Where will the nice people live?
An ethos of “greed is good” isn’t just making housing prices skyrocket — it ripped out the heart and soul of our community.
And it’s probably never moving back.
Last month, a very close friend of mine lost her rental about 30 minutes north of San Francisco.
Then she killed herself.
She left a letter. The lead paragraph said that losing her home of 10 years was the last straw that convinced her to take her own life.
The second paragraph of her letter began: “I’m too sensitive for technology.”
And then she crossed out the word “technology” and replaced it with:
The day before she killed herself, I saw her.
There was only one clue that she was really down. She told me she had been out looking at rentals for months and had one week left in the home she was in.
“The housing situation out there is… depressing,” she said.
She was always a very upbeat, positive person and hearing the word “depressing” come from her mouth was a shock.
“What about moving to South America or India?” I suggested.
She could not imagine pulling up her roots to live somewhere else cheaper and starting all over again, alone, at her age, nearly 60. She searched for a home for five months, couch surfing, housesitting — plunging ever deeper into depression. And then she gave up.
And she checked out of the overpriced Bay Area housing market.
This is just one story, among thousands of stories, about the tragic consequences of the current housing shortage and price inflation in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it is not even the worst effect.
Because underlying my friend’s suicide is a deeper sickness that has cast a shadow over San Francisco:
It’s an ethos of “greed is good” that has ripped out the very heart and soul of our community.
San Francisco, was, once upon a time, a very enlightened and compassionate community.
When I first moved to San Francisco, barely age 20, in the 1980s, it was edgy, vibrant and alive. Only small portions of the city were “gentrified.” There were plenty of old warehouses where an artist could live cheaply, even squat for free, and create the thriving music and arts scene we had back then.
San Francisco was focused on values like freedom of self expression, consciousness evolution, the human potential movement and non-profit organizations for the environment and social change. A very small portion of the residents worked in finance, or had old money — and they were tucked away in Pacific Heights.
The City was earthy — not worldly. It was inward focused — not material. It didn’t care about what was trendy or in fashion — in fact, we broke the mold.
There was a deep vein of caring in San Francisco that went back to the 1960s counterculture, and the daring Gold Rush and pioneer settlers before that. We were all about reinvention and revolution — shifting the dominant paradigm and making the world a better place.
But now, the Bay Area culture is all about money— blindly cranking out technologies that are sometimes in their best moments, but not always making the world a better place.
Self driving cars, robotics, artificial intelligence that replaces humans. Surveillance that could threaten civil rights and privacy. Nanotech, biotech, Transhumanism and artificial life — many of these technologies have potential benefits to humanity — but also an ominous shadow side.
We’re all working so fast to turn a buck, I often wonder if we stop to think what kind of future we’re building, and if we’re solving the real problems that need to be solved.
Or creating new problems.
The bottom line has become the bottom line.
And the counterpoint — the heart-centered people who create the balance to the business — that community is getting squeezed out.
If the people who nurture and take care of things and create beauty — can no longer afford to live in San Francisco, who is left?
Now, you can’t afford to live in San Francisco if you have a conscience. You need to sell yourself out to the highest bidder just to survive and tread water.
We’re not talking about selling your soul or your values to make a million. You need to sell out here just to exist.
Once upon a time, startups like HP, Apple and Google started in Palo Alto garages. Now the cost of a basic house with a one car garage is out of reach — $2,000,000.
A lovely garage in Palo Alto? More like $6 million. So startup founders live in hacker houses and sleep six to a room on bunk beds, and build companies at Peet’s Coffee, or WeWork, or Starbucks.
High rent doesn’t just stifle music, art, creativity and startup innovation.
When owners forcibly evict a tenant just to make a few more bucks, I wonder if they consider the life-altering tailspin it sends tenants into. It can ruin lives for many years — or end them. Tenants are human beings. Not just cash flow.
My friend’s landlord was already very comfortable and owned more than one home. The building she rented for more than 10 years had below market rent — but it was fully paid off.
While the owner did a legal “owner move in” and did it with three month’s warning, he didn’t really need the money. But under his breath one day I heard him say: “I could get $6000 a month for this place.”
A chill went up my spine. And I knew that was, at the core, beneath his “story” — the truth. Revenue.
Currently, there are at least 20 people I know personally, including someone who leased his office for 17 years, someone who has been in the same apartment for 14 years, and a friend who was in the same rental for 10 years — who have been, in the past year, evicted, harassed, asked to move, or have had a landlord renovate, remodel, stage and sell their home for profit while they collect rents from tenants.
We’re not talking deadbeats. We’re talking devoted, employed, stable, responsible, long term tenants and they’re all thinking of going somewhere else.
But where? We have jobs, clients, connections that took 30 years to build. We can’t leave those relationships behind and start somewhere new.
That’s not a one bedroom apartment — that’s $2900 to rent a bedroom in an apartment.
Right now, as I write this, I am being booted out of my own living space.
It was put on the market for sale one month after I signed a six month temporary sublet lease and moved in. For nearly the entire time, I endured chainsaws, weedwackers and remodeling crews.
Now, every Sunday morning, and often during the week as well, I am rousted out of bed so the property can have an “Open House” and am told to get lost until 5 pm. Last weekend my landlord yelled through the closed bedroom door at me to leave. The harassment is ongoing. I get the message. Yes — you want me out so your property is more valuable for the sellers.
I receive no rental reimbursement for the days I am not even allowed to enter my own home. And yet I’m supposed to be grateful I even have a home in the current “market.”
Yesterday, after putting up with construction crews and stagers for the majority of the time I’ve lived here, my landlord rewarded my loyalty — she gave me the boot for no legitimate reason and without an legal Eviction Notice or any lawful reasons for her actions — 14 days notice.
Oh, gee, thanks.
Where am I supposed to go in the Bay Area in 14 days?
Does this person, who collected $7500 rent while she renovated her house around me and I endured constant chaos and distraction from my business — does she have any clue how heartless this is?
Well, I don’t really blame her. She’s on the brink of foreclosure herself and needs to unload her house as soon as possible. I’m sure this was not in her heart to do this. Because she’s a kind person, and a spiritual person.
But survival hardens our hearts.
San Francisco was always cold and foggy. But it is a much colder place emotionally now than it was when I moved here, 30 years ago, and that has changed the way we show up in the world. Heartless and cutthroat are de rigeur.
Now, you can’t afford to live in San Francisco if you have a bleeding heart and a conscience, or you care about the kind of causes that San Francisco has famously cared about. Non profit organizations like Sierra Club, 350.org, Craigslist Foundation, Media Alliance, Friends of the Urban Forest, Friends of the River, Blue Bear School of Music, and dozens of edgy arts groups like Cacaphony Society and Burning Man that took risks — these formed at a time when big warehouses were cheap and plentiful, when they didn’t have to compete with giants like Microsoft or Salesforce for office space, and when you could afford a nice apartment on non-profit wages.
You need to sell yourself out to the highest bidder just to survive and tread water in today’s San Francisco. We’re not talking about selling your soul or your values to make a million. You need to sell out here just to exist.
Many of these people who are being squeezed out are the very ones that make a community fun to be in — the artists, dancers, poets, musicians, massage therapists, healers, teachers — and they are leaving in droves for places like Sebastopol, Nevada City, Ashland, Lake County, Portland, Reno, Asheville, and Austin. Or Mexico, Thailand, Peru.
Places where you can live for $1500 a month — not $5000.
In every case of these evictions, the landlord was exponentially more abundant financially than their tenants — often to the tune of millions of dollars in equity from multiple properties.
We have reached a point where in order to qualify for the 3X monthly rent = income rule, the bare minimum before tax survival income to simply pay rent and bills in the Bay Area is now $3500/month. That is, to live in a room in a shared house and share a refrigerator with four other people and wait in line for the bathroom.
Unless you want to eat organic, get a decent haircut once in a while, pay for health insurance and drive a car. Then it’s $5000 a month to be at the bare poverty level.
There are some community houses here with 13 residents under one roof, each paying about $1000 each. A mere room now rents for $1500 in Oakland. Oakland! The most expensive share rental in San Francisco on Craigslist right now is a master bedroom in a penthouse apartment — just $8000 per month.
The majority of grown, single adults now live crammed in rented rooms in shared houses, and this can continue through their Senior years.
To qualify live in one’s own one bedroom apartment, the bare minimum income is $9,000/month. To own a modest house or condo, you need an income of $145,000/yr.
This would be just fine if all employers in the Bay Area actually paid these kinds of wages, but that’s not the case at all these days. If anything, they haven’t budged an inch since the 1990s when housing cost 1/4 what it does today.
A shocking number of educated people with jobs now live in vehicles. The neighbors seem to look the other way at the RVs parked all over San Francisco and along El Camino Real. It’s no secret that tech employees at Google and other companies with catered meals and showers live in vans in the parking lot while security looks the other way.
Many full time positions have been replaced by freelancers and gigs. Freelancing by its very nature is a difficult occupation in the Bay Area because most landlords will specifically state: “No working from home.”
Many will screen out freelancers or self employed consultants and only accept applications from full time employees. So freelancers cluster at Starbucks, the library, community centers and co-office compounds.
There are a few management jobs in the Director or Sr. Management level or for Programmers and Engineers that offer these kinds of salaries. But the majority of the workforce are not programmers and managers.
Where will the rest of the workforce live? Where do the firefighters, teachers, cleaners and handymen live?
Where will the artists, the creatives, the musicians, the healers, the conscious creatives and the compassionate ones live?
The population will self select into a temporary and very nomadic community predominantly of people under 40 from somewhere else who have come here to milk the Silicon Cow. It will be: “Just another cup of coffee on the way to the top.” And then they leave.
I shudder to think, over time, of what this turnover, as the caring ones flee, will leave behind. We’re already seeing it.
There was a time when your community was more important than the upside you’ll from “getting an exit” or flipping a building.
Because if you care about your community, if you stay there a long time, if you know your community, you want to take care of each other. You want to be nice to each other.