Bay Area’s Top Stories in 2013: Housing’s Insane, Techies to Blame — and Pray for Rain

Time’s running out on 2013, and it’s time to paw through (or pore over, if you’re the dignified sort) the posts that have piled up over the past 12 months and name our picks for the most important stories of the year. For extra credit, we’ll try to say why we think the stories are important both now and in the future. And we welcome you to tell us where we’ve gone astray or where we’re short-sighted and ignorant. (And above, the view of the year that’s almost past from our colleagues at “KQED Newsroom.”)

Here goes:

Eviction Crisis/Housing Affordability: A surging tech sector economy in San Francisco is spurring a new spike in home prices and rents in and around the city. The hot rental market, in turn, has led to a surge in evictions. That “Priced Out” phenomenon has gotten to the point where activist groups have organized to demand action from San Francisco officials to stop certain evictions and to speed up action on creating new affordable housing. The soaring rents and increase in evictions have also accentuated a culture clash between longer-term city residents and the growing number of mostly newly arrived young technology workers. Read on.

The view from a shuttle bus in West Oakland, headed for Google's Mountain View campus but halted by protesters. (@craigsfrost via Twitter).
The view from a shuttle bus in West Oakland, headed for Google’s Mountain View campus but halted by protesters. (@craigsfrost via Twitter).

“San Francisco” vs. “The Techies”: The leading symbol of the divide between those who fancy themselves the real residents of San Francisco (meaning: they’ve lived and worked here awhile) and recently arrived technology workers is the Google bus. The buses have appeared in increasing numbers throughout the city and East Bay, and one serious cultural critic says, “I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.” In addition to carrying people who can and do pay top dollar for housing, thus helping drive up rents, many in the city also complain that the buses are using stops reserved for Muni without paying a dime for the privilege. In the final weeks of 2013, the unease with the technology buses — they carry thousands of people to Google, Apple, Facebook and other tech firms — has gone beyond talk. Twice in the last few weeks, anti-eviction protesters in the city have blocked the buses. A similar protest in Oakland resulted in vandalism to one of the Silicon Valley-bound motor coaches.

The BART Strikes: BART’s two biggest unions, SEIU Local 1021 and ATU Local 1555, had given up more than $100 million in concessions in 2009 and went into negotiations this year seeking significant wage increases and trying to hold the line on medical insurance and pension plans. They ran into a hard line from a management that sought to limit labor costs and plow as much money as possible into upgrading the aging BART system. The clash led to two four-day strikes, in July and October, that forced BART’s 200,000 or so weekday riders to find alternative transit and sparked widespread public anger at union workers. Two workers inspecting tracks in Walnut Creek died during the October walkout when they were struck by a train operated by a management trainee. The strike exposed a deep and so far unhealed rift between management and workers and led to calls for a change in state law to ban strikes by public transit workers.

Oakland Police/Oakland Crime: It has not been a good year for crime-weary of Oakland residents and the city’s beleaguered Police Department. The latest city statistics show robberies are up 16 percent over last year. Robberies committed with firearms are up 27 percent. A federal judge overseeing a civil rights settlement with the city and the Police Department installed a new outside “compliance director” early this year. Shortly afterward, Police Chief Howard Jordan quit (for medical reasons, he insisted). Outside consultant William Bratton issued a report finding that the department was poorly organized and ineffective at dealing with some of the most common crimes, with just one part-time investigator assigned to handle a backlog of 10,000 burglary cases. Just as that report came out, Jordan was replaced by not one, but two interim chiefs. The second of those stand-in leaders, Sean Whent, has overseen the implementation of new programs designed to build bridges to distrustful residents while more efficiently dealing with violent crime. It’s too early to say what the long-term outcome of those changes will be, but here’s something to note: The city suffered through a resurgence of deadly violence in 2012, with 131 homicides citywide. With just a few days to go in 2013, Oakland has recorded 87 homicides for the year. That toll still gives Oakland one of the highest homicide rates in the United States, but it’s a dramatic improvement.

The new Bay Bridge eastern span, left, and the old span, right. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)
The new Bay Bridge eastern span, left, and the old span, right. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Bay Bridge Completed: Caltrans assured us that 2013 would be the year that, 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake that demonstrated the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was seismically unfit, we would finally have a new bridge to drive on. The agency delivered on its promise, years later than promised and at a price, $6.4 billion, that was several times the original estimate. However, the completion of the new eastern span, a self-anchored suspension bridge with a gleaming white tower, was not accomplished without some tense moments. When it came time to fasten two massive seismic stabilizers on the suspension span last March, the huge threaded rods that were supposed to hold them in place snapped. That forced engineers to come up with workarounds to hold the stabilizers in place, and at one point bridge authorities scrapped plans for the long-planned Labor Day opening of the new span. But when repair work went better than expected and officials expressed concern about the risks of keeping the old span open, the Labor Day plan was reinstated. The new bridge, complete with traffic shoulders and a beautiful bike path, opened late Labor Day evening. But the saga isn’t yet complete: East Bay state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier is leading an investigation into why the bridge took so long and cost so much to complete. And some in the engineering community still express concerns about the long-term impact of the project’s various construction problems.

Sandra Stier, left, and Kris Perry, are married in San Francisco City Hall after June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed resumption of same-sex marriage in California. (Darlene Bouchard/KQED)
Sandra Stier, left, and Kris Perry, are married in San Francisco City Hall after June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed resumption of same-sex marriage in California. (Darlene Bouchard/KQED)

Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court: In June, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling that had the effect of striking down Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. “Had the effect of striking down” because in the end, the high court didn’t address the constitutional issues of equal protection and due process raised in the original suit against the initiative. Instead, the justices found that the authors of the 2008 initiative lacked standing to defend the measure in court. The tribunal’s ruling left standing the 2010 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker that struck down Prop. 8 as unconstitutional. The effect was immediate: Same-sex marriages resumed in San Francisco two days after the high court spoke, and courts and legislatures in several other stateshave cleared the way for gay and lesbian weddings since the June Supreme Court ruling.

Rim Fire: The third-biggest wildfire in California history started in mid-August, reportedly by a hunter who set an illegal campfire in Stanislaus National Forest, near the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park. The fire wasn’t fully contained until late October, and by that time it had burned well into Yosemite, threatened the San Francisco-owned Hetch Hetchy reservoir, destroyed power facilities and burned 257,314 acres — 452 square miles. The latest assessment of damage from the fire says the total cost could be close to $2 billion.

Oracle Team USA celebrates after completing its successful defense of the America's Cup up. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Oracle Team USA celebrates after completing its successful defense of the America’s Cup up. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

America’s Cup: We still haven’t decided whether Larry Ellison, the Oracle software billionaire who captured the America’s Cup from some other billionaire a few years back and then decided to defend it in San Francisco, wears a white hat or a black hat. But villain/hero categorization aside, the 34th America’s Cup sailed on the bay over the summer is an event to be remembered. The regatta was marked by tragedy when British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson, part of the Swedish-sponsored Artemis Racing team, was killed in a May training accident. Simpson’s death prompted a new emphasis on safety for the huge 72-foot catamarans that Ellison and his team had chosen for this year’s competition. The series of races among Artemis and two other challengers for the Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy’s Luna Rossa, were a nonevent, with the Kiwis easily winning the right to face the Oracle team. Before the finals could start, an international jury imposed severe penalties against Oracle for cheating in an earlier series of races. In the “first-to-nine-wins” format, New Zealand seemed to have the Cup locked up when it took an 8-1 lead in the series. Then this happened— an incredible string of victories that allowed Ellison’s Oracle team to retain the Cup. We’ll get an idea in 2014 whether Ellison will defend the Cup again in San Francisco or take the event elsewhere.

Mustache Wars: Those funny “ride-sharing” companies that seemed like a novelty not so long ago — operations like Lyft, whose cars carry pink mustaches, and Sidecar and Uber — are now entrenched in the local transportation scene. In September, the California Public Utilities Commission issued regulations to govern the new companies, which the agency classifies as “transportation network companies,” or TNCs. In San Francisco, the closely regulated taxi industry has long fought attempts to expand the number of cabs on the street even as many would-be customers swear it’s next to impossible to find a cab when you really want one. Now, the TNCs appear to have made deep inroads into the traditional taxi companies’ business — cutting into the customer base and attracting drivers from the old-line cab firms. Among the questions facing the TNCs: Whether drivers and their vehicles have adequate insurance coverage. And among the questions facing the taxi companies: How will they adapt their operations, including the widespread practice of expecting drivers to tip other company employees, to survive the challenge from the TNCs. Jon Brooks, the former full-time proprietor of News Fix, reported extensively on the story this year and produced three major reports on what’s going on in the industry:

Bear tracks on the dry bottom of Shasta Lake in Northern California. (Molly Samuel/KQED)
Bear tracks on the dry bottom of Shasta Lake in Northern California. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

Weather: 2013, the Driest Year: And we’ll leave you with what could be the biggest story of 2014 if we don’t see a change in our winter weather: the Bay Area (and most of the state) is just completing its driest calendar year since the first weather observer set up the first rain gauge here during the Gold Rush. In San Francisco, where records go back to 1850, just 5.59 inches of rain has fallen this year. That compares to the 30-year average recorded between 1980 and 2010 of 23.06 inches and the current calendar-year low-rainfall record of 8.73 inches, set in 1976. Other signs we’re very, very dry: The official U.S. Drought Monitor categorizes 94 percent of the state as in moderate to extreme drought, and the California-Nevada River Forecast Center observes that Folsom Lake, the big reservoir just east of Sacramento, has fallen below 200,000 acre feet of storage for just the seventh time since it was created in the 1950s. Any serious California rain watcher will point out that what really matters for us is our seasonal precipitation — and by convention, our rain year runs from July 1 to June 30 to better reflect how much rain and snow comes our way during each wet season, which usually starts in October and ends by early May. We still have our historically wettest months ahead of us, January and February, so there’s hope we’ll see storms arrive to help replenish reservoirs and bulk up the mountain snowpack. But right now, the long-range outlook for January calls for below-normal precipitation for California.

KQED’s Stephanie Martin spoke with KQED News Fix Editor Dan Brekke about some of the year’s biggest Bay Area stories. Listen to the conversation below.

  • Skip Conrad

    Regarding prop 8, if you look up the California Constitution, it still states “only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid …”. The Supreme Court rejected the case because the defendants did not have standind. Who then does have standing to defend the Constition of the State? None other than our esteemed Gov Jerry Brown, and AG Kamala Harris, who both took solemn oaths to defend the constitution, and they didn’t. Shame on you, for not doing your job for the. People of California.

    • Dan Brekke

      Schwarzenegger also declined to defend Proposition 8.

      The presence of a passage in the Constitution does not place it above scrutiny or enshrine it as truth. Case in point: Check out Article 19 of the 1879 California Constitution, which sought to make it impossible for people of Chinese ancestry to live in the state. That, too, was ruled a violation of the 14th Amendment, which seeks to guarantee equal protection of the law to all.

      • Skip Conrad

        The major difference is the at the language of Article 19 has been removed, while Article I section 7.5 remains.
        Who exactly are “all”? Everybody on the planet? I think not.

        • Dan Brekke

          That’s right — though Article 19 had no legal force because of court rulings starting the year after it was adopted, it remained part of the text of the Constitution until voters repealed it in 1952. Similarly, Proposition 8 has no legal force now because it’s been found to violate the U.S. Constitution, but will remain part of text until voters remove it. I suppose it’s possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will some day decide to rule on the merits of same-sex marriage cases from some other state and uphold provisions like Prop. 8. That doesn’t seem to be the direction things are headed in now, though.

          I think you’ll find that with some narrow exceptions, the requirements and protections of the U.S. Constitution apply to anyone subject to the laws of the United States.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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