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With development activists compared to the ‘alt-right,’ the housing crisis debate jumped the shark

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The debate over housing, or lack thereof, in San Francisco is complicated enough already without having to compare one side of the debate to Nazis. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)
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Last week, the nonprofit, progressive digital outlet Truthout published a lengthy article titled “YIMBYs: The ‘Alt-Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry.” The story is worth a gander based on its juicy headline, and the thesis does not deviate from the headline; pro-development activists in San Francisco are not only illiberal but rather neo-liberal and even alt-right all the while being in bed with Silicon Valley billionaires.

The social media backlash was swift from local journalists, activists and regular San Franciscan residents. Despite the article appearing four, five days ago, I still feel compelled to throw my hat in the ring because of the borderline xenophobic rhetoric to paint the pro-development activists as alt-right.

The housing crisis has always been a pressure point for everyone in San Francisco, including politicians. Sometimes, it leads to action, like Mayor Ed Lee ponying up $44 million and a location to provide teacher housing in the Outer Sunset. Every week, a revolving door of housing projects are passionately discussed in board meetings, Reddit discussions and in local op-ed pages because real neighborhoods and livelihoods are at stake.

Even amid the passion and politics, this Truthout story carried all the vitriol but none of the substance. It was intentionally careless journalism seeking to poison the well. I can think of no better antidote than the 37-tweet thread by San Francisco Business Times real estate reporter Roland Li, who dissected the article line-by-line and pointed out several “inaccuracies”.

As Li points out, Uber’s anchor headquarters is not going to be in Oakland; in fact, they are downsizing their Oakland plans. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s donation to pro-development activist Sonja Strauss was to support her ongoing lawsuit against the high-city, low-density city of Lafayette, not “spark a libertarian, anti-poor campaign.”

For me, three parts of the story are worth highlighting. The first, and personally the most infuriating, is two paragraphs in the middle of the article where the two authors transition from saying they received a “dozen papers that claim to show how neoliberal deregulation will end the housing crisis” from a local development activist to sharing the story of Iris Canada, the 100-year-old black woman who died shortly after being evicted in February. “But tell [the papers] to people like Iris Canada,” reads the gotcha transition.

For the authors to use Canada’s tragic death as a pivot to completely dismiss a score of literature which may suggest a different narrative is shoddy alligator tear-jerking journalism. It was entirely possible to mention both Canada and the papers — and importantly, what they are about and sharing links to them — without dismantling one’s argument. But by hiding the latter, the authors are treating its readers with kid gloves and insinuating that valid research, despite personal disagreements, are unwelcome in their ideal San Francisco.

This cold unwelcomeness in the story is ironic since the authors are calling their opposition “alt-right” and accuse them of spreading “white supremacist” beliefs. In San Francisco, the only major political divide is leftist versus liberal. If either parties equated the other with the real alt-right provocateurs who descended onto Berkeley looking for a brawl and a platform to share their hateful message, the opposition should be rightly disgusted. Please don’t insult San Francisco’s collective intelligence by comparing housing to Hitler.

Lastly, the explicit “other-ism” of tech workers of San Francisco is unnervingly splattered across the article. The authors label new tech workers as a “tech invasion” who “[have] got the local police station saved in their frequent contacts list” and “spell disaster for current San Franciscans.”

The label “current San Franciscans” is a sight to behold, as if a technology worker who’s grown up in San Francisco or moved to San Francisco several years ago cannot be a true resident of The City. Who is admitted into this exceptional tribe of San Francisco and by what criteria? Can tech workers be a “current San Franciscan” if they have trouble paying rent or earnestly believe in the many progressive ideals San Franciscans espouse? I know plenty of people who fit these bills.

Not every tech worker you see in the streets is a bogeyman seeking to suck the livelihood out of another non-techie. As someone who has repeatedly called out startups and unicorns alike for their greed and lack of empathy to the non-tech half of San Francisco, the fault lies in the companies that relentlessly shoveled people into San Francisco and local institutions that for decades left the housing supply extremely low on purpose. (As stated in the 2015 California Legislative Analyst’s Office report.)

I don’t have a silver bullet on how to solve the housing crisis. For that, journalists like Kim-Mai Cutler (pro-development) and Tim Redmond (anti-gentrification) are far better resources. But can I set one ground rule: How about we not embarrass ourselves by calling the other side of the housing debate alt-right and Nazis?

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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