Graffiti from 2001, as San Francisco's last boom began to burst. (Wolfgang Sterneck/Flickr)
Graffiti from 2001, as San Francisco’s last boom began to burst. (Wolfgang Sterneck/Flickr)

Consider the croissant — the flaky pastry found in coffee shops, convenience stores and fast-food chains nationwide. But in the 1980s, croissants, baguettes and the French-style bakery chains that sold them were a fresh hot trend. For many San Franciscans, they were a symbol of the ascendance of “yuppies,” young professionals with high-paying jobs and expensive tastes.

San Francisco activist and historian Chris Carlsson moved to the Haight Ashbury in 1978, when it was mostly poor and rundown. But, he says, it didn’t take long for gentrification — or “croissantification,” as some called it at the time — to begin.

“And, soon enough, you had conflicts on the streets of the Haight, between new boutiques and bars that were kind of like chi-chi bars and the old dive bars that had been there,” he says.

Carlsson says the changes affecting many of the city’s working-class enclaves stemmed largely from a commercial office boom happening downtown. From the late 1970s and well through the ’80s, developers worked with Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, to build high-rise offices and condominiums serving white-collar workers.

 “And people who had lived in the Haight 10, 15, or 20 years felt like they were losing their neighborhood to these interlopers coming in with all their money,” Carlsson adds.

Longtime activist Calvin Welch was, and still is, one of those frustrated residents. Right now, he’s concerned that the young tech workers moving into the city don’t understand San Francisco’s strong sense of place.

“Cyberspace, for them, is where life is lived,” Welch says.

In San Francisco, Activists Have Fought for Affordable Housing for Decades

Welch has been fighting to control growth and displacement for more than three decades. In 1986, during the office boom, he ran a successful campaign to limit high-rise development and preserve affordable housing.

“What those of us who are concerned about growth control, and go to the ballots with ballot measures, bank on: Everybody who lives here doesn’t want it to change,” Welch says. “They don’t want it to be different from the first day they came.”

He and other activists also had their work cut out for them as economy surged in the 1990s. Dot-com entrepreneurs flooded into San Francisco looking for cheap office space, places to live — not to mention luxuries, such as upscale coffee bars and sushi restaurants. They moved into the former warehouse district south of Market Street and, increasingly, the Mission neighborhood.

A documentary called “Boom: The Sound of Eviction” shows anti-yuppie graffiti scrawled on apartment lofts and offices and numerous street demonstrations against rising housing costs and soaring evictions.

In one scene, a young woman stands on an outdoor stage in the Mission, clutching a small child, and says goodbye to the place she calls her “barrio”.

“We probably won’t be here,” she says, her voice quivering. “But we’ll always come back to make sure that everybody that’s left here can stay, at least.”

The mayor, Willie Brown, took a lot of the blame. He welcomed the dot-com boom and defended the real estate developers who were cashing in.

In the Boom documentary, Brown argued displacement had an upside.

“People moving into the Mission are replacing Latinos,” Brown admits to the interviewer. But, he says, “Latinos have taken in many cases money from those old rundown structures that they live in, and they’re buying in Daly City or they’re buying a better structure some other place.”

Brown also pointed out that San Francisco neighborhoods have changed hands many times over the years. He said it’s a natural process.

“The Mission was not always Latino,” Brown says. “The Mission, at one time, was Irish.”

By the time the bubble burst, a new generation of activists had earned its stripes on the streets of San Francisco.

Author James Tracy co-founded San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Network and worked with many similar groups. He’s finishing a book about the dot-com period. He says activists had many “small” triumphs.

“Housing organizers in San Francisco have pulled many amazing rabbits out of our hats,” says Tracy. “We’ve stopped evictions, we’ve stopped homelessness from happening. We’ve created much better planning policies than were in place before.”

“So, it’s not like all has been lost,” he adds.

But Tracy says it’s humbling to realize that, after all the sit-ins, trips to jail and meetings with city leaders, San Francisco remains one of the least affordable cities in the U.S. There were no Google buses to block back in 1999, but he says what’s happening now is essentially the same story.

“It is a little bit too familiar,’ Tracy says.  “I’m hoping that 10 or 20 years from now, we’re doing a piece on all the great solutions to the housing crisis that San Francisco was able to put forward.”

But activists say it does feel somewhat different this time around. For one thing, the tech companies are larger and more entrenched.

As new residents settle into San Francisco, the changes they bring may be here to stay.

Just like the croissant.

  • jjjmoss

    I have been a San Francisco resident for the last 15 years, and I am always confused by the resistance to change. I agree that tenants need to be protected, but a lot of the laws that are put in place discourage landowners and new developers. Without new development, we are stuck with the same housing stock that we’ve had since the 70’s, despite a population increase of 100k people. New developments that would increase housing stock get bogged down by planning, protests, lawsuits and ballot initiatives. They are labeled as “luxury” and become a rallying point for the anti-growth and tenants rights groups. This is short sighted because what San Francisco needs is more houses, plain and simple. If the rich guy in my neighborhood moves out of his victorian flat to move into a newly developed “luxury” apartment, that’s great, now there’s a vacancy for my family. As housing supply increases and is better able to meet housing demand, the price will decrease. Change is not always bad, and San Franciso’s inability to accept that has been a detriment to affordable housing for far too long.

    • Chairman Meow

      Kim-Mai Cutler of TechCrunch just published the most in-depth historical dive into the housing crisis I’ve ever read. It’s lengthy, but it puts everything about the rising cost of housing in the Bay Area into crystal clear perspective. It’s disappointing to see that a tech blog was the first to break this story with the level of investigative reporting normally expected from traditional news media…

    • mrwritesf

      “If the rich guy in my neighborhood moves out of his victorian flat to move into a newly developed ‘luxury’ apartment, that’s great, now there’s a vacancy for my family. As housing supply increases and is better able to meet housing demand, the price will decrease.”

      You’d think that wouldn’t you? Except that the cost of living in that Victorian flat will likely increase whether it’s a rental or a condo/TIC. Why? Because it can. Because tech workers have money to burn and landlords / sellers know it. If by some freakish set of circumstances, a single-family home in Pac Hts or Noe Valley goes into foreclosure, the home will still sell at market rate–it won’t be a short sale. Why? See previous reason. Little movements here and there don’t radically change supply and demand. The only way housing prices will come down is a mass exodus of the tech workers should the bubble burst.

      • SteveDave

        You’re right. At the margin, one development won’t have a drastic effect on the rental market. NEMA, while very large, is still a price taker and won’t make a dent in the deficit between housing supply and demand in this city. It will take the addition of many more units to begin to bring down rents, but it will happen. I think there is much to dispute about economics, but the supply demand relationship is one that seems pretty well accepted. The problem is that many dynamics in this city make it very difficult for developers to complete projects that will add to the housing stock. Instead you get a few new developments a year that barely keep up with the population increase. When developers do complete projects, they have to focus on the high end of the market to recoup the additional costs that come with doing business in SF. The report that Chairman Meow posted does a very good job outlining this. It also, in my opinion, does a much better job providing both sides of the story than this article, which seems to champion the anti growth faction.

  • Marc Escuro

    A lot of people who “protest” seem to be keenly aware of basic supply and demand economics. If San Francisco is unable to build or expand or create new housing, then you’re stuck with a set amount of supply, with ever increasing demand. Of course the price is going to go up.

    I’m a native. Born and raised in SF. For me, this construction boom is a very welcome change! I see a newly vibrant city that is dynamic and ever changing. Time marches on and demographics change. The Mission District certainly wasn’t always a Latino enclave. It was Irish and German. Are we as San Franciscans going to complain about the changes happening in the SoMa, China Beach, Mission Bay, and Dogpatch? Are we really here to criticize the demolition of that entire Skid Row area?

    Are we really criticizing Mayor Brown for bringing in jobs that came along with the Dot-Com Boom? Why would anyone with half a brain NOT want jobs and people moving into the City? Sometimes I believe these “protestors” believe they live in some unicorn run utopia. I’ll be damned if I’ll see my City collapse into a steaming pile like Detroit has in recent years.

    No matter what these “protesters” want, fact of the matter is, San Francisco is 7×7 miles. There is ZERO room for growth and expansion, unless San Francisco decides to annex Daly City and Brisbane, you’re not going to get more land. Therefore, prices will always remain high and supply will always remain constrained, especially if San Francisco remains the primary economic engine for the region, as it always has been for 150+ years.

  • John

    Unsurprisingly, not much sympathy here for the crisis from the white upper middle class NPR/KQED audience.

    • SteveDave

      You hear what you want to hear. I am contemplating a solution to the problem of not enough housing for all of San Francisco. That is what is driving the evictions. More housing will drive the rent down and allow more people from all walks of life to live here. To me, this solution is better than scapegoating tech workers because they work hard and make too much money. BTW, I am a house painter. Haven’t quite made the upper middle class yet. Since I’m poor, does that make my opinion more valid to you?

  • bobster855

    People like Welch and Tracy don’t seem to understand that the affordability crisis was partly caused by their NIMBY activism. If you think that stalling new development will keep people from moving to SF, you are mistaken. They will keep moving here and will just displace people already living here.

  • Kevin Smith

    Real estate speculators built every building in SF! All housing activist do, is try and steal housing from the rightful owners. And rent control is a discriminatory two tier system that favors some, while forcing others to pay much higher rent, because of artificially low supply, caused by the rent controlled units being hoarded.

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