The Mayor of Resentment City

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

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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.