belt city of its size. The fact is that when rent is low, people can follow their hearts. They can do art or even just be like The Dude in The Big Lebowski and simply abide without having to crumple up their souls into their tightly balled fists and march into a cube farm every weekday morning.
So my advice to the engineers is this: the next time a brick lands in your lap during your morning commute, don’t get mad. The unwashed anarchists just need you to help them out. They are generally too stoned and self-righteous to actually roll up their sleeves and do the hard work required to change the housing policies here the Bay Area. So set aside a few cycles of your world class engineering brains and dedicate them to solving this problem. The policies in place got there somehow or other. If you can debug a kernel dump, you can figure this mess out. When you are enjoying the rich and vibrant culture of Oakland with housing for all, you will be glad you did.
UPDATE: Here is an interesting draft paper on Bay Area housing. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) recently adopted the Plan Bay Area to address these growth issues as well.