Neighborhoods Need Economic Diversity

by on August 20, 2015

THC's Galvin Apts, low-income housing in SOMA amidst sea of condos

As I detailed in “NY Times Gets Tenderloin Wrong,” the paper’s claim that “nowhere is the inequality gap as concentrated — and as evident — as in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood” is completely false. Not only did its supporting evidence  come from SOMA, but the real Tenderloin has far less inequality than comparably located central city communities in major urban centers across the nation (the Tenderloin has no million-dollar condo owners and few residents own their homes).

But there is a deeper flaw in the Timesanalysis.  The presence of wealthy and poor people in the same neighborhood is not the harshest indictment of  the growing gap between rich and poor. Rather, that description applies to the many affluent neighborhoods across the nation that exclude the poor altogether. Many do not even have residents who earn less than the upper middle-class.

It is these economically equal but elitist neighborhoods that best show the nation’s inequality gap. The San Francisco Bay Area has many such affluent enclaves (e.g. Atherton, Saratoga, or Ross) that will never be criticized for reflecting the “growing income gap”—in these neighborhoods there is often not even a middle-class person in sight.

The current HBO show “Show Me a Hero” details the extreme efforts of middle-class residents of Yonkers, New York to keep their neighborhoods economically equal by denying low-income housing.  Yes, there was an obvious racist component.

But opponents of low-income housing in Yonkers cloaked their racial motivations with class-based appeals noting that wealthy communities weren’t being asked to live adjacent to the poor. They were right.  Exclusively upper income communities have long been given a pass.  Instead of being castigated as symbols of the “growing divide between rich and poor,” they escape scrutiny because they have successfully excluded low-income residents.

SOMA’s Diversity

SOMA has the starkest income inequality in San Francisco if not the entire country because its building of upscale housing was not accompanied by the demolition or conversion of all the area’s Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels (though the Redevelopment Agency demolished thousands of SRO units east of 4th Street).  San Francisco continues to add non-profit low-income housing to SOMA, which makes the neighborhood’s inequality statistics look worse but SOMA’s economic diversity  much better.

SOMA’s multi-million dollar condos makes it far too upscale for my taste. But that neighborhood should not be criticized as a symbol of rising inequality while the thousands of communities with no low-income people avoid criticism.

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, owns the Sister Bernie Galvin Apartments, an affordable housing project in SOMA at Brannan and Gilbert Alley (near 7th). It is a low-income oasis surrounded by a sea of upscale condos. Residents earn far less than their condo-owning neighbors, but the project adds to the area’s economic diversity. The Galvin is a model of what all affluent areas should have, and neighbors have been welcoming from their first learning of the construction plans.

Better affluent areas are charged with inequality by including low-income residents than by  maintaining income equality by excluding them.

We see this same dynamic in all of the criticisms about homeless people in San Francisco, while rarely is a word written about how communities in Marin, Contra Costa and the South Bay simply export their homeless problems to San Francisco.

The city willing to help the less fortunate gets criticized for its inadequate efforts while cities within a 45 minute drive get no blame for doing nothing or next to nothing to address homelessness. I await the next Debra Saunder column blaming affluent white communities for ignoring their own homeless problems and pushing those in need over to San Francisco—I won’t hold my breath in expectation.

Instead of chastising the wealthy for zoning and housing bans that exclude low-income residents, our media tries to depict inequality as a homeless person sprawled in front of the Twitter building. Or a luxury condo owner living near low-income housing.

Such coverage tries to turn neighborhood economic diversity into a bad thing. Meanwhile, communities that exclude low-income residents are protected, and even rewarded for policies that really show the growing gap between rich and poor.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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