The Current

'Capitalism on steroids': How big tech is gentrifying the Golden City

The documentary, Disruption City by The Current's Peter Mitton explores how big money from big tech is changing the face of San Francisco — threatening the city's celebrated diversity and bohemian character.
Athena Pierce and her son Roman have been evicted from their San Francisco apartment where rent has tripled in price. Pierce is one of many who are struggling to find affordable housing in the city. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

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It's been the home to hippies and beats, surfers and psychedelics.

But the bohemian character of San Francisco is in danger of being disrupted, as rents have become the most expensive in the U.S.

The city's affordability crisis is a complicated issue, but an obvious factor is the influx of technology companies, both in the city and in nearby Silicon Valley.

Evicted into homelessness

And with little affordable housing available, people like Athena Pierce, a single mom facing eviction, homelessness is an all-too-common fate.

"I don't get evicted on a regular basis," she laughs.

"I've come from a really challenging background and this is the first apartment I've ever had on my own," Athena tells The Current's Peter Mitton in the documentary, Disruption City.

Residential houses line a street in Mission district near Delores Park. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Athena pays $1,045 for her small studio apartment and now her rent has tripled in price — money she doesn't have.

"If you don't have a home you're homeless ... that's very scary," Athena says.

"I have an eight-year-old child who is extremely intelligent, very wise, kind person ... and [being homeless] will change everything for his stability to be rocked like that."

Castro's identity crisis

Writer and activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca has been living in the historically gay Castro district since the '90s. When he first arrived he tells Mitton, "I realized I was in paradise."   
San Francisco's most famous citizen, Harvey Milk, was the first openly gay politician elected to office in California. (James Palmer/AP)

"My first Halloween here I ended up marching with a bunch of radical fairies and we stripped down ... completely nude. Got to 18th and Castro, there were all these people cheering us, and there were these cops .... just like glaring but they knew they couldn't touch us because the crowd would have killed them."

But that was then. Now he says his building is mostly straight — "there's more of a presence of non-queer people."

"The fact that we're losing this is epic proportions of tragedy."

Tommi blames greed for the loss of his community — landlords driving out long-term tenants to create an upscale neighbourhood. And he's angry about it.

"They can flip [buildings] and make lots of money. It's really capitalism on steroids."

A city divided 

Tech entrepreneur Greg Gopman lives in the Castro and says there's definitely a divide in San Francisco.

"You get the best grades, you go to Harvard … you think you worked your whole life to do something great and move out here and you're vilified." 
The Castro, San Francisco's gay village, is concentrated in the business district on Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Greg was probably the most vilified techie in all of San Francisco after a rant on Facebook about the city's homeless population went viral. 

"I made a very insensitive comment on Facebook and it became national or international news which was crazy because I wasn't a famous person."

Here is an excerpt of his Facebook post:

"I gotta say there is nothing more grotesque than walking down Market Street in San Francisco. The heart of Rush City has to be overran by crazy homeless, drug dealers, dropouts and trash. Each time I pass it. My love affair with San Francisco dies a little."

Greg has apologized for his remarks since the rant went viral.

San Francisco is the future

Antonio Garcia Martinez has worked with Facebook, Twitter and his own startup. He lives on a 40 ft. yacht and plans to sail around the world.

Antonio predicts a lot of other U.S. cities will look like San Francisco.

"The reality is San Francisco basically lives in the future and what does that world look like, right?"

"Well, you have an urban landscape that's basically the playground for the wealthy.

Listen to the full documentary at the top of this web post.

The documentary, Disruption City, was produced by The Current's Peter Mitton and documentary editor, Josh Bloch.