Don’t expect new technology to solve housing shortage

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Henry Bryant has lived in the Mission District of San Francisco for the last eight years while working at a series of startups. He’s into local music and theater, rap, badminton, maps, coding, cooking, and history. He works for Cozy, a start-up trying to make it easier to rent apartments. Henry is one of the characters in You Can’t Go Home Again, our shortreal about the San Francisco housing shortage. Now that he has seen the whole film, we asked him if he’d take a few minutes to answer some questions. Here are his responses. (Note: Henry’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of his co-workers or his company’s.)

SM: Why do so many people want to live in San Francisco?

HB: I love that SF is dense with enthusiastic, accepting people who care very strongly about good and interesting stuff. I think many of the people who want to move here are primarily interested in being a part of that energy in way or another.

SM: Is the city’s culture changing? If so, how?

HB: This one is hard for me to answer. For a long time the City has been a mixture of cultures, and I have only a very limited view of them. I’ve lived here about eight years, so I can only compare differences going back to 2007. I only speak English, and that alone keeps me from knowing much about dozens of distinct groups in SF.

I primarily spend my time amongst the tech, art, and music crowds. There’s a lot of crossover between them, but at the same time they feel distinct.

I love being able to go to a club night playing experimental music (on a Tuesday!) and meet lots of people without a single one asking what I do for a living. And a lot of these folks are tech people! But it’s not really part of the culture to lead with “so what do you do?” — the standard greeting at pretty much any tech gathering.

As more art creators are priced out of the City (I’ve seen it happen to more than few friends), I worry these events could begin to wither.

On the other hand, tech people move here to be a part of these things as well, and often act as patrons, sinking some of their startup success money into giant art projects.

So it’s hard for me to say where we’re going. I think there are many folks who could give you more unfortunate examples of culture change.

SM: “Tech” is often blamed for the city’s housing crunch. Is it possible to speak of a monolithic tech sector?

HB: Sure, many of the companies considered “tech” in the Bay could probably be more appropriately classified as members of many separate industries. Cozy is in the property rental business. Caviar is a food delivery service. Lyft is for personal transportation. I’d say most of them are not even doing anything that novel from a technology standpoint. They are, however, making good use of new technologies.

In terms of what the companies actually do, they’re only tied together by a few abstract attributes: radical new ideas about how to compete in their respective markets, generous funding situations from investors seeking huge wins, and a laid-back office culture with a focus on worker satisfaction.

But it’s these attributes that end up making an umbrella term especially useful. They’re the reason these companies are all staffed by the same employee pool, and I think it’s really the workers we’re talking about when we talk about “tech.” Companies come and go, but for the most part, the employees remain. There’s always a newly funded company to go to if yours folds or gets acquired (or boring!). For many people, that new company is of their own making.

Tech workers often spend only a few short years at each job, letting some stock options vest, and then moving on. Their skills are usually readily transferable to other startups. Everybody needs designers, engineers, marketers, managers, customer support.

The 80 people I worked with at a startup in 2009 are now, in 2014, spread across dozens of tech companies. But we’re all still going to the same parties, on the same mailing lists, hanging out at the same bars. The density of the city makes sure we run into colleagues all the time. So you can imagine how closely interconnected all the companies are, socially.

SM: What do you think the solution to the housing shortage is?

HB: Bold policy. Not the market. Developers don’t have a direct stake in the social quality of San Francisco.

SM: What’s the craziest San Francisco housing story you know of?

HB: This couple bought a building with tenants in SOMA (the South of Market neighborhood) with the intent of flipping it. They then went to psychotic lengths to try to remove the people living there. After the failed to remove the tenants by shutting off power, pouring ammonia on their mattresses, burglarizing the unit, cutting phone lines, and generally harassing them, they resorted to trying to destroy the structural supports of the building while the tenants were inside.

They left tons of evidence via emails and voicemail. They were indicted, escaped to Italy, extradited a few years later, finally jailed in 2013, and recently featured on Good Morning America.

You can read about it here:

SM: Do you expect that someone will create an app that will solve — or alleviate markedly — the housing shortage? If so, what will that look like?

HB: I certainly don’t expect it. I can’t imagine an app that would directly help.

Maybe there’ll be an app that inadvertently affects policy in the city, though. Tech companies often push the limits of legality in their innovation, forcing cities to clarify their laws and policies to make it clear which side of the law the companies are on. If I remember correctly, the DA has come down hard on some building owners that violated the law by no-fault evicting tenants and then renting the buildings (using a well-known app).

So that’s one way an app has affected the government action in a small way. Maybe an app will cause some behavior so heinous that it unifies the City on housing issues, leading to some sweeping legislation.

Or maybe an app will be the driving force for changing attitudes that would make the populace more accepting of bold policy. Imagine a strategy game about trying to keep the city interesting amongst skyrocketing rents and evictions. Maybe this would drive some empathy.