When Mary Neale’s rent jumped from $1,500 to $2,000 a month within a year and a half, Neale and her husband started looking at buying property. The cheapest place they found was a studio apartment with less than 750 square feet in Nob Hill. The price? $900,000.
“It’s frightening how expensive it to live here,” Neale said. “We’re two professionals with two good salaries and even we can’t afford to live here. We’ve been driven out.”
After living in the city for 10 years, Neale said it’s the dot-com boom that’s forced to move to a new home in Iowa.
But the dot-com boom is what San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee welcomes. He’s already cut Twitter and other companies a tax break for their location and intervened to stop an increase of taxes on online companies such as Airbnb.
His next step to lure technology into San Francisco is an overhaul of the payroll tax, Lee said in a press conference Tuesday. After five months of negotiation, he plans to present his proposal to overhaul and reform the payroll tax system next week to the Board of Supervisors.
At the heart of it is San Francisco’s unemployment rate. Currently, industries that are personnel-based, like technology or restaurants, typically have to pay more because of the number of employees. By removing the tax, Lee said he expects more jobs to be created without the fear of taxation.
“We’re one of the few cities in California that actually punishes job creation,” Lee said. “That’s exactly what we’re taxing — their growth. And that doesn’t make sense.”
But with an influx of workers and money in the city, Lee acknowledged Tuesday that he’s also creating problems for low-income and even middle-class San Franciscans like Neale and her husband as they are edged out of the housing market.
“If I am successful, then I will know that I have caused it to be more expensive,” Lee said. “The attraction to come here and people wanting to invest here will raise the rents and raise the price. What I do not want to do is price people out who want to be here.”
Lee, whose background is in tenants’ rights, said he intends to counteract the increase by creating a new housing trust, which he plans to have on the ballot by the November election.
The trust would aid creation of low-income and below-market housing and provide incentives to professionals such as doctors, teachers and public safety personnel to live in the city, the mayor said.
While Neale understands the need for job creation and more investment in the city, she warns of what the city might lose if the tech boom continues to force the middle class and lower classes out.
“You lose the populous of people who are the color and richness of this city,” Neale said. “We need the industry and people employed, but we don’t want a city of rich people. You lose the creative and artistic resources that define this city.”
Mayor Ed Lee is a reluctant politician.
When he left for a family vacation to China in 2010, he was the city administrator. It was already a far cry from his days washing dishes in junior high school or leading rent strikes during law school.
Then he got the call asking him to be mayor of San Francisco.
Gavin Newsom, the mayor at the time, was leaving to serve as lieutenant governor and wanted to appoint Lee interim mayor.
He already had a particular distaste for the showmanship and politics of being official.
“I’d been kind of avoidant of the politics for many years,” Lee said in a press conference Tuesday. “I was a good administrator that liked helping the politicians get stuff done. I looked at politics really as grief-management.”
Then there was his family. He didn’t want to trade his job as city administrator for a one-year term and not have a means to support his daughters through college, said his older brother Manny, who was with him when he got the call.
“He really had to be talked into it,” Manny said. “It was a very-gut wrenching decision for him.”
By the time Lee returned from vacation in January 2011, he was interim mayor of San Francisco.
He didn’t advance because of political prowess. Ethical blunders dogged his 2012 campaign and he changed his mind on issues. But his friends say that’s why he’s known for his career in public service, not politics. He had built his reputation by fighting government, not joining it.
“He was focused on the health of the city rather than his political ambitions,” Manny said. “That’s what is special about Ed.”
The Ping Yuen public housing projects towered over Chinatown, a fortress among the dim sum shops and garment factories. But Lee, then a law student at University of California Berkeley, knew the building was just a façade of security.
Inside, the elevators were usually broken. So were the hot water heaters and lights. Thieves and criminals preyed upon the residents. Tenants petitioned the city to get things fixed, but nothing really changed.
Lee was used to the injustice. One of six children, he worked with his dad in a restaurant where customers shouted racial slurs at them.
His brother remembers how much the inequality shaped Lee.
“The American dream was not for everyone,” Manny said. “He wasn’t happy with what he saw.”
So as his fellow graduates sought high-paying jobs, Lee joined the Asian Law Caucus and delayed taking the bar exam so he could focus on helping low-income Chinatown residents.
A night in 1978 sparked an outrage among the Ping Yuen residents and fueled the start of Lee’s activism career.
Julia Wong had finished her long shift as a garment worker at a Chinatown sweatshop. The elevator and lights were still broken so she started to climb the dark stairwell.
The 17-year-old made it to the fifth floor when she was attacked and then thrown off a balcony. She lived, so the attacker threw her off the fifth floor once more to her death.
“After a couple years of being in fear, I think that tragedy crossed the line,” Lee said.
With Lee’s help, the tenants staged the first successful rent strike against the housing authority. The city installed a gate and staffed security patrols. The elevators worked and the lights came back on.
Lee then set out to bring San Francisco’s government out of darkness.
In 1981, he was tapped by then-Mayor Art Agnos to be the city’s first whistleblower ordinance investigator. After that, he held a series of jobs as he worked his way through city government.
“I liked his style and his aggressiveness,” Agnos said. “He was challenging government from the inside, and I wanted to bring him on the inside to use the same aggressive technique to root out issues that were corrupt or somehow wrong inside government.”
Lee hesitated though as he reached the top echelon of San Francisco government.
Faced with the option of running for a four-year term, he told a room of reporters he wasn’t interested.
While many credit former mayor Willie Brown Jr. and Chinatown power broker Rose Pak with pushing him into the race, Lee said it was a conversation with Senator Dianne Feinstein that changed his mind.
“I wanted to leave politics of running to someone else,” Lee said. “I didn’t like the exposure of being accused of things that you either didn’t do or didn’t understand.”
His campaign wasn’t a smooth one as he faced criticism and ethical smears by his opponents, but Lee made it through a political minefield of 16 candidates and won.
Mayor Lee isn’t the same “angry, rebellious” man from the 1970s that author David Talbot characterized in his book “Season of the Witch.” His trademark mustache is slightly thinner, his hair shorter and grayer.
Wearing an orange tie in support of the Giants, he talks his way through the city’s economics: payroll tax and pension reforms, tax breaks for technology, job creation and a housing trust to make city living affordable.
Lee doesn’t sound like a mayor who nearly turned down the job twice.
He explains with the smile of a proud parent how it’s the first time the city has put together a two-year budget. It’s not the same as announcing a rent strike, but he’s come to view it as another tool in his arsenal of change.
He ties his housing trust message back to the days of when he pushed for better housing. He argues economics — whether empowering minority business owners or balancing the budget — is the biggest civil rights movement.
“You may not agree with him on a certain issue but you cannot question his integrity of doing what he thinks is best for the city,” said Gordon Chin, executive director of the Chinese Community Development Center. “His reputation hasn’t been built over the last few years, it’s been built over the last 40 years.”
Chas Christiansen has three seconds to make his decision: crash into the door of the maroon Mercedes Benz or break the $2,000 bottle of scotch he had to deliver.
A blur of a black SUV crowded his peripheral vision on his left. To his right, a row of parked cars.
After six years as a bike messenger, Christiansen had learned to read the movements on the streets.
If a ball or money falls into the bike path, a kid or adult might come running to retrieve it. Someone blankly staring across the street is likely to step out blindly.
“You have to pay a lot of attention,” he said. “There are so many things that could knock you off your bike.”
Christiansen looks through the windshields of cars to see any trouble ahead and knows how to spot what he calls “the pop.” Most drivers open their car door by first pulling on the handle and then swinging it out, he explains. If he sees the pop, he knows to swerve to avoid the door that’s about to open.
But as he speeds down Chesnut Street on his way to deliver the scotch to Lucasfilm’s Presidio offices, the door swings open in one movement. There’s no pop to prepare him for the door open door he’s quickly approaching.
As he approaches, he has to weigh what’s more important: a $2,000 bottle of scotch for a new client or his livelihood that he could lose by willingly throwing himself into a car.
As co-founder of Takin’ Care of Business Courier, or TCB, Christiansen faces these decisions on the fly everyday, whether he’s competing in the North American Courier Championships that he won in May or delivering fresh breast milk, still warm in a Ziploc bag, to a posh daycare at the top of a hill.
But with an estimated 75,000 cyclists on the roads in San Francisco — a number that’s growing every year — accidents like these are not uncommon.
A Bay Citizen bike accident database listed 2,246 cases in San Francisco County between 2005 and 2009. Of those, 896 listed the cyclist as the responsible party, based on the California Highway Patrol reports.
However, after two pedestrian fatalities in the past year at the hands of cyclists, the public eye was drawn toward the most visible and notorious of the biking community: the couriers.
“I got pulled over seven times in one week,” Christiansen said. “It’s frustrating because I’m a professional.”
Couriers ride in the middle of traffic to avoid being caught up in the bike lane with inexperienced cyclists who don’t know what they’re doing, Christiansen said.
Many couriers argue that they’re misunderstood as reckless.
“I’m overhearing the problems I’ve caused,” said Mike Rabdau, a co-founder of Godspeed Courier who has been a messenger for 15 years. “We resent being lumped into it. If I break the law, I’m not being stupid. I’m not going to do anything that would harm myself. I try to instill fast, but safe.”
Businessman Josh Bentley watches the traffic on Market Street during his smoke breaks from work. A San Francisco native, he’s seen the bike scene grow in his hometown, and with it, a growing headache for pedestrians.
“Bike messengers just need to make up their mind,” he said. “They need to decide if they are bicyclists or pedestrians, but they can’t ride on the street, then cut through a cross walk to keep going.”
Some pedestrians, like Academy for the Arts student Sarah Rosencrans, view bike messengers are just another part of city traffic.
Christiansen knows his job is to navigate the streets safely, but fast.
He’s learned how ride with the timed lights in the downtown or how to maneuver through the Wiggle. He’s found ways to ride holding six pizzas stacked on one hand or with a backpack full of lobsters that are needed fresh at a restaurant.
“We get the same kind of publicity when we’re the ones who are just trying to do our jobs,” Christiansen said. “You’re not going to put yourself out there to get hurt.”
Instinct tells Christiansen to hit the ground and fall back on his padded messenger bag. He can’t afford to get injured and lose his source of income because of it.
But the price tag of the scotch and the desire to help a new client keep him on the bike.
Christiansen squeezes the brakes for the three seconds, before the wheel of his gray, vintage French bike collides with the door. His body slams into the frame, leaving him with a bruise across his chest from where the seat belt was attached to the door.
The outline of the belt buckle would be on his chest for weeks.
The minutes count for a courier, so he asks the woman, whom he describes as a “marina mom,” for whatever cash she has in her wallet.
After years of being hit, Christiansen has his routines for pleas for money nearly perfected. He points out whatever the damage is to his bike then reminding the drivers that it will cost less to fix his bike than what they would have to pay their insurance if he reported it.
She hands him the all she has, $70, and Christiansen rides off to finish his delivery — his wobbly front wheel spinning and the bottle of scotch still intact.