Poverty, Google Buses and Conflicted Jews in San Francisco

When Google buses are stoned and locals protest in San Francisco, angry at being priced out of their city by high-earning tech workers, what’s the Jewish community to do?

Elka Looks
Elka Looks
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Elka Looks
Elka Looks

Earlier last month it was reported that Google would be taking over the former headquarters of Howard Quinn, a long-established newspaper and catalogue printer in San Francisco’s Mission District for 50 years. There has been speculation that this will only further fuel the anger of locals opposed to San Francisco’s rapid gentrification and increased cost of living, a phenomenon many have blamed on the tech community.

Indeed, the City by the Bay doesn’t come cheap anymore. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in November, San Francisco has the highest median rent of any city in the U.S. at $1,463 a month and the median price of housing stands at $813,000 as of January 15th of this year. Although the tech boom has undeniably had a trickledown effect to other sectors as well, increasing wages for all workers by 4.5%, creating 40,000 new jobs – two-thirds of which are not in tech - and decreasing unemployment to 4.8%, this wealth has accelerated the widening of the rich: poor income gap.

As a result, many long-time San Franciscans are finding themselves unable to afford the hiked up cost of living, and are sometimes forcibly evicted to make way for higher paying tenants. Some have chosen to express their discontent by attacking the luxury shuttles that transport tech workers from San Francisco and East Bay to Silicon Valley and others have protested outside the headquarters of tech giants such as Twitter (“Don’t twit on us”).

The City is struggling to handle the rapidly worsening housing crisis, and Mayor Ed Lee is facing criticism for providing tax breaks to tech companies to encourage them to house their offices in poorer parts of the city. Lee, whom the New York Times featured in a recent article aptly titled “A Mayor in the Middle of two San Franciscos”, has tried to address this issue, announcing an “affordability agenda”, which includes a plan to build 30,000 housing units for low- and moderate-income people by 2020 and to protect existing ones. However, with over 109,000 San Franciscans living in poverty and the number of homeless individuals standing at 6,436, let’s hope this isn’t too little too little too late.

Homelessness and poverty have long been agenda items for the organized Bay Area Jewish community. Last spring 20 Jewish and other faith-based organizations held the San Francisco Faith Summit on Poverty and committed to joining with the United Way in its quest to cut poverty in half by 2020. This is a very significant undertaking, but one that the faith community feels is not insurmountable.

Jewish Vocational Services, one of the organizations that took part in the summit, is committed to providing individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, with the training and skills they need to become – and remain – gainfully employed. In 2012-2013, JVS served 4,800 clients, leading to 943 successful job placements and over 11 million dollars in earnings. Jewish Family and Children Services serves an equally expansive clientele, providing social services to individuals of all ages, including financial assistance loans and grants, a food pantry and host of free programs for senior adults. And just this past December over 100 volunteers took part in Jewish Volunteer Day at Project Homeless Connect, providing homeless San Franciscans with the care they need to move forward.

The Jewish community is painfully aware of the serious poverty and destitution faced by thousands of San Franciscans, and there is no denying that the growing income gap between techies who have and locals who have not is largely correlated with influx of engineers and executives pulling in six figure salaries. But playing the blame game is far from productive, and banishing the tech sector would not only lead to a serious economic setback but it would diminish the innovative ethos that typifies the tech community, an ethos that has contributed greatly to San Francisco’s creative spirit.

But the tech community’s contribution has far from reached its potential, and that same innovative spirit that has turned San Francisco into a world-renowned startup hub has yet to be holistically channeled toward improving the quality of life for their less fortunate neighbors. Some companies have already realized the importance of giving back to the San Francisco community. For example, at the end of last month, Google announced that it was donating 6.8 million dollars to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to fund an existing pilot program that allows low and middle-income San Francisco children to ride city public transport for free. And Square, a mobile payments company located in San Francisco’s mid-Market district, has launched “Cleanstreets”, a weekly employee excursion to pick up San Francisco’s trash.

Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce.com, is one of the most vocal advocates of tech philanthropy, donating 1% of his company’s equity, profits and time to charity and giving back to the City. In fact, last week, Benioff announced in honor of the company’s 15th birthday, that Salesforce and the nonprofit Tipping Point will be forming SF Gives, an initiative to raise $10 million over the ensuing 60 days for Bay Area antipoverty programs. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Benioff argued that a lot of the anti-tech rhetoric will fall to the wayside if tech companies start giving back to San Francisco.

Promoting anti-tech rhetoric and vandalizing buses is not the answer, but protestors’ frustrations are not unfounded. It’s time for the tech community to come down from its inflated-market-rate ivory tower, and join the Jewish community and the greater Bay Area community in contributing to the vibrant, diverse, pulsing city they call home.

Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the communications manager for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.

Google Inc. employees board a bus that will take them to the company's campus, in Mountain View, from San Francisco, California, February 14, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg
The party ended on April 30, when the U.S. District Court in San Francisco sentenced Samuel "Mouli" Cohen to 22 years in prison for white-collar crimes.Credit: AP

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