The flyer tucked on the windshield of a tech worker’s car on South Van Ness didn’t mince words: “The Mission has been colonized by pigs with money. … They help landlords drive up rents, pushing working and poor people out of their homes.”
The leaflet urged people to key the cars of wealthy new transplants: “Take action now!”
The year was 1999.
Todd Lappin, one of those singled out by the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project’s flyer, moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s and still lives in Bernal Heights. He’s 46, owns a home, has a daughter, runs a neighborhood blog and, yes, works in tech as a product manager at Flipboard.
No one protests him now, and the man behind the flyers has long ceased to rabble-rouse.
In today’s rendition of the play, new actors have taken on the roles of protester and protested – but tech remains the villain.
Those who stormed dot-com offices in 2000 and blocked Google buses in 2014 both view real estate and city policy as the real drivers of the housing crisis. So how did tech become the bad guy – and why has the image stuck?
In tech’s early days, antiestablishment hackers shared a little-guy ethos with progressive housing activists. That perception changed in the dot-com boom.
“In the beginning, a lot of people were really eager for the investment, the jobs and the growth, and then over time, as the downsides of the growing economy added up, people got more worried about it,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a San Francisco urban planning research group.
In 1995, Chris Daly, a dot-com-era housing activist who rode that wave to a decadelong term on the Board of Supervisors, was organizing protests at residential hotels. Five years later, his group seized the offices of BigStep.com, where police arrested 15 protesters.
“By ’98, we were able to tie it into the dot-com stuff – we started seeing more of it,” he said.
As the boom peaked in late 1999, San Francisco felt much as it does today. Startups turned warehouses into offices. Venture capitalists poured money into companies with no earnings. Chronicle reporters wrung their hands about the disappearing soul of the Mission, as home prices in the city jumped 30 percent in now-familiar patterns.
Then the bubble popped. Real estate became cheaper, dot-commers lost jobs and left town, and their detractors indulged in a little schadenfreude.
“You could see people with tight-lipped smiles of satisfaction, of ‘Well, those little twerps had it coming,’ ” said technology analyst Paul Saffo.
Lappin and the other dot-commers who stayed in San Francisco – and “it’s not easy to stay,” he said – grew up, had kids and settled down. (Some, like Carol Lloyd, who covered gentrification for Salon.com, are now being priced out themselves.) Full-time activists looked elsewhere, to Iraq, big banks or Occupy.
But while the bust slowed growth, some say it also sucked away the momentum for policy change. A proposal to revamp zoning restrictions in the Mission and other eastern neighborhoods took a decade to hammer out. By the time LinkedIn went public in 2011, marking the arrival of the second boom, the city was only beginning to build the housing it needed on the newly zoned land. The underlying imbalance between supply and demand only grew, and activists still don’t agree on whether the plan addressed the city’s needs correctly.
Demands not answered
“One of the reasons we’re still in this situation is that a lot of the things that were asked for (during the dot-com boom) were never carried through,” said Gabriel Medina, policy manager at the Mission Economic Development Agency.
And the lack of institutional memory doesn’t help. Both activism and tech skew heavily toward the young, who have a reputation for not remembering past gentrification battles – and not being particularly conscientious.
“A high percentage of activists are people in their 20s,” said Daly, who now lives in Fairfield and works as a union political director. “And if you’re in your 20s, you weren’t very old 15 years ago.”
Lappin said the same of today’s fresh-out-of-college tech workers.
“What are you going to expect from someone who’s 25 years old? Give them a break,” he said. “If you were a hippie and 25 in 1971, your neighbors probably didn’t like you very much either.”
A tech job was still a novelty when Adelle McElveen moved to the Bay Area six years ago – back when the New York Times described Google’s shuttle buses as maybe the company’s “biggest perk.”
McElveen, 30, a former Google contractor, first spotted an anti-Google flyer in the Mission last year. She was puzzled. People used to be curious about her job, not resentful.
“I never imagined that I would become an object of scorn and hate,” she said.
Meanwhile, 31-year-old housing activist Erin McElroy was struggling to get the media to link housing and tech. Evictions performed using the Ellis Act peaked in 2000, and though they’ve risen sharply in the recent years – surging 81 percent last year alone – they haven’t returned to the levels of the dot-com boom. But McElroy said more landlords were turning to buyouts and tenant harassment to get units back on the market. And she blamed it on tech money.
The activists came up with a new plan: Pin it to the bus.
In June, activists rented a Google-like bus and drove it down Market in the Pride Parade to protest evictions, but it barely made a blip in the press. When they plotted to block a Google bus in the Mission in early December, they were expecting much of the same.
“We actually talked about, ‘OK, so this will be our first one. It probably won’t get much media attention. We’ll build up to a bigger one maybe next year,’ ” McElroy said.
The morning of the protest, McElveen and McElroy were both waiting at the bus stop at 24th and Valencia streets when the Google bus pulled up. McElveen got on. McElroy grabbed a sign and stood in front – and turned tech into a national scapegoat.
The bus protest was a huge success in terms of coverage. Media covered tech-related protests with an excitement that didn’t extend to traditional housing rights marches.
According to McElroy, the active villains are government and its corporate interests; her problem is with Twitter tax breaks, not Twitter workers. But in a time when Mark Zuckerberg has a line to the Oval Office and Sean Parker’s extravagant redwoods wedding became national news, the tech-centered campaign struck a nerve.
“We’d been organizing marches and protests against Realtors and investors for a while and not getting media coverage,” McElroy said. “And then suddenly, we stopped a Google bus and the whole world turned our way.”
The protesters’ message was heard far and wide that day – but at first, they didn’t even reach those inside the bus.
“We pretty much just sat there,” McElveen said. “I couldn’t see anything because I didn’t have a window seat, and even if I did, they were at the front of the bus. We just didn’t understand what they were doing, what they were saying, what they wanted.”
The two women were on opposite sides of the tech divide, but similar in background. Nearly the same age, they both have college degrees and entrepreneurial spirits. McElveen, who runs her own fashion blog, is not the sort of tech worker most activists perceive to be the enemy – a black woman who marched against the Iraq War and said she makes “less than a BART worker.”
McElveen said she understands the protesters’ point but feels unfairly demonized for her former job, where contractors like herself often make half of an engineer’s salary and don’t have access to the perks full-time employees receive.
“They’re painting their allies as enemies,” she said. “When you villainize everyone because of their employer, you’re alienating huge swaths of people.”
McElroy has little sympathy for tech workers who feel victimized. They are projecting their own guilt inward, she said.
“It’s not like we were out there protesting the individuals on the bus,” she said. “Anybody who thinks that we were is missing the point and making it about them, and that’s honestly really selfish.”
Real estate realities
Today’s activists want policy changes: eviction moratoriums, Ellis Act reform and increased relocation payments. Tech companies can’t control any of those things – though a string of recent donations and calls for greater civic mindfulness have tried to quell the outrage.
Daly said that in both booms, housing activists understood that the city’s real estate policy and industry were more the problem than tech. But with tech’s greater visibility, activists were wise to harness the zeitgeist.
“When we protest in front of Twitter, it’s more effective than in front of Vanguard Properties,” he said.
Those protests, however, have left tech workers feeling demonized. Protesters say they blame corporations, but individuals take the heat at community meetings and in “die techie scum” graffiti.
“In a war, why do you keep killing the infantry?” Daly said. “They happen to be the ones on the battle lines. Doesn’t mean the generals aren’t more responsible.”
Losing battle for workers
The infantry is also numerous. Thirty percent of new jobs in San Francisco since 2010 are in tech, according to city data. Many of these jobs are well-paying; the average Silicon Valley tech worker earned $108,603 last year, according to Dice.com. That gives them a competitive edge looking for housing in the Mission – where entrenched housing activists are most likely to protest their arrival.
It doesn’t help that the more tech workers try to defend themselves, the testier it gets. At community gatherings meant to foster open discussion about tech and gentrification, most speakers wouldn’t give their names, to protect themselves from both online commenters and their employers’ strict media rules.
The code of silence might avoid obvious missteps, but it does little to mitigate tech workers’ stereotypes as insular and arrogant. It’s much easier to vilify tech workers when they file off of unmarked buses with heads down and earbuds jammed in tight.
“The bubble of the company reaches all the way to the curb nearest the person’s home,” Saffo said. “You end up like an astronaut, commuting from one space station to another.”
Blame falls on industry
Many tech workers said they were frustrated at being stereotyped as culturally oblivious newcomers. (One Mission District native said “they act like Christopher Columbus discovering America.”) But it makes sense to stay quiet when previously unknown tech bros like Peter Shih and Greg Gopman became local pariahs for saying obnoxious things about the city. They were beaten down, and their industry was blamed for their attitude.
Tech is a convenient villain. Activists use it as a stand-in to protest more nebulous players – and the world pays attention because tech is a hot topic. Tech companies see little reason to get involved in a war of the words. And tech workers haven’t found a way to speak for themselves without inviting more scorn.
“Only the most brazen techies speak out, who are unfortunately the least respectful or civic-minded, giving all tech workers a bad name,” said Erik, a 26-year-old engineer who declined to give his last name at the request of his employer. “You won’t hear from the other 99.99 percent of us as long as there is so much hostility and bullying instead of a willingness to listen.”
Ellen Huet is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @ellenhuet