The Mayor of Resentment City

San Francisco's Ed Lee talks technology, inequality, and those divisive Google buses

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mayor Ed Lee pictured at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012.

These should be good times for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. The city’s unemployment rate is 4.8%, the median household income has swollen to $73,000 and construction cranes crowd the sky, building high-rises to accommodate all of the people flocking to the city. Some 1,800 tech companies call San Francisco home, as do swarms of young, college-educated, affluent tech workers—including thousands who choose to live in the city and commute to their jobs at Google, Apple, Facebook and other companies in Silicon Valley.

But prosperity can bring its own discontents, as Lee is finding out. The tech wealth transforming the city has created intense resentment among lower-income residents who can no longer afford skyrocketing rents. Some artists, idealists and activists—the sort of people closely associated with San Francisco in the popular imagination—have taken to forming human blockades around private shuttles that ferry tech workers to their jobs south of town, demanding that commuters stop taking up the scarce apartments in their neighborhoods.

Firing back this week, prominent venture capitalist Tom Perkins publicly argued that protesters’ “rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent” is akin to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. He quickly apologized (for his choice of metaphor, not his sentiment), but not before inspiring a slew of stories about the city’s affordability crisis—and the concerns about inequality that have risen in its wake.

Lee, a former city administrator elected with the help of the tech industry, is attempting to referee this dispute. TIME spoke with him in December for a story in this week’s magazine. Here’s the view from inside City Hall. (Answers have been excerpted and condensed.)

Let’s start with the big question. Why is the city in an affordability crisis?

We’ve been very fortunate that a number of industry sectors, including technology, have been very hot. And we’re red hot, obviously, in real estate. I have to remind everybody, we’re only 49 square miles as a city. So because of that limitation, much of our construction has to be very dense in locations that are challenging. … Some of the pressures we see today were built up over decades. The trend across the country, but particularly in the Bay Area, is people want to live in the cities now. We didn’t invest properly in the building of housing to take care of the possibility that more people would want to move to the city. In fact, we slowed down tremendously.

Why has San Francisco been so slow to build?

Our city did pretty good in investing in low-income housing and trying to do as much as we could for the homeless. That was where our sentiments were … I don’t think we paid any attention to the middle class. I think everybody assumed the middle class was moving out. We might have a broader range of defining the middle class, as compared to maybe Oakland or San Jose. I’m talking maybe $80,000 to $150,000. I don’t think we paid attention, as a city, historically, to that level of income earners. I think we missed some steps there … There’s always the potential, that as we’re building a strong economy, that we could trip over that success.

You recently met with executives of technology companies behind closed doors. Why did you hold that meeting and what did you discuss?

The media and some of the protests focused on putting the blame on technology workers who were taking buses down to Silicon Valley. … What I feel is perhaps a misguided blame on a particular sector caused the technology company owners to say, hey, maybe we could be part of the solution, that rather than allow this narrative to just fester, why don’t we be good philanthropic companies. … Some people look at technology and see success but they’re [struggling]. They want somebody to help them do something about it. And it can’t just be government. We don’t have all the resources.

Is the technology industry doing enough to give back? And should they, as some protestors have argued, do anything about displacement?

Some [companies] who are already successful can be seen as not having done enough, but for the most part, others are evolving, just like the financial capital banks evolved. … I’m not ready to say technology, as a whole industry, is owing us everything. … They could be recruiting people from the community. They could hire more people. They could train the local talent to be part of their business. This is all part of that conversation. But you can’t expect people to do it overnight.

Do successful companies have a responsibility to give the city something, if not everything?

Oh, yes. You can say ‘I’m just a company, leave me alone, I’m creating jobs, why do I have to do anything else.’ Well, no company can feel that way … Being a citizen of San Francisco, there’s more obligations. We’re a city that wants to be zero waste. You can’t just throw garbage anywhere you want or in the bin that’s the wrong color … You have to know what’s going on and participate and engage yourself. We want to be a great city where people love to live, not just exist.

Tensions between people moving into some neighborhoods and people being pushed out often boil down to a more philosophical question: does living somewhere a long time give a person a right to stay there? 

Philosophically, I am wanting to be in a city that welcomes the 100%, so I support everybody, especially those long-term families who want to be here and have contributed … I hate seeing a change where the character of a neighborhood gets a shock. So what do you do about it? Part of it, you can’t do a whole lot because we have freedom. We can’t control everything. But there are a number of tools that we have created over a period of time that support local character … We can make it a little bit more difficult for new developers to come in and overnight change things … It’s a matter of, do we want the market to dictate what should be there? Sometimes that’s good. A lot of times, that’s bad.

Given all the great things the tech industry has done for the economy, why do you think there’s still so much resentment toward that sector and its employees?

It’s a natural human thing. When you look at someone successful and maybe you’re challenged, or you’ve got some threats in your life, people have different ways of asking for help. Sometimes it comes in a framework where the haves need to be identified because the have-nots are hurting. I understand that. I’ve been around long enough to understand that. But the ultimate, real answer is you’ve got to go beyond the blame game and get in the real economics and smart, collaborative politics to say how do we get through this? And how do we make sure our principles are in tact? The city is for the 100%, not the haves versus the have-nots.

The buses have been such an icon of tension between residents. Do you see anything that needs to be changed in terms of what’s going on with the reverse commuting?

The focus on the so-called Google buses is easily identifiable but it’s a complicated issue. One, who’s on the buses? They’re San Francisco residents trying to get to work … That in and of itself is not a bad act because it prevents a lot of individual cars from being on the road.

Do you think people should try to live where they work?

The suggestion that people have transportation alternatives to get to where they work could apply to every industry. You talk about reverse commute. If you studied our hospitality industry, a good third of them come from Oakland because they couldn’t afford a house here. So then they’re coming in from the East Bay to work at the great restaurants in San Francisco. Is that bad? Are they to be blamed for that?

What’s the hardest part of playing referee among city residents?

When people feel threatened, be it because of evictions or losing a business or maybe not having the best paying job that they would want, the biggest challenge is to convince them you’re in a successful city, we care for everybody. And so your voice is important and don’t lose hope. … The other part is it’s too easy to blame somebody else, [but] cities don’t have the luxury of stalemates. We have got to act. Therefore it always has to be solution-oriented and not complaint-oriented. It’s all about teamwork. It’s not about sitting back and feeling comfortable that you can blame somebody for your challenges.


the city government is so out of control and has no set guidelines. The Airport just hired 6 Limo police officers to police the limo's cause they don't trust the Police Assistants in traffic control. its a waste of money but it gives these minorities jobs, and apparently Ed Lee must be getting another kind of job for the out of control city government.None of the city employees have any integrity what so ever. I hate going into that town and actually tell my clients that the shopping is better in Palo Alto or San Jose. City hall and all the departments are disorganized, and its usually one moron will have an idea and they go with it...Stay out of the it stinks....


Sorry but there is no solution unless you want to embrace flawed government solutions like rent control, confiscatory taxes, and even more regulations at which point you will drive out biz, shrink the tax base, and see higher unemployment and lower wages. No one has the right to live in a particularly place and the government does not have the responsibility to make it affordable. The City is doing well and I am glad to see it. I moved my biz to Utah in 2008 because I chose not to pay the premium but still enjoy visiting. 


I can't afford to live in SF (and maintain my current quality of life), and I am one of the so-called middle income people.  I'd need to make huge sacrifices to pick up one of the now $3000 1 bedroom apartments. I live in Oakland (because I like it). But when you think about the reality of the Bay Area, making $100K isn't enough to raise a family.  Not even remotely so. Especially if you value a commute under 40 minutes and good schools. 

We have been under building housing across the whole region.  The only way to get to most job centers in Silicon Valley is to drive (and put up with terrible congestion).  Single family homes in good school districts cost $750k - $1.2 Million.

Decades of decisions have determines the only people we want to live here in the Bay Area are young singles making six-figures.  Everyone else should leave if their priorities shift, because we aren't making space for you.


I've been following this debacle closely, because my family is gearing up to move out of SF - we have a 7-month old son and have grown out of our studio apartment, which after yearly increases, we pay over $2200/month for in what used to be an unassuming neighborhood that is now gentrifying like crazy.  My husband and I are in our early 30s, work downtown (not in the tech industry), get paid well enough, but we neither qualify for any of Ed Lee's Affordable Housing Programs or low-income rental subsidies nor can we find a new rental unit in our price range.  In the past year that we've been looking, we haven't been able to find a 2-bedroom apartment that we can move to while still being able to afford full-time childcare and/or live within an hour's commute to the office.  It's not that the units aren't out there, but with competition from literally hundreds of other applicants who are also desperate for housing, actually being offered a lease takes a miracle.  Middle-income families are getting pushed out of the city.  Ed Lee assumed we'd be moving out anyway - I hate proving him right...


Wow, Ed. I've never heard a "Democrat" sound so much like a Republican. Looks like he hired Mitt Romney's speech writers. 

"It’s a natural human thing. When you look at someone successful and maybe you’re challenged, or you’ve got some threats in your life, people have different ways of asking for help. Sometimes it comes in a framework where the haves need to be identified because the have-nots are hurting." This is the spineless liberal way of saying that those of us who are resentful at having been forced out of San Francisco are engaged in "the bitter politics of envy."

Ed Lee is bought and paid for. He didn't give a genuine answer to any of the tough questions. His cross commute answer was a truly magnificent feat of logical acrobatics. He actually managed to equate lower income service industry workers being forced out of the city and into longer, more expensive commutes, with highly paid tech workers (who wouldn't even live in San Francisco if not for their luxury buses) commuting out of the city to work. It's insulting, and clearly demonstrates Ed Lee's complete lack of perspective on the issues faced by the people of San Francisco.


"If you studied our hospitality industry, a good third of them come from Oakland because they couldn’t afford a house here. So then they’re coming in from the East Bay to work at the great restaurants in San Francisco. Is that bad?"

Simply stated, Yes..that is bad. People that work in the hospitality industry should have the opportunity to be members of the communities that they serve. Instead, they are relegated to the outskirts of the bay area in order to find affordable housing and then forced to commute in and out of the playground for the 1% that San Francisco is becoming. It's as though Oakland is serving as the auxiliary slave quarters for indentured hospitality servants that the bourgeois want to keep out of sight and out of mind. 

The privileged monoculture that is slowly dominating San Francisco is a threat to the cities' beautiful, eclectic, vibrant and creative spirit that has made it what it is today. 

San Francisco is more than an incentive to lure bright and talented minds into the tech industry.  It's a city in which inspiration is found, minds are made and dreams come true. That is, only if we nurture a diverse and eclectic landscape of cultures, interests and economic backgrounds. 



D ... U ... H

"Why is (SFO, PDX, SEA) unaffordable?"

Oh .. only so much land .. regulations up the butt (hello, Democrats!) .. y'know, demand/supply .. that should be a start ..


@C_Ryback  Republican free market principles cannot create more land on a city surrounded on three sides by water. A good part of SF is already on landfill which is not stable in earthquakes. You cannot create more dense living space without tearing down older structures, ones where people are already living. If you tear down the old buildings then the city will cease to be desirable. There is, however, one simple solution: Let people that work for tech companies in Silicon Valley live in Silicon Valley, a place with tons of land, no old buildings, and fewer zoning restrictions and multigenerational residents. 


The reason for the Google buses lies further south, outside of the City and County of San Francisco. There's no really easy public transport to Google and other tech companies from San Francisco. Almost impossible. So it's easier to have small buses going directly.

These buses merely need to pay a fee to use the bus stops, and preferably have stops of their own. They shouldn't get in the way. 


@BikePretty @CurlingRiver Caltrain gets you to Mountain View, but the public transit options for getting from Caltrain to the Googleplex or Apple (or most of the other large employers in Santa Clara county) are poor.

It takes over an hour to get from Caltrain to Apple or Google by public transit, and both require multiple transfers.

It would better for traffic, better for the environment, cheaper for the corporations, and better for SF if the shuttles just ran between employers and Silicon Valley transit stops. Get off at Palo Alto Caltrain or Fremont BART, take a shuttle to your job. But that would be ever so slightly less convenient for tech workers.


@Emm Actually, what would be better for traffic, better for the environment, cheaper for the corporations, and better for SF is if the people who work in Silicon Valley lived in the valley. Does it seem sensible to travel upward of 50 miles just to get to work? 

The average American drives 12,000-15,000 miles per year. Many of those miles are used to commute to work. The SF resident who works in SV commutes 20,000-30,000 miles per year. 

This translates to a minimum of 800 hours of your life lost every year. Whether done by commuter bus, public transportation or in the privacy of your own car, does commuting 100 miles a day really make sense?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,122 other followers