Neighbor David Talbot Laments the Tech-Fueled Gentrification of Bernal Heights

Yesterday’s post about the impact the Silicon Valley commuter shuttle network is having on Bernal Heights pairs neatly with the article by Bernal neighbor David Talbot that appears on the cover of the current issue of San Francisco magazine.

Under the headline “How Much Tech Can One City Take?” Neighbor David considers how the growth of the tech industry is changing the texture of San Francisco, and in one part of the article, he looks at this through the prism of our own Precita Park:

I’m sitting at a table outside the new Precita Park café in Bernal Heights, a gourmet sandwich shop that’s one sign of the changing times. When I moved to this neighborhood in 1993, just before the first dot-com boom, I avoided taking my two toddlers to the playground across the street from the café, because local gangs sometimes stashed their guns in the sand. And yet, despite gunfire from the old Army Street projects that often shattered the neighborhood’s sleep, Bernal Heights in those years was a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted blue-collar families, underground artists, radical activists, and lesbian settlers. The neighborhood had a funky character as well as a history. The famed cartoonist R. Crumb once hung his hat there, and his old Zap Comics sidekick, the brilliant Spain Rodriguez, still does.

But at some point the new tech boom began to make its presence felt in Bernal Heights, whose sunny hills are close to not only SoMa startups but also the Highway 101 shuttle line to Silicon Valley. Nowadays, you see Lexus SUVs parked in the driveways on Precita Avenue. Young masters of the universe in Ivy League sweatshirts buy yogurt and organic peaches at the corner stores where Cuervo flasks and cans of Colt 45 were once the most popular items.

“We cleaned up this neighborhood—stopped the violence in the projects—but now we can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Buck Bagot who has been a Bernal Heights community organizer and housing activist since 1976. “When I moved here, every house on my block had a different ethnicity. There were Latinos, blacks, American Indians, Samoans, Filipinos. They had good union jobs, and they could raise their families here. Now they’re all gone.” These days Bagot fights to block home foreclosures as the cofounder of Occupy Bernal, engaged in a battle to preserve the neighborhood’s diverse character that he admits often feels futile.

Sitting outside the café, I’m joined by another longtime Bernal resident, a 47-year-old San Francisco public school librarian. She moved to the neighborhood in 1994 with her partner, a public school teacher, when many of their lesbian friends were settling here, attracted by the relatively cheap rents. “There were a lot of us—we were young, politically active, and underpaid, but we could afford to live here in those days,” she says. “But now that we have kids, we’re being priced out.” The librarian—who asks that her name not be used because she’s concerned that any notoriety will hurt her chances of entering the tight housing market—says that she and her partner have bid on five houses this year. But they lost each time to buyers who could afford to put up tens of thousands of dollars over the sellers’ asking price—and all in cash. “Who are these people, with that kind of money?” she asks.

The librarian and her partner dread the idea of moving out of the city. San Francisco is in their souls: They fell in love here, they took to the streets here as young dyke activists, and they have a combination of 22 years seniority in the public school system. They can’t imagine moving their family to some remote suburb, where their kids would likely be the only ones with two moms. But it’s getting harder each day to hold on. To make ends meet, they have begun to moonlight as dog trainers “I don’t want to blame young tech workers,” says the librarian. “I’d hate to sound like some grumpy ‘get off my lawn’ type. I mean, I love technology. I’m an early adopter. But if people like us, who helped make San Francisco what it is, get pushed out of the city, who’s going to teach the next generation of kids? Who’s going to take care of them in the hospital?”

OK, so… This kind of “Woe Unto Bernal” essay is fast becoming a local sub-genre; Neighbor Peter Orner recently penned a similar lament, also about Precita Park, for The New York Times.

The issues both describe are very real: Gentrification, change, displacement, uncertainty, and the pain of watching longtime neighbors forced to move because of the inexorable economics of local real estate. Nevertherless, I had a much more sympathetic reaction to Neighbor’s Peter’s piece in the NYT than to Neighbor David’s piece in San Francisco.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, except perhaps because Peter’s piece felt more like an open-ended question to me, while David’s article was infused with an unfortunate kind of Baby Boomer myopia, as if all meaningful culture ended sometime around the time when Fleetwood Mac released the “Rumours” album.

More importantly, though, while the underlying issues of gentrification are real and challenging, it’s unfortunate that Neighbor David neglects to recognize that Bernal Heights is now a home to a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted families, underground artists, technology innovators, cutting-edge musicians, groundbreaking journalists, stalwart activists, assorted oddballs, and lesbian gentry. Plus: The Bikini Jogger.

Yes, the mix is changing. But it remains deeply funky, and passionately connected to this place we all love to call home. Of course we mourn the loss of friends and neighbors who, for whatever reason, cannot stay. The problems of gentrification defy easy solutions. Yet many of us also see meaningful continuity amid the tumult and change, because we know that Bernal Heights has never been a better or stronger neighborhood than it is today.

IMAGE: Original photo illustration by Peter Belanger for San Francisco, photo illustrated by Bernalwood

31 thoughts on “Neighbor David Talbot Laments the Tech-Fueled Gentrification of Bernal Heights

    • That’s so sad to hear! That’s probably less of a matter of gentrification, and more a matter of Comcast / Apple / Amazon and Netflix growing their video on demand business (across all demographics).

  1. I would like to understand how one gets priced out of a neighborhood. If you purchased your house, and you could afford the mortgage when you bought it, then you should still be able to afford it. California and San Francisco do not raise property taxes yearly based on the value of the house, so even if you bought it for $299,999 and its now worth 3mil, you are still paying taxes on $299.999. That is my understanding anyways.
    Same goes with rent, if you have been in a place for 15 years, you are paying below market rent, due to rent control. Sure, your rent has gone up, but if your original rent was $500, rent control will have limited that increase about $150 over 15 years (I am guessing – does anyone have the math)?

    I would like to know what causes one to be “priced out of a neighborhood”?
    If you lose your job, sure, you cant afford the rent / mortgage – that’s not a neighborhood issue
    You cant move, because you cant afford the house next door, but you have a place that you can afford – that’s not a neighborhood issue either.

    • Me too. I don’t quite understand why long-time owners/residents feel the events tiding against them. Re: renters, I can see how they’re “priced out”.

    • I suspect the people who are being priced out are renting houses or units in buildings too small (or new) to be covered by rent control. None of the owners on my street are priced out; we have people who have been living here for 40+ years or houses that have been in families for 50+ years.

      If you’re trying to move into something different and stay within the neighborhood, then I can see you getting priced out. And I feel bad for folks who don’t have good leases (or even rent control) on their residences. Surprised that more people don’t negotiate better longer-term (or renewable) leases; but then a lot of people renting want flexibility to move around if they want to, but also the security of staying where they are if they decide to not move. Sadly, you can’t usually have flexibility and stability.

  2. This really applies to those who rent — like the public school librarian who has rented here since 1994.

    I think what the article misses is that San Francisco has always been a boom town. Its character was formed by the Gold Rush, the Silver Rush, becoming the Banking Center of the West Coast and a major port. Change, and wealth, has been here since the beginning.

    The Mission was Irish and Italian until the 50’s/60’s. Now it is changing again. And the entire City is becoming much more Asian.

    After World War 2 there was a substantial exodus from urban areas to the suburbs. This created a condition were the central cities had underutilized buildings (turned into artists’ lofts etc.). But that condition was the one off. Through most of history the central core is more desirable and more expensive.

  3. @UrbanPlanning Regarding taxes: I wish! The taxes go up by a set max percentage each year. My assessment is more than the house could sell for at this point. This year is the first time that they did not automatically assume that the value of the house went up by the maximum cap and actually attempted to not over assess the value. In boom years, their assumptions would be just fine because the value of the real estate was going up faster than rate increase cap.

    Regarding gentrification: If you moved in 15-20 years ago because it was what you could afford, you helped drive up the value and desirability of the neighborhood. Everyone is just as guilty. The current crop of gentrifiers are by definition going to be more affluent than the current residents.

    The other option? Landlords who rent hovels and don’t keep up the property.

  4. Sorry to nitpick..,..and maybe i’m just showing off that at heart i’m a masshole…but i believe the original “if you lived here…” sign is on storrow drive outside charles river park in boston. there is no “by” on that sign.

  5. Not 100-percent certain, I think that single-family homes are not subject to rent control rules, so many of the families who rent in Bernal are exposed to whatever annual rent increases the owner demands. This is one (common) way to get priced out of the neighborhood.

    One way to address greater demand to live in Bernal would be to allow greater density, but I suspect that cure would be judged worse than the disease…

    • Yes, the Bernal Special Use District rules have several elements that effectively discourage greater density of residents.

      • I’ve got a beautiful and massive finished basement, completely up to code (minus the separate power/gas meters but those aren’t hard to add) which I would *love* to turn into another rental unit, if only I were allowed (only zoned RH-2). It’s basically sitting empty, and would be perfect for a couple. I’m not going to rent it as an illegal in-law, due to the complications associated with that. I’m for more density, bring it on.

        Unless SF finds a way to build more affordable housing, I guess Bayview is next on the gentrification list. I’ve got a young artsy hip friend who just moved out there for the cheaper rent, there’s more on the way!

  6. Goodbye Bernal! The moving truck is coming tomorrow and we are leaving for the Excelsior.

    Yes, we have been priced out: our landlord raised our rent $200 month this past Spring (single family home we have rented since 1999).

    And it’s true, we might be seen as the gentrifiers in our new neighborhood. And maybe we are, but only as an unintended consequence. We just need an affordable place to live and we love SF and want to stay.

  7. @UrbanPlanning, I agree.

    SFRs and post-1979 buildings are generally exempt from rent control, so one could get “priced out” of one of those. Re property tax, the rate in SF is 1.140% of the assessed value, per year. The assessed value, for taxation purposes, can only go up by 2%/year, which is trivial. So if that’s pricing you out, you’re really living on the knife’s edge.

    Rent controlled properties (the vast majority in most of SF) are limited to rent increases of .6% of the CPI per year, which is generally not worth the effort. This, like all price caps, results in shortages, as landlords don’t like to lose money. Those landlords who do elect to rent their properties after a move-out will logically raise the rent as much as possible to account for the many years of declining profitability to come. Econ 101.

    tax rates/prop. 13 info:

    So, given that we all want diversity of all sorts (incl. economic), I think the enlightened policy would be to make more people immune to gentrification/getting-priced-out by creating more affordable housing TO BUY. It’s hard to price-out owners. So more people need to become owners. How? By allowing more development without rules that make it unprofitable, by making allowable units smaller, and by allowing condo-ization of multiunit buildings. More owners = more bueno.

    • But you’re not really talking economics in a very rigorous way. In theory, you lower housing costs by increasing supply. But we’re talking about a relatively small amount of land (49 sq. miles) that happens to be some of the most desirable real estate in the world.

      Do you have any idea just how much housing it would take to slake demand in SF? Or in the most desirable SF neighborhoods? And keep in mind many buyers have zero interest in cheaply made fake work/lift lofts. They want single family homes. Or at least a well-built condo. Note that SF has added a lot of housing in the last 20 years. Have prices fallen?

      You make it sound so easy. Just make it easier to throw up more housing, which is likely to be the soulless, boxy variety that won’t age well and is already helping parts of SF look like any other drab place in the country. Yet you have no idea how much of this housing would actually lower prices. I’d venture that the city would be unrecognizable by the time you built enough. Then you’d have a new problem. Not enough folks would want to live in the new SF…an overcrowded, bland city that lacks the charm that made it desirable in the first place.

      • You’re setting up quite the straw man, here. First, you say that can’t increase supply enough to meet demand. Then you say that even if you could, the housing stock would be shoddily built and unattractive. And then declare that people want single family homes.

        Do you have any examples of cities where housing supply and density were increased without affecting price? Also, the assumption that only currently desirable neighborhoods would be desirable in the future ignores at least the last 20 years of the city’s history. Bernal itself wasn’t hip or super desirable and now there’s hand-wringing over the invasion of the yuppies and hipsters with that evil Silicon Valley money.

        There’s plenty of scope to develop in San Francisco without resorting to cookie-cutter (although if you look at Bernal, you’ll see many streets with the same basic house repeated down the block) or crap housing. There are plenty of people who would be happy to live in the city in multi-unit housing, and if they could find it more affordably, it might take some pressure off the market for SFH in neighborhoods like ours.

        We may not know how much increased supply would reduce/stabilize the price of housing, but we can be reasonably assured that it won’t increase the prices. Plus, we’ll be expanding the tax base to pay for all of the wonderful social services that make San Francisco a great city. We might even be able to pay for some schools for the next generation of San Franciscans.

  8. the city prior worked with large philanthropic investment to build essential housing, in the 1950’s it was known as the garden city movement, Met-Life built Parkmerced the largest rental apartment community. Due to gentrification, flipping and lack of serious maintenance the buildings and landscape were left to deteriorate. However the claims that they are beyond there lifespan is the falsest claim ever. Look at the SFSU-CSU blocks that were rennovated! They fixed the flashing and gutter deficiencies and they are sound essential housing that was pirated like stonestown apartments by SFSU-CSU. The need to ensure MOU’s contain adequate impact assessment based on EIR’s and CEQA to ensure housing is built adequately in ALL neighborhoods is what is required. Demolition of Parkmerced means that ALL neighborhoods and buildings are game. You open the flood-gate you get the flood. Sadly the real need is to look at infrastructural design and development co-jointly with housing built over the transit build-out. Think Sloat Blvd. linking the L-Taraval with development above-grade, and a new shopping center and housing at lakeshore blvd. with a stop @ stern grove? Why not think in systems and layers instead of demolition of sound housing and the need to look at un-reinforced towers, and infill as the most sustainable option to provide density and housing in SF….

  9. by the way scott crosby is right on…. a group of 21 dutch architects and planners visited SF and remarked that Parkmerced is a GREAT example of sound essential social housing development. its green, open-spaced, and dense, and provides great possibilities for buying the units from the owner. Many of the dutch architects noted that perhaps an international coalition would be interested in buying it to sell to those interested, and possibly still keep the rest as rentals allowing a mix of inhabitants without demolishing the garden units.

  10. I have to admit that I’m one of those folks that could afford to buy in Bernal due to tech industry lottery winnings. The reality is that Bernal is well suited to gentrification, due to the availability of single family homes, many of which haven’t been remodeled in decades and thus are much more affordable than other areas of the city. I’d been living in the lower Haight for 6 years before buying in Bernal in 2009, and I would have much preferred to have stayed in the Haight, Castro, Duboce Triangle, or Dolores, but SFH are in short supply and multi-unit properties with SF’s rental laws turned out to be unfeasible without a lot more capital than I had available, despite the fact that I was only looking at fixer-upper type properties.

    I’m really quite satisfied with Bernal at this point and a number of my friends have since bought or begun looking to purchase in the area.

    Call it what you will, but some form of economic “gentrification” of Bernal is inevitable. Tech kids with money want to buy property as much as anyone else and Bernal is highly attractive to those with a sub-million price point. Rather than bemoaning that fact it would be better to consider how to make Bernal more attractive to the types of buyers you’d prefer and less attractive to those that you wouldn’t. Just because we have tech money doesn’t mean we aren’t creative or caring about the community we’ve moved into. While the economic realities make it unlikely to encourage economic diversity of your neighbors, there are other desirable qualities that could be encouraged.

  11. A sub-million price point? What does this mean? Is this even English? I assume it means us poor folk. It is the use of language like this that is making this area increasingly less desirable by the minute.

  12. Did I see a lament for playgrounds with guns and needles in the playground sand because they stood for diversity?

  13. If we get some trash, graffiti and some good old fashioned high profile crime back here in SF, that “desirable” thing kinda loses its sparkle. And for those marginalized minorities and youth generation that is being priced right on out of the only community they have ever known to be filled with a new stock of young, naive and rich kids rolling blindly through “their” town… i would not be surprised if those same kids and poor who are not phased by crime and the side affects of poverty, didn’t just see this little 49 sq. mi. as some prime target for crime. Not only because it is a lucrative local, but also because they will have no empathy or feeling for the new generation here and in fact may likely feel some loathing.
    Now… Add an earthquake to the mix and it is over. It will clear out big time. Those that are patient just have to wait. One day, it will be ours to reclaim. That is if we haven’t created a new bohemia wherever it is that we land and want to stay there.

    I know that the thing for me personally adds insult to injury is this really super unsympathetic response from this new wave of youth… the gentrifiers. They are REALLY rude and entitled and aggressive towards the poor older residents. It almost seems like either, they truly do not empathize with anything because they have themselves not had (previously) normal interaction with other (humans or) generations of society because they are the first true tech generation thus being emotionally disconnected to people, or, that they are putting up a big attitude because they do not know how to deal with knowing that they are hurting others and they over compensate for it. After just writing those two theories, i hate to say it, but i think it maybe the first unfortunately.

    Pretty soon we will be owned by china anyway so enjoy the golden years while they are still here!

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  15. i’m sorry but i dont think that write-ups in rolling stone really count as “underground artists”. pretty sure they all went to oakland. just saying.

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