The year 2014 in San Francisco may be remembered as one long and dramatic Rorschach test.
On the one hand, the tech-fueled economic boom led to a minuscule 4.4 percent unemployment rate, bulging city coffers that meant department heads didn’t have to plan for cuts for the first time in recent memory, and a thriving housing market that saw the median home price hit $1 million.
But the boom also led to more evictions and the fastest-growing income gap in the nation, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. The real estate website Zillow recently reported that the median rent for apartments is $3,845 a month — you’d have to make $76.90 an hour to afford that.
How did you see 2014? Did you hop aboard a Google bus to make your commute easier — or protest one? Did you rejoice at the sight of all those cranes and construction projects — or swear in frustration when trying to drive downtown? Did you mock the $4 toast at the Mill on Divisadero that became a meme for city hipsters — or devour it?
One thing most of us can probably agree on: City Hall politicians were grasping for answers to these quandaries all year (well, besides the toast) and not coming up with many concrete solutions. At City Hall, 2014 seemed to be a year of responding to the conversation rather than driving it.
“I run a public policy shop, and sometimes it’s humbling to realize just how limited the role of public policy is,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, an urban planning think tank.
He was talking about dealing with the ramifications of the economic boom and rampant growth, but it fits with the city’s other big political news in 2014, too.
Progressives continued their success reining in waterfront development, the Golden State Warriors ditched plans for an arena on Piers 30-32 in favor of Mission Bay, the Bay Guardian closed, tenant activist Ted Gullicksen died, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White faced criticism, state Sen. Mark Leno bowed out of running for mayor next year, the zoo’s leadership faced scrutiny after the death of a baby gorilla, state Sen. Leland Yee was indicted on corruption charges, and the soda industry killed San Francisco’s thirst for a soda tax. In each instance, City Hall politicians were more bit players or supporting actors than the stars of the show.
But back to the big story of the year — the economic boom and its fallout. Metcalf said city leaders are realizing they’ve failed to develop strong enough housing and transportation policies to deal with the sheer number of people moving into the city — and are determined to correct course.
The correction can’t come soon enough for Evan Wolkenstein, a high school teacher who’s received an Ellis Act eviction notice from his landlord, Jack Halprin, who’s also a lawyer for Google. Halprin is trying to clear out four units in his building at 812 Guerrero St. in the Mission District. This month, Wolkenstein participated in a blockade of a Google bus Halprin was going to board.
“San Francisco needs to wake up and see this epidemic is real and spreading,” Wolkenstein, 40, said of evictions. “Our own local government is not really facing the problem either.”
His live-in girlfriend is also facing eviction. She’s Gabi Moskowitz, editor of the blog BrokeAss Gourmet and the inspiration for the main character in ABC Family’s television show, “Young and Hungry.” So far, the eviction hasn’t been written into the script.
Supervisor David Campos, who represents much of the Mission, said he thinks the affordability crisis will get worse before it gets better. In his failed run for Assembly against Supervisor David Chiu, Campos emphasized income inequality and the “Tale of Two Cities” theme — but he’s not sure his colleagues get it.
“The response from City Hall has been kind of mixed,” he said. “People are talking about doing something, but nothing significant has really changed.”
Campos was less than impressed by the Municipal Transportation Agency and Board of Supervisors’ agreement to finally charge Google and other tech companies whose shuttles use Muni stops. At first the charge was $1 per stop per day, though that was later raised to $3.55. (Hey, it’s still cheaper than hipster toast.)
Campos said that was a giveaway to tech companies, as was the supervisors’ passage of a law allowing short-term rentals through Airbnb without charging the company an estimated $25 million in back taxes.
Mostly, efforts to ease the real estate crunch and evictions went nowhere. Efforts by San Francisco politicians in Sacramento to curb Ellis Act evictions died. In October, a federal judge tossed San Francisco’s attempt to substantially raise the relocation fees landlords must pay tenants if they want to get out of the rental business. Voters rejected Proposition G, an antispeculation tax on the November ballot.
But some efforts to ease the affordability crisis worked. Christine Falvey, spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Lee, said the mayor spent the year focused on an “affordability agenda,” and is proud that November saw the passage of a $15 per hour minimum wage, a bond to make major improvements to public transportation and city streets, and a renewed financial commitment to public schools.
“He started the year knowing residents were looking to him to make the city more affordable, and in November, they affirmed many things to move that agenda forward,” Falvey said. “That’s what government is all about.”
Supervisor Scott Wiener said the economic boom has meant some great things for the city, including more tax money to pave the roads and make other infrastructure repairs, improve libraries and parks, and make long-needed pedestrian-safety upgrades.
And there’s just something about the city’s vibe these days, he said.
“I’ve lived in San Francisco for over 17 years, and I don’t remember there ever being so many young people in their 20s and 30s who’ve come to San Francisco to make lives for themselves,” he said. “They’re drawn to this amazing city, and that brings an incredible energy.”
Or it brings $3,845 apartments and $4 toast. You know, depending on how you look at it.
Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer who covers City Hall politics. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @hknightsf