I Came to San Francisco to Change My Life: I Found a Tribe of Depressed Workaholics Living on Top of One Another

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Hacker House Blues: my life with 12 programmers, 2 rooms and one 21st-century dream.
By David Garczynski / Salon September 18, 2016

I might have been trespassing up there, but I would often go to the 19th-floor business lounge to work and study. Located on the top floor of the a luxury high-rise in the SOMA district of San Francisco, the lounge was only accessible to residents of the building. Yet for a while I found myself there almost every day.

Seventeen floors below, I lived in an illegal Airbnb with 12 roommates split between two rooms. There were six people packed into my bedroom alone — seven, if you included the guy who lived in the closet. Three bunk beds adorned the walls, and I was fortunate enough to score a bottom bunk. Unfortunately, though, it was not the one by the window, which, with the exception of one dim lamp, was the only source of light in the room. Even at midday, the room never lit up much more than a shadowed cave. At most hours of the day, you could find someone sleeping in there. Getting in and out of bed was a precarious dance in the darkness to avoid stepping into the suitcases on the floor, out of which most of us lived.

In the shared kitchen, the sink more often than not held a giant pile of dishes, and the fridge, packed with everyone’s groceries and leftovers, emanated a slightly moldy aroma. Mixed in there were the half-eaten meals and unfinished condiment jars of tenants who had long since moved out — all left to rot, but often too far buried in the mass of food to be located.

Let’s just say the room was not as advertised.

The Airbnb posting did boast of access to a 24-hour gym, roof deck and bocce courts. The building has an indoor basketball court, an outdoor hot tub and even a rock climbing wall. The 19th-floor business lounge alone comes with a pool table, a porch, several flat-screen TVs and an enviable view of much of San Francisco. For $1,200 a month, it all seemed worth it. The post did say it was a four-person apartment, not 13, and included a picture of a sunny room with a pair of bunk beds, but I figured for a short sub-lease while I attended coding school, it wouldn’t be so bad. The reviews, after all, were pretty positive, too: mostly 5-stars. However, none of them mentioned the fact that I wouldn’t even be given a front door key.

I’d have to sneak into the building every night. The only way I entered the building was by waiting until someone exited or entered, and then I’d slip through the door before it closed. From there I’d walk straight past the front desk guard and head to the bank of elevators. Despite my nerves, that part was surprisingly easy. The building caters to the young tech elite, so a backwards hat and a collegiate T-shirt practically made me invisible. When I got to my floor, I’d make sure none of the neighbors were watching, and if no one was around, I’d stand on my tiptoes and grab the communal key hidden atop the exit sign. Once the door was unlocked, I’d return the key to its perch for the next tenant to use.

I had moved to San Francisco to break into the tech world after being accepted into one of those ubiquitous 12-week coding boot camps. I had dreams of becoming a programmer, hoping one day I could land a remote contracting gig — a job where I could work from wherever and make a good living. My life would be part ski bum and part professional.

In my mid-20s uncertainty, the coding route seemed to have the most promise — high paychecks in companies that prized work-life balance, or so it seemed from afar. I knew the road wouldn’t be easy, but any time I’d mention my ambitions to family and friends, they responded with resounding positivity, affirming my belief that it was a well-worn path to an obtainable goal.

All of the people in that Airbnb were programmers. Some were trying to break into the industry through boot camps, but most were already full-time professional coders. They headed out early in the morning to their jobs at start-ups in the neighborhood. A lot of them hailed from some of the top schools in the country: Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth. If I was going to get through my program, I needed to rely on them, academically and emotionally. Once the program started up, I would find myself coding 15 hours a day during the week, with that number mercifully dropping to 10-12 hours on the weekends. Late at night, when my stressed-out thoughts would form an ever-intensifying feedback loop of questioning despair — What am I doing? Is this really worth it? — I would need to be able to look to the people around me as living reminders of the possibility of my goals.

Every night, the people whose jobs I coveted would come home from 10- to 12-hour shifts in front of a computer and proceed to the couch, where they’d open up their laptops and spend the remaining hours of the night in silence, sifting through more and more lines of code. Beyond preternatural math abilities and a penchant for problem solving, it seemed most didn’t have much in the way of life skills. They weren’t who I thought they would be — a community of intelligent and inspiring men and women bouncing ideas back and forth. Rather they were boys and girls, coddled by day in the security of companies that fed them, entertained them and nursed them. At home, they could barely take care of themselves.

Take for example the programmer who lived in my closet: Every night he’d come home around 9 p.m. He’d sit on the couch, pour himself a bowl of cereal and eat in silence. Then he would grab his laptop and head directly into the closet — a so-called “private room” listed on Airbnb for $1,400 a month. It was the only time I’d ever see him. The only way I could tell he was home was by the glow of his laptop seeping out from under the closet door. Hours later, deep into the night, the light would go out, and I would know he had to gone to sleep. By the time I arrived, he had been living there for 16 months, in a windowless closet with a thin mattress placed right on the floor. During the day he codes for Pinterest. Yeah . . . that Pinterest.

Maybe there were people working in this city who were living out the tech dreams of everyone else, but I’ve realized the number of people who dream about it far outnumber of people who obtain it. Everyone I spoke to in this town seemed doe-eyed about the future, even while they were living in illegal Airbnbs and working at failing startups across the city.

The odds weren’t in my favor. Most likely I’d find myself in the 92 percent of start-ups that go under in three years, trapped like some of my friends — much smarter and better programmers than I’ll ever be — bouncing from failing company to failing company.
Or maybe not. Maybe I would make it, only to become like my friends who earn six-figure paychecks and still lament that they’ll never be able to buy a home here. What illusions could I continue to maintain then?

There was a good chance I’d find myself in a situation like another roommate’s. During salary negotiations for a job at a start-up, he was encouraged to accept the pay tier with a lower salary but higher equity stake. Now he works 12-hour days just to try to keep the company (and his potential payout) afloat on a paycheck not much higher than some entry-level, non-programming jobs.

The most likely scenario, however, was that I’d become like the mid-30s man who slept in the bunk above me. The reality of his situation slowly slipped him into a depressive state, until he was sleeping most hours of the day. The rest of his waking hours were spent walking around slumped and gloomy.

Programming for me was never supposed to be more than a means to an end, but that end started to feel farther and farther away. The longer I lived in that Airbnb, the longer I realized my dreams would never be met. In all likelihood I would be swept up in an economy here that traded on hopes and dreams of the people clamoring to break in. The illegal Airbnbs that dot the city can afford to charge their amounts because there is no shortage of people wanting to break in. There is another smart kid around the corner who believes that despite the working and living conditions this is just the first step to striking it big. Never tell them the odds.

I had hinged my happiness on an illusion and naively fought to get into a community that wouldn’t help me advance in the direction of my dreams. Maybe in the end I would get everything I needed or at least a nice paycheck, but I’d lose all of myself in the process. I’d be churned and beaten by the underbelly of the tech world here long before I could ever make it out.

If you are interested, it’s not that hard to sneak up to the 19th-floor lounge. I still do sometimes, despite having long since moved out and given up programming. From up there the view of San Francisco takes on the artificial quality of a miniature model. To the north, you’ll see a sea of tech start-ups, their signs and symbols a wild mash of colors. From this distance, it can all look so peaceful. Just know that somewhere in that view is another “hacker house” with bright kids living in almost migrant-worker conditions. Somewhere out there is a coding boot camp with slightly inflated numbers, selling a dream. Their fluorescent halls and cramped bedrooms are filled with the perennially hopeful looking to take the place of those who have already realized this dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It is a beautiful view, though. Just one I no longer want for myself.

David Garczynski has lived in the Bay Area for one year now. In that time, he’s lived in an illegal Airbnb, on his cousin’s couch, in two short-term subleases, and has been evicted once. He just signed an official (and legal) lease last week.

http://www.alternet.org/labor/hacker-house-blues-my-life-12-programmers-2-rooms-and-one-21st-century-dream?akid=14654.265072.JhW8o4&rd=1&src=newsletter1063941&t=12

Financial parasitism and the global housing crisis

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By Gabriel Black
31 May 2016

Rent and housing costs in most major cities have skyrocketed since the financial crisis, cutting deeply into workers’ standard of living and prompting concerns about a new global housing bubble. Driving the soaring cost of rent is a global financial system that is being pumped full of cheap credit by all the major central governments at the expense of workers around the world.

Prices in some areas boggle the mind. San Francisco’s average asking price for a one-bedroom apartment went from $1,258 per month in January 2010 to $4,126 in February 2016. In London, the average home price has doubled since 2009, from about £300,000 ($437,600 USD) to £600,000 ($875,100).

Hong Kong’s housing market, which largely avoided the US real estate crash, more than tripled in its average sale between 2004 and today. The city is now considered the least affordable place in the world, with the median Hong Kong home price worth 19 times the city’s average skilled white-collar worker’s annual salary.

Housing and rental markets are so high that the Swiss bank UBS estimates that the majority of the world’s urban real estate markets are now “significantly overvalued.”

What is most striking about the colossal increase in prices, however, is how divorced it is from the incomes of the vast majority of the global population, which are moving in the opposite direction.

Historically, rent prices have tended to move with income and inflation. For example, in the United States the median home price adjusted for inflation remained largely flat between 1970 and 1998, fluctuating slightly above and below $160,000. This was a period in which workers’ incomes were also flat. After 1998, however, the housing market skyrocketed, with the median home price rising from about $160,000 in 1998 to $275,000 in 2006, the peak of the finance-driven boom. This jump was driven by all manner of financial speculation, including rampant criminal behavior, which had been let loose by the lowering of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve.

The housing market today is going through a new version of the 2006 housing crisis. However, unlike 2006, this process is global. Nearly every major capitalist government in the world is pursuing a policy of near-zero interest rates, encouraging rampant speculation in both the stock market and the real estate market.

This trend can be seen clearly in the United States. Between 2001 and 2014, the average real rental price rose 7 percent nationwide according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. During that same period, median household income dropped by 9 percent.

In Los Angeles, the second largest city in the US, 40 percent of families either make poverty wages or are unemployed. As families and individuals increasingly struggle to make ends meet, rent has increased sharply in LA. In January 2010, an average one bedroom apartment went for $1,224 a month. Six years later, the cost was $1,935. And the worst is not over. A 2016 forecast by USC Casden Multifamily predicts that in the next few years rent will “soar.” It is no wonder that homeless in the city grew by 16 percent in just two years between 2013 and 2015.

Another way of capturing the growing divide between wages and rent for hundreds of millions of workers around the world is the Median Multiple, the ratio between median household income and average home price. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability 2016 Survey, a Median Multiple of three and under is considered affordable (e.g., a family making $50,000 a year buying a house at $150,000 or less). A multiple exceeding five is considered “severely unaffordable.”

In 2015 Demographia surveyed 367 cities inside the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Japan. According to the group, the 10 most unaffordable cities were: Hong Kong with a Median Multiple of 19.0; Sydney (12.2); Vancouver (10.8); Melbourne, (9.7); Auckland (9.7); San Jose (9.7); San Francisco (9.4); London (8.5); Los Angeles (8.1) and San Diego (8.1). All of these cities have experienced a doubling or even tripling of their Median Multiple since 1998.

The surge in prices and collapse in income has led to more renters on the renting market, since buying has become out of reach. In the United States, between 2005 and 2015, there were 9 million new renting households. This is the largest gain on record for a 10-year period according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In 2015, 37 percent of all US households rented, the highest level since the mid-1960s, and up from 31 percent in 2005.

Workers are now becoming trapped in this situation, as they spend more of their income paying for rent and are less and less likely to be able to buy a house. In 2001 in the US, 41 percent of renters spent 30 percent of their income or more on rent. This rose to 49 percent in 2014. In the same year, 26 percent of the renting population spent more than half of their income on rent. In the UK, a fifth of all young adults now stay in their parents’ home until they are at least 26. In 2015, 31.5 percent of US young people aged 18 to 34 lived at home, up from 27 percent in 2005.

While workers suffer under crushing rent burdens, landlords and investors are raking in millions if not billions. This year, a total of 184 billionaires made their wealth through real estate. This was up by 22 individuals from the year before, even as the overall number of billionaires went down from 1,826 to 1,810 individuals.

Those who make money off of rents do not add anything to the productive system. While a certain amount of money can go to maintenance and upkeep, vast and increasing sums of money made by real estate are from the pure monopoly status of owning land.

The wealth of these billionaires principally comes from the unsavory fact that in order to keep the global economy afloat, the central banks around the world have pumped the major banks full with cheap credit.

As UBS Global notes in its 2015 Global Real Estate Bubble Index, “Loose monetary policy has prevented a normalization of housing markets and encouraged local bubble risks to grow.” They write that much of the “overvaluation” in the global housing stock comes from a “dependence on low interest rates.”

“Price-to-rent (PR) multiples are greatest in Zurich, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Geneva and Singapore. The extremely high PR multiplies indicate an undue dependence of housing prices on low interest rates. Paris, London and Sydney follow suit and form a trio of cities with PR multiples around 30. House prices in these cities are vulnerable to a sharp correction should interest rates rise.”

In other words, the deluge of cheap credit provided by the world’s central governments to their major banks has unleashed an orgy of speculation. The world’s richest are getting even richer by doing nothing as their real estate investments shoot through the roof. Meanwhile the vast majority of the world’s population must pay increasingly obscene amounts just to have a place to live.

As Lenin noted in his work Imperialism, in capitalism’s state of decay there is an “extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by ‘clipping coupons’, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness.”

This describes exactly the parasitic layer of real estate moguls, whose money comes not from producing anything of value to the world economy, but by sucking away money from the system in the form of rent. There is no one who benefits from high rents except the small layer of people who control the vast majority of the world’s property.

 

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Uber, Airbnb and the Clash Between Workers and the On-Demand Economy

What the Uber settlement and the SEIU-Unite Here fracas mean for labor as Uber navigates Silicon Valley disruption.

The Uber Battle Has Only Just Begun

It’s one of those universally acknowledged truths that the rise of the on-demand economy creates challenges for the labor movement. Last week, a major court settlement and a backroom fracas between two unions emphasized the immediacy of those challenges.

Ride-hailing giant Uber agreed to pay $84 million to settle two class-action lawsuits from its drivers, essentially buying time before the company has to answer to whether its business model—classifying drivers as independent contractors—is legal. Meanwhile, the Service Employees Union International and hospitality union Unite Here’s competing interests in the sharing economy came to blows when SEIU tried to broker a controversial deal with Airbnb.

Both the court settlement and the SEIU-Unite Here brouhaha have created more questions than answers to how unions—and the labor movement more broadly—can effectively combat the harmful consequences of Silicon Valley’s disruption of the employer-employee relationship.

Uber’s $84 million settlement with drivers made for nice headlines, but as Michael Hiltzik notes for TheLos Angeles Times, when looked at closely it’s a far better deal for the company than the workers. The most active drivers in the suit will receive up to $8,000, but compensation for the vast majority of the drivers involved will likely be just a couple hundred bucks.  Additionally, Uber must now show cause for “deactivating” (its Orwellian phrasing for “canning”) drivers, and not accepting enough rides cannot be one of those causes. Whether this will actually lead to fewer unpredictable firings remains to be seen.

A final concession in the deal requires Uber to “facilitate and recognize” drivers’ associations that can bring up drivers’ concerns and discuss them with the company on a quarterly basis. Again, the degree to which such an association would have any real benefit for workers—or whether it’d be a pseudo-company union—remains unclear.

Meanwhile, Uber’s $84 million payout is a bargain. By agreeing to the settlement, Uber completely avoided any legal ruling on whether the company must classify its drivers as employees. Uber has an estimated valuation of $64 billion (how much of that is attributable to its refusal to acknowledge its drivers are employees is anybody’s guess), and the company likely sees the settlement as a way to buy some legal breathing room on the issue of misclassification as it faces attacks on several other fronts.

For instance, the National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating whether Uber’s drivers are in fact traditional employees, and thus eligible for minimum wages, overtime, workers’ compensation, and importantly, the right to unionize. Unions like the Teamsters are already attempting to organize drivers in anticipation of a favorable ruling and lobbying for legislation that allows for gig workers to unionize. Seattle, which is on the vanguard of passing labor-friendly ordinances, recently passed a law granting independent contractors the right to unionize. Democrats in the California legislature were also pushing a similar law, though they recently announced that they are holding off for now (the California bill apparently gave workers less power than the Seattle ordinance, prompting some unions to temper or withhold their support). The Teamsters have announced that they are forming an association for Uber drivers in California similar to the association they are helping support in Seattle.

The union strategy for gaining ground among app-based drivers so far appears to be a rather chaotic approach of throwing everything—organizing, lawsuits, legislation—at the wall and seeing what sticks. Central to a cohesive strategy is the question of whether labor can force companies like Uber to classify its drivers as employees, which may result in the happiest outcome for workers but which also may require a long, expensive battle in the courts.

An alternative route, pioneered by Seattle, is to push for collective bargaining rights for independent contractors, which would ensure workers’ right to organize but gives employers flexibility and enables them to duck many of traditional employers’ legal responsibilities. Some centrists in the Democratic Party favor establishing a new, third classification, often called a “dependent contractor,” that would extend some legal guarantees to workers like Uber drivers; many in labor see this as an unnecessary concession to employers who just want to craft new, less comprehensive regulations to better fit their business models. The Uber settlement settles none of these issues; indeed, it merely ensures that the debate, both within and without the labor movement, will continue.

When Solidarity Softens

Early last week, news broke that SEIU was trying to reach a deal with home-rental company Airbnb. In exchange for the union’s tacit seal of approval, the company would endorse a $15 minimum wage and promote the use of unionized housekeepers to its hosts. When Unite Here, which represents hotel workers, heard that this deal was in the works, it furiously mobilized a coalition of labor and housing activists calling on SEIU to pull out.

“We are appalled by reports that SEIU is partnering with Airbnb, a company that has destroyed communities by driving up housing costs and killing good hotel jobs in urban markets across North America,” said Unite Here spokesperson Annemarie Strassel in a statement. “Airbnb has shown a blatant disregard for city and state laws, has refused to cooperate with government agencies, and turns a blind eye to the fact that its business model exacerbates the affordable housing crisis.”

“They are essentially selling cheap cover to an American corporation for union dues from a few members,” said Peter Ward, head of the Unite Here local in New York. “It goes against all the principles of the labor movement.”

It was also discovered that former SEIU President Andy Stern was acting as a representative for Airbnb in the negotiations, reigniting criticism from many within labor that the union (and Stern in particular) was too inclined to cut deals with corporations that might add to its membership rolls. But SEIU quickly released a statement saying that they were merely having an early-stage conversation and denying that they had reached a deal. “We actively and regularly engage in conversations with companies who are committed to doing right by their workforce by paying better wages and giving them a voice at work through their union,” an SEIU spokesperson said in a statement. Airbnb is one such company, however, there is no formal relationship or agreement between SEIU and Airbnb.”

Later in the week, reports surfaced that the SEIU-Airbnb deal had crumbled, and after privately meeting, Unite Here and SEIU agreed “to find a common approach to protect and expand the stock of affordable housing in all communities across the country and to protect and preserve standards for workers in residential and hotel cleaning while also growing opportunities for these cleaners to improve their lives,” according to an SEIU statement.

The not-so-small irony here is that SEIU has for years been funding and directing probably the largest union campaign in history to have directly benefited millions of workers—the Fight for 15—despite the fact, as the union must know, that it has faint prospects of turning the vast majority of those workers into dues-paying members. And yet, when the union was presented with perhaps the first such campaign that could have generated more members—the Airbnb initiative—it came at the expense of another union, Unite Here, which has a vested interest in the industry where most of its members are employed, as SEIU does not. Understandably, Unite Here took SEIU’s pursuit of the Airbnb deal as a direct affront to its own mission, and it had no trouble rallying affordable housing advocates and other unions to its cause.

This is far from the first time that unions have had contentious turf battles. However, with membership rolls diminished, the more active unions (such as SEIU and Unite Here) are constantly searching for new organizing opportunities. Silicon Valley and its startup economy bring with them both organizing opportunities and organizing conundrums. But unless and until labor can agree on a common strategy and appropriate jurisdictions, the SEIU-Unite Here fracas will just be the first chapter in what could be a chaotic period within the movement.

Justin Miller is a Writing Fellow at The American Prospect. 

 

http://www.alternet.org/labor/uber-airbnb-and-clash-between-workers-and-demand-economy?akid=14232.265072.u3PTBc&rd=1&src=newsletter1055920&t=2

We Are Witnessing the Death of San Francisco’s Revolutionary Spirit

The tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city.

Photo Credit: Emily Lin Scott/Flickr Creative Commons

Once on a flight home to San Francisco for a visit from college in Boston, I sat next to an anarchist couple in their 60s. They were dressed all in black with matching fedoras over long, gray hair, and came armed with giant sketchpads. They were warm, happy people, who spent the trip sketching and encouraging each other. When not drawing, they turned their attention to me, and we chatted, pleasantly exchanging conflicting political and artistic ideals. They told me they admired my studies; I said I admired their sketches. I don’t believe any of us were lying.

Ten years later, in the English class I now teach at Brooklyn College, we were discussing Colson Whitehead’s “City Limits.” The conversation was animated—New York natives and transplants alike connected to Whitehead’s meditation on the changeable nature of the five boroughs. As we considered the many ways in which the city was re-inventing itself now, one student, a native of Bed-Stuy, said her parents were selling their house. She added, with a bemused shrug, that “I guess now people want brownstones in Bed-Stuy.”

I remember having this reaction on the phone with a friend a few years after my interaction with my anarchist seatmates. Then, she had told me they were building condos in a squalid area of downtown that had been re-branded as “SOMA.”

“SOMA?!” we had both laughed in disbelief. Calling that stretch of empty warehouses, urban crime, and homelessness near the train depot by a trendy acronym seemed like nothing more than a crude marketing ploy. And yet, only a few short years later, those condos, like the Bed-Stuy brownstones, were selling for millions of dollars; the tech takeover of San Francisco had begun in earnest.

Unlike New York, San Francisco has a somewhat parochial history. Each new group entering the city can be singled out, and conclusions can be drawn about that population’s contribution to the texture of the city as a whole. To name but a few, there were ’49ers in the gold rush, the beats, the hippies, the gays, and now the techies. And then, of course, there have been influxes of various ethnic and immigrant groups that have played a significant role in shaping the city.

Something many of these movements had in common was a flocking to a city where thought could be freer, conventions more challenged. One need only skim through the great chroniclers of San Francisco—John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, William Vollmann, Gary Kamiya, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Rebecca Solnit—to glean that the allure of San Francisco is not any one promise or movement in particular, but a revolutionary spirit that the city has always abided, one ideal after another.

It would take a much longer essay than this to really delve into the various transplant movements in San Francisco and how each was received and embedded in the city’s existing culture. But if we consider only a few of the most instantly recognizable ones, it’s easy to see how each vociferous counter-culture was able to change the city’s dialogue and image while remaining somewhat insular. Where were the hippies? The Haight. The gays? The Castro. The beats? North Beach.

I present this cordoning off as a mere fact—not to say that those challenging the status quo should keep themselves to themselves, but that one of the ways San Francisco has been repeatedly successful in accommodating strong-convicted and sometimes conflicting viewpoints is that each has been able to stake out its own little space without being forced to conform or compete with its neighbors.

In many ways, it makes a lot of sense that the tech movement has its roots in the Bay Area. Where else but San Francisco would a corporation take pride in thinking “different,” or bright young dropouts be accepted as pioneering geniuses instead of family screw-ups? On its face, startup culture seems a natural fit for the city’s other transplant movements—it claims to buck convention, be curious, and create a community of like-minded people.

But, as we know, the tech community has not “merely” gentrified “SOMA” and contributed its new voice to the larger conversation in San Francisco. With its attendant wealth and heady feelings of power, the tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city, driving out whole communities and stamping out the possibility of pushback to its ideals from other populations. The harm of the tech takeover is not that this movement has turned out to be more square, nerdy, or moneyed than the city’s other revolutionary movements, but that under the guise of “improving” the city, it is literally bulldozing physical space for living, debate, and the exchange of ideas, thus ridding the city of its generations-long ability to support its local residents and receive non-conformers. The Tenderloin, a hub for cutting-edge social programming since single room occupancy hotels were established for family-less prostitutes after the 1906 earthquake, is now the subject of myopic open letters accusing it of being a blight on the sort of San Francisco the tech industry desires.

The tech takeover is also fundamentally changing a city that, not so long ago, was considered an “island of diversity.” Startlingly, it’s projected that by 2040, San Francisco County will have a non-Hispanic white majority—jumping from 42 percent in 2013 to 52 percent in 25 years. The percentage of Asians is expected to fall from 34 percent to 28 percent, and the Latino population from 15 percent to 12 percent. The city’s already-declining African-American population, currently at just 6 percent, is expected to remain about the same. How will these shifting demographics further erode what once made the city great?

On a plane a few weeks ago from New York to San Francisco, I chatted with my seatmate, a nice woman from Long Island on her way to visit her son, who works in tech. By the time we had reached cruising altitude I knew about his education, his career goals, and the current housing hunt he and his fiancée were on for a place to accommodate their planned family of four.

This was a genuinely kind woman who spoke well of her son. A man who is, by her account, successful and in a happy relationship, and she is rightly proud of him. But our conversation introduced no viewpoint I had never encountered before, and was merely a way to idly pass time talking about nothing but the particulars of one’s own success. It brought in stark relief my experience 10 years ago, when the topics of conversation had been public funding for the arts, the difference between a democracy and a republic, and anecdotes about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The contrast makes me wonder how often in the future I will encounter fellow travelers like that couple, and be confronted with people who think differently than I do and talk about subjects I do not normally consider. Or if whether, someday soon, they’ll disappear from planes to San Francisco altogether, when there is no longer a single neighborhood at the flight’s destination willing to keep them around.

 

Emma Bushnell is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, Bustle, Full Stop, and elsewhere. She is completing her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College and is at work on a novel.

 

http://www.alternet.org/economy/we-are-witnessing-death-san-franciscos-revolutionary-spirit?akid=14201.265072.CzY7It&rd=1&src=newsletter1055415&t=18

You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him?

 
Mark Zuckerberg
‘The dominance of Facebook in Americans’ daily lives, and the fact that more people get their news from it than any other source, means the influence of the company in elections has never been greater.’ Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him?  Facebook could use its unprecedented powers to tilt the 2016 presidential election away from him – and the social network’s employees have apparently openly discussed whether they should do so.

As Gizmodo reported on Friday, “Last month, some Facebook employees used a company poll to ask [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg whether the company should try ‘to help prevent President Trump in 2017’.”

Facebook employees are probably just expressing the fear that millions of Americans have of the Republican demagogue. But while there’s no evidence that the company plans on taking anti-Trump action, the extraordinary ability that the social network has to manipulate millions of people with just a tweak to its algorithm is a serious cause for concern.

The fact that an internet giant like Facebook or Google could turn an election based on hidden changes to its code has been a hypothetical scenario for years (and it’s even a plot point in this season’s House of Cards). Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explained in 2010 how “Facebook could decide an election without anyone ever finding out”, after the tech giant secretly conducted a test in which they were able to allegedly increase voter turnout by 340,000 votes around the country on election day simply by showing users a photo of someone they knew saying “I voted”.

Facebook repeated this civics engagement experiment on a broader scale during the 2012 election. While the testing did not favor any one candidate, the potential for that power to be used to manipulate voters became such an obvious concern that Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said, in 2014, “I want to be clear – Facebook can’t control emotions and cannot and will not try to control emotions.” She added: “Facebook would never try to control elections.”

Her comments came right after a controversial study conducted by Facebook became public. It showed that, in fact, the company had secretly manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 people.

Some 78% of Americans have a social network profile of some kind. The dominance of Facebook in Americans’ daily lives, and the fact that more people get their news from it than any other source, means the influence of the company in elections has never been greater. With each year that passes, the potential that an internet giant could swing an election gets greater.

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported on the treasure trove of data Facebook holds on hundreds of millions of voters and how it is already allowing presidential candidates to exploit it in different ways:

Facebook, which told investors on Wednesday it was ‘excited about the targeting’, does not let candidates track individual users. But it does now allow presidential campaigns to upload their massive email lists and voter files – which contain political habits, real names, home addresses and phone numbers – to the company’s advertising network. The company will then match real-life voters with their Facebook accounts, which follow individuals as they move across congressional districts and are filled with insightful data.

And in a Politico Magazine piece entitled “How Google could rig the 2016 election”, research psychologist Robert Epstein described how a study he co-authored in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups – with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated.”

As Epstein says, much of this manipulation is unintentional: search results on Google are influenced by the popularity of other searches, algorithms are changed all the time for various reasons, and some tweaks that affect what people see about politics may not be the result of malicious engineers bent on changing the country’s political persuasions. However, the potential for that to happen is there – and the same risks apply to Facebook.

To be sure, many corporations, including broadcasters and media organisations, have used their vast power to influence elections in all sorts of ways in the past: whether it’s through money, advertising, editorials, or simply the way they present the news. But at no time has one company held so much influence over a large swath of the population – 40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook – while also having the ability to make changes invisibly.

As Gizmodo reported, there’s no law stopping Facebook from doing so if it desires. “Facebook can promote or block any material that it wants,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told Gizmodo. “Facebook has the same First Amendment right as the New York Times. They can completely block Trump if they want. They block him or promote him.”

To those disgusted by Trump’s xenophobia, his boorish and erratic behavior, this might seem like a welcome development. But one organisation having the means to tilt elections one way or another a dangerous innovation. Once started, it would be hard to control. In this specific case, a majority of the public might approve of the results. But do we really want future elections around the world to be decided by the political persuasions of Mark Zuckerberg, or the faceless engineers that control what pops up in your news feed?

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/19/donald-trump-facebook-election-manipulate-behavior?CMP=fb_gu

Widening social inequality exacerbates housing crisis in California

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By Kevin Martinez
4 March 2016

According to a recent study published by the California Budget & Policy Center, almost all income gains in the state since 1989 have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners.

In every geographic region, both urban and rural, the bottom 99 percent of households fell behind. The most unequal areas of the state included San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, where the top 1 percent of household made on average more than 30 times the amount of money made by the bottom 99 percent.

The study, titled “The Growth of Top Incomes Across California” looked at three metrics: the growth of inequality between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent, the change in average incomes between the two groups since 1989, and the share of the total income captured by the top 1 percent since 1989.

The wealthiest Californians fared the best in regions that saw economic growth over the last few decades, especially the San Francisco area. In the largest and richest urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose, inequality was the highest in the state. The top 1 percent of households in the San Francisco metro area made on average $3.6 million in 2013, 44 times what the average income was for the bottom 99 percent at $81,904.

Over the past generation, the wealth of the top 1 percent has soared over the rest of the population in nearly all of the state’s regions. Even in areas with smaller income gaps, like the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area, the top 1 percent’s income was nearly 13 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent.

In some areas, the only segment of society to see any significant income gains since 1989 was the top 1 percent. In San Jose, the top 1 percent increased their wealth by 248 percent, while the bottom 99 percent increased their wealth by only 23 percent. In the Los Angeles area, the top 1 percent increased their wealth by 55 percent, but the rest of the metropolitan area saw their average income plummet by 12 percent.

Even more troubling is that the top 1 percent has increased their share of the total growth in incomes over the last 25 years. With the exception of the Easter Sierra region, mostly rural Alpine, Inyo, and Mono counties, the share of income going to the top 1 percent increase in every region of California.

The highest share of income going to the top 1 percent was in the San Francisco metropolitan area, with 30.8 percent of the region’s income going to the wealthiest households in 2013, double the 1989 share of 15.8 percent.

A significant contributing factor to rising inequality is the rising cost of rent, especially in the large urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. A study by Apartment List found that California had the fastest growing rents in all the US. A spokesman said, “California rents are growing nearly twice as quickly as the national average,” adding, “Rents have increased 5.7 percent over the last year compared to 3.3 percent nationwide, based on two-bedroom units.”

Rent increased in Los Angeles by 6.7 percent since the start of this year according to Apartment List. The two cities with the highest rent growth were San Jose with 8.9 rent increase and Anaheim at 9.2 percent.

An average two bedroom apartment in San Francisco costs $4,760; in San Jose, $2,700; and in Los Angeles, the average two bedroom apartment costs $2,650. In Los Angeles, the low median individual income was $27,749, making rent there and in California the least affordable in the United States, according to UCLA researchers, a result of the wide gap between income and costs.

In San Francisco, authorities have made clear their callous attitude toward the poor and homeless. City workers there cleared out a tent city under the Central Freeway this week after a deadline announced by public health officials passed last week. The homeless were told to leave the area within 72 hours before the San Francisco Police Department arrived to remove anyone who stayed behind.

The city moved 25 homeless people to Pier 80, a homeless shelter that can only house up to 150 people. The city also offered to take their belongings, dump them, or leave their things with the city’s operations yard, where they would be held for up to 90 days. Democratic Mayor Ed Lee said the city would remove at least two more tent cities in the coming weeks.

In Los Angeles, local authorities have promised millions of dollars to fight homelessness, but revealed their true aim with recent plans to crack down on tiny houses provided for free by private individuals. Although far from a solution to the problem of homelessness, the tiny houses are shelters the size of a garden shed which many homeless prefer over tents and sleeping bags.

City officials declared the tiny homes to be a threat to public health and safety and used allegations of drug use and crime to begin tearing them down. Many of the homeless were not told where to go upon losing their shelters.

While the city has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to house the homeless, it has never been specified where the funds would come from, making the proposal untenable, at best. The homeless population in Los Angeles, the largest in the country, increased by 12 percent in the last two years, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The number of makeshift encampments has increased by 85 percent in the same time.

The rise in homelessness can be directly attributed to economic factors, especially the rising costs of renting an apartment or home, in addition to falling wages and mass unemployment. Politically, this process has been facilitated and, in fact, accelerated by the policies pursued by both the Democrats and the Republicans in federal, state and local governments, whose common goal is to ensure the protection of the interests of capital at the expense of the vast majority of society.

From the slashing of vital social programs that provide assistance to the poor to the bailout of banks for the enrichment of a tiny parasitic financial oligarchy, such policies have only exacerbated the immense class divide in California.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/04/cali-m04.html

Twitter Is So Hopelessly White Its Only Black Engineering Boss Just Quit in Protest

Twitter Is So Hopelessly White Its Only Black Engineering Boss Just Quit in Protest

Leslie Miley was “the only African-American in [engineering] leadership” at Twitter, a company that employs thousands, and owes much of its success to adoption by non-white users. Then he quit, as he explains in a new blog post, because the company is absolutely brain-dead on race.

Despite repeated “commitments” “to” “improving” “diversity,” Twitter remains as lily white as the day it was founded by a cabal of white people. According to Miley’s account, it’s because everyone inside either doesn’t really give a shit about diversity in hiring, or is too clueless to be helpful:

There were also the Hiring Committee meetings that became contentious when I advocated for diverse candidates. Candidates who were dinged for not being fast enough to solve problems, not having internships at ‘strong’ companies and who took too long to finish their degree. Only after hours of lobbying would they be hired. Needless to say, the majority of them performed well.

Especially painful is this quote by Twitter’s (white) Senior VP of Engineering:

Personally, a particularly low moment was having my question about what specific steps Twitter engineering was taking to increase diversity answered by the Sr. VP of Eng at the quarterly Engineering Leadership meeting. When he responded with “diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.” I then realized I was the only African-American in Eng leadership.

In other words, hiring more black leaders at Twitter would require Twitter to “lower the bar” on talent and ability, which is absurd.

Miley also says the few black employees at Twitter often felt like they’d been forgotten:

Twitter sponsored an event celebrating the work of Freada Kapor Klein and the Level Playing Field Institute. The former Head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous was a featured speaker. This event was attended by many a variety of leaders in tech representing a broad cross section of races, genders, and backgrounds. However, the employee resource group representing Twitter’s black employees (@blackbirds) did not receive an invitation.

And in June of 2015, Jesse Jackson was allowed to present at the Twitter shareholder meeting. Again, there was no communication to Twitter’s black employee resource group. In comparison, when Hillary Clinton and Mellody Hobson visited, the Twitter Women Engineering resource group was notified and given an opportunity to meet privately.

When Twitter did make an effort to find non-white talent, it derailed itself by taking a painfully dense data-centric approach, rather than just trying to act like humans. It’s Silicon Valley to a dumbass T:

As we continued the discussion, he suggested I create a tool to analyze candidates last names to classify their ethnicity. His rationale was to track candidates thru the pipeline to understand where they were falling out. He made the argument that the last name Nguyen, for example, has an extremely high likelihood of being Vietnamese. As an engineer, I understand this suggestion and why it may seem logical. However, classifying ethnicity’s by name is problematic as evidenced by my name (Leslie Miley) What I also found disconcerting is this otherwise highly sophisticated thinker could posit that an issue this complex could be addressed by name analysis.

Miley laments that now that he’s gone, “Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management.” This doesn’t sound good for the chances of including people who don’t look like Jack Dorsey.


Contact the author at biddle@gawker.com.

 

http://gawker.com/twitter-is-so-hopelessly-white-its-only-black-engineeri-1740617917?trending_test_a&utm_expid=66866090-62.H_y_0o51QhmMY_tue7bevQ.1&utm_campaign=socialflow_gawker_twitter&utm_source=gawker_twitter&utm_medium=socialflow&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2F