One sun-drenched afternoon last month, I took a long solo bike ride through the San Francisco Bay Area. I rode from my home to Mountain View, near the once-desolate stretch of marsh that Google has leased from NASA to build a monumental new campus. It looks like a collection of lunar bases made out of origami.
Construction has been paused under lockdown, and on the fetid plains surrounding the million-square-foot project, birds sang and wildflowers painted the horizon, and the trails that run beside the site were packed to socially distant capacity with masked families on foot and wheel.
Bicycles and pets, not sirens and fridge-truck morgues, have become the unlikely icons of the pandemic in the Bay Area. Bike shops and animal shelters say they’ve been inundated with demand. With the streets free of cars and full of people, the air clean, the cavernous office buildings empty and their endless parking lots turned into carefree pedestrian plazas, you’d be forgiven for mistaking some areas of Silicon Valley under lockdown for outtakes from the “The Good Place.”
On my way to the Google lunar landing base, I passed by Santiago Villa, one of the area’s few remaining mobile-home parks. It was built in the 1960s as an affordable retirement community. In January, its residents, who rent the space on which their mobile homes stand, petitioned the City Council to include trailer parks in Mountain View’s rent-control rules.
They’re worried that wealthy Googlers looking for a kitschy pied-à-terre near the new campus will push them out. The anger has been rising. Last year, the same City Council prohibited RVs and trailers — many of them used as homes — from parking on the street; a petition to overturn the RV ban will be on the ballot in November.
It was then that I first had the ghoulish idea: Could the coronavirus have an upside, at least in this one place? What if the pandemic and its aftermath lead Googlers and trailer park residents to find common cause? What if, after the virus, the Bay Area’s wealthy gained a new appreciation for those who live on its edges, and finally made room for them in this digital wonderland?
I have lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, and for most of that time, I’ve felt this place creaking steadily into uninhabitability for all but the wealthiest few. We have one of the world’s highest concentrations of billionaires, and yet we have been not been able to marshal our immense wealth and ingenuity against our most blatant and glaring challenges — including the lack of affordable housing and entrenched homelessness.
But in this crisis, the Bay Area’s response was an unexpected success. And that has given a lot of people, including me, new hope about what’s possible. Yes, it sounds hokey, but this might be a time for hokeyness.
The first big moment came on March 16, when the six counties around the San Francisco Bay ordered the first shelter-in-place rules in the United States. Google, Apple, Facebook and other large employers fell right into step; they ordered all of their employees to work from home, setting the pace for most other local businesses to close up shop. And the tech giants set an important example — they made a commitment to keep paying their on-site service workers, even if they could no longer come on-site to work.
San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose secured thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people, away from the streets and the risk of the virus in crowded shelters. Cities opened their streets to pedestrians and bicycles and closed them to cars. Perhaps most important, officials in the area were the picture of calm leadership.
When I despaired about our national failures, I found myself tuning into hear the plain-spoken exhortations of San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed. “This is going to take all of us,” Breed told the city late in March. “This is going to take all of us coming together and sacrificing so that we get through this.”
And it worked. Thanks to some combination of early action, collective adherence to public health guidelines, a concerted effort to help the vulnerable, and perhaps just blind luck, mass death missed the Bay. By the start of May, fewer than 30 people had died of Covid-19 in San Francisco; in the greater Bay Area, deaths stand around 350.
The toll is probably an undercount, and blacks and Latinos are disproportionately represented in it. Still, compared to many American metropolitan areas, this ranks as a near miracle. San Francisco’s death rate of four per 100,000 residents is one-fourth the rate in Los Angeles, a fraction of the national average, and nowhere near New York’s.
In the absence of mass death, people around here have had time and psychic space to imagine longer-term possibilities. If we could band together so quickly to beat the virus, making so many big changes so seamlessly, what else are we capable of doing?
I was not alone in my vague sense of optimism.
In an article that went viral among techies last month, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen characterized the pandemic as a call to arms to rebuild American institutions, including our cities. Like many of the Valley’s tech princes, Andreessen has often been skeptical of government and its champions, but now here he was, cheering them on: “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing,” he wrote. “Stop trying to protect the old, the entrenched, the irrelevant; commit the public sector fully to the future.”
I heard a similar urgency for grand reform from nearly every Bay Area official, activist and resident I spoke to — even those who had clashed with the tech industry or those whose fights earlier seemed unwinnable.
Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, opened up 74 miles of city streets for pedestrians and moved hundreds of homeless people into hotels. She saw the crisis as an opportunity to make permanent improvements.
One example: Schaaf required that the hotels which the city paid to house the homeless during the pandemic offer the city long-term leases. “I do not want, at the end of the health emergency, to turn homeless people back out onto the streets,” she said.
In April, Ro Khanna, who represents parts of Silicon Valley in the House, introduced legislation to provide greater pay, health care and labor protections to workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic. “When we talk about who are the ‘essential workers,’ very few people are saying it’s lawyers or middle or senior management,” Khanna said. “They’re saying, we want the person who’s delivering our groceries, the person who’s keeping the internet open, the electricity flowing, or the person who’s taking care of our kids.”
In a similar way, the crisis illustrated the importance of keeping everyone healthy — even people who lack a place to live. “Housing is health care,” explained Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “That’s something, in my field, that people have been saying for a long time.” Now, the connection was inescapable — people who lacked housing were also outside of the health care system, and during a pandemic, their presence on the streets created a risk for everyone else in the city. “What this has shown us all is that everyone’s health is intertwined,” she said.
These were all officials and experts — people who might be biased toward finding “silver linings” in any crisis. But was anything really changing for homeless people around the Bay Area? I contacted several homeless people who have been placed in hotels during the pandemic. They spoke rapturously about their sudden fortune in an otherwise grim time.
“Oh my God — I can really breathe and be myself.” That was the reaction from a 33-year-old woman who had been living in a hotel for weeks with her 12-year-son. She asked me not to use her name. Before the virus, they had spent years bouncing from couch to couch around the Bay. Under lockdown, their lives were, in many ways, freer than before. For the first time in years, she no longer felt that crushing dependence on other people. “I can move as the adult I am, and no one dictates what I do or how I move,” she told me.
The hotel room has two beds and a private bathroom. It was starting to feel like a studio apartment — like a kind of home, she told me. “I only wish we could have a deep fryer.” It is only guaranteed for three months, but she has begun to see the possibility of a new life in the uncertain distance: “I just know that I am on my way to my place.”
As the weeks of lockdown dragged on, San Francisco began to break my heart again. While the number of coronavirus cases and deaths remained low, the full gloom of the coming recession began to descend into view, and with it, the same ageless, endless political squabbles. The basic problem is that despite the region’s apparently limitless wealth, there were not enough ready resources available to public officials to reach everyone in need. And in the absence of more help from the state and the federal government, or from the region’s billionaires, the Bay Area’s needs simply outmatched its capacity to meet them.
Even after the huge effort to move people into hotels, there are still thousands of homeless people on the Bay Area’s streets, and little prospect that many will be housed anytime soon. My hopes for inspiring leadership began to fall apart when a fight broke out recently between San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and the mayor over how many more homeless people the city could house.
The board passed an ordinance to secure 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless people who are now on the street, but the mayor refused to comply. She said it was impossible; the city is straining against its limit already. So far, San Francisco has placed 965 homeless people in hotel rooms, and has signed contracts for 2,731 rooms for homeless people and essential workers.
This fight hinges on the usual things — money, willpower, staffing and basic municipal capacity. But it also lays bare how ephemeral our coronavirus-inspired unity may be. “To the extent we have restored faith in what is possible, we have also underscored, sadly, our city’s limitations,” Matt Haney, a member of the Board of Supervisors, told me.
When I asked the mayor about her dispute with the supervisors, she was cordial but clearly annoyed. Annoyed that the supervisors hadn’t considered the limits on the city’s capacity. Annoyed that she agreed with them — more homeless people could be taken off the streets if only she had the funds or the people to make it happen.
The federal government has promised to reimburse cities for part of the cost of housing the homeless, but Breed says she is not sure whether those funds will come through. “There’s a huge difference between what we all want, which is to get every homeless person off the street, and reality,” she said.
And instead of bringing the region’s wealthy and its needy together, she suggested that the pandemic might pit the less needy against the more needy. “I think many people are like, ‘Well, wait a minute — I lost my job where I was making minimum wage. I can’t pay my rent. I can barely eat. Where’s my help from the city?’” Breed said.
When I asked if the virus had created much political room for bold action to address inequality, she said, “It’s going to make it even harder.”
Is this really the best the city can do? The further we move from the initial crisis, the crazier my bike-riding optimism now sounds. Rather than fostering some new sense of civic unity, the virus is just as likely to worsen inequality further.
Margot Kushel, a physician and scholar of homelessness at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that this was the “nightmare scenario” for inequality in San Francisco: low-income jobs disappear, so more people lose their homes, but because the tech industry keeps doing well, home prices remain high, and housing slips further out of reach for everyone else. “Those who are housed are fully aware that they’re one thread away from losing that housing,” Kushel said.
San Francisco and other Bay Area cities have imposed temporary moratoriums on evictions caused by virus-related economic disruptions. But those will expire later in the year, at which time a wave of tenants may be kicked out of their homes unless they can pay months of back rent. At the same time, the virus has given more political ammo to those NIMBYs who have long opposed urban density and blocked the construction of more housing.
All is not lost. I do feel a renewed sense of pride and possibility about the Bay Area — the way our leaders responded to the virus did strengthen my faith in our local institutions, and we certainly seem better equipped to address long-term challenges than I once thought we were.
There might still be a window for substantive action: Our local governments can use the new leverage to push for bold ideas — among other policies, a plan for rent relief, rather than simply an eviction moratorium, so that more people don’t lose their housing.
I’m also waiting on the city’s billionaires to open up new floodgates of generosity, at least for mitigating the immediate pain of the crisis. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter and Square, recently pledged $1 billion to coronavirus relief; but of the nearly 100 billionaires reportedly living in the Bay Area, only a handful have donated to the city’s coronavirus relief fund. Mary Kate Bacalao, the director of external affairs at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit group that helps homeless families, told me that with a few big checks, the Bay’s wealthiest could instantly make a difference.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if we — the people of the Bay Area, our lawmakers, our billionaires and our ordinary, overburdened citizens — end up squandering this moment. Rebuilding a fairer, more livable urban environment will take years of difficult work. It will require sacrifices from the wealthy. It will require a renewed federal interest in addressing the problems of cities. It will require abandoning pie-in-the-sky techno-optimism.
This isn’t a problem that will be solved by flying cars; it will be solved by better zoning laws, fairer taxes and, when we can make it safe again, more public transportation. We will have to commit ourselves to these and other boring but permanent civic solutions.
I’m hopeful we’re up to the task. We cannot go back to the way things were. But as the immediate danger of the pandemic recedes, it will be all too easy for many of us to do exactly that.
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Spot Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara