Treasure Island: The island gentrification almost forgot

This is the million-dollar view of the San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge from Treasure Island, currently providing some of the most affordable housing in the city.

 … and why you don’t get free refills at Chipotle anymore

A gratuitous rant by Nacho Cola

I live in the most expensive city in the US. Probably the most expensive in the world. Yet I live on next to nothing on Treasure Island.

I moved to San Francisco from New Orleans in 2005 after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. At that time, a one-bedroom apartment went for about $1,200. Today, the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is $4,000. In 15 years, rent tripled. I don’t think there is any other example in US history of that kind of gentrification.

What happened was that tech startups from Silicon Valley moved into the city, bringing along thousands of employees who earned ridiculous six digit starting salaries. They caused a new demand for housing, which in turn allowed landlords to charge pretty much any amount. They started evicting and pricing out middle class and poor tenants and moved in the software engineers.

The city’s Board of Supervisors could have regulated the housing prices. They could have put a cap on either the price of housing or the amount of housing exceeding a certain price. They had done this kind of thing in the past: San Francisco is 70 percent privately owned due to a directive to protect its neighborhoods, and, as such, there are hardly any national chains in SF. There are about five McDonald’s locations in the entire city of just under a million residents – three Taco Bells, no Walmart. You get the idea.

If they wanted to preserve the city’s aesthetic, they should have done something to keep the city’s middle class, as they also contribute to the aesthetic. This used to be a city of young people, musicians and artists. There was a quaint hippy vibe that survived since the 1960s. There were even a few families. Now, not unlike New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, the city’s former residents have been displaced.

Young people, liberal values of tolerance and personal freedom were prevalent in this city. San Francisco was both lauded by progressives and disparaged by conservatives as a left wing Mecca. The city had culture. In other words, it was a city of educated young people in their 20s and 30s, having fun living out the best years of their lives. Now it is nothing but millionaires and homeless people.

The homeless people, I like to think, are their penance, their cross to bear, as they will never get rid of them and will always have to pay for their lives by providing food and healthcare. The only thing they won’t do, not surprisingly, is house them, because the housing prices are up to $4,000 for a one-bedroom.

Gentrification drives out the middle and low income individuals and families. It inflates housing prices to the extent that no one is going to forgo $4,000 per month to house homeless people.

How I still live here is a fluke. I live on a man-made island in the Bay called Treasure Island – the name is simultaneously apt and ironic – that used to be a Naval base. Some years ago, legislation passed that stated when the military leaves an area, the land must go to affordable housing.

The rent where I live is one third of the market rate. I pay $2,600 for a four-bedroom townhouse, rent out the bedrooms and live in the living room for about $600 a month. It feels like getting away with murder in this city of millionaires and homeless people.

My time here is limited. In 2011 the city bought the island from the federal government and is now in the process of converting it into luxury condos and the like. When construction is complete, the residents of the island will be unceremoniously scraped off into the Bay, not unlike unwanted dark-colored spots on a piece of toast. 

This architect’s rendering shows what development currently underway on Treasure Island may look like eventually.

What else, right? We don’t have enough luxury condos in San Francisco already, and these land-grabbing charlatans can never get quite enough money. 

First, however, they have to wait for the Navy to clean up the pollution they left, which is in the soil and consists of all kinds of chemicals from building materials used before they were known to be toxic.

There is a large amount of radiation from military activities, and a $9 billion class-action lawsuit regarding the fact that the city knowingly enticed Black people and other low-income residents with ultra-cheap rent in order to clear these undesirable residents from neighborhoods they wanted to redevelop. This is another aspect of gentrification: racism.

The Navy has had to clean up the toxic material and radiation and the developers have started construction. We are a quiet little neighborhood surrounded by mountains of dirt and earth movers; it’s not ideal, but it’s an affordable place to live, just outside of the gentrification experiment gone awry that is today’s San Francisco.

Rents aren’t going to change on the island for now. The yuppies can’t move here till construction is finished, and that won’t be done for another 10 years or more, most likely.

When I walk around San Francisco I feel like an outsider in the city I’ve called home for 15 years. I have come to realize that I have more in common with the homeless people than with my neighbors in the city.

A big factor of gentrification is related to this change in the demographic. Any regular folks who remain are outclassed, marginalized and forgotten. Those who are not forgotten are discriminated against: Every time I go into a drugstore I get followed by security. Restaurants have asked me to leave. 

Now there is rampant classism, another effect of gentrification that adversely impacts the poor. Since there are only millionaires and homeless people, if you don’t have a $200 haircut and designer clothes, it is assumed you must be homeless. They treat you how they treat them, which happens to be no way to treat a human being, or even an animal.

It’s happened to me at least a couple dozen times – when I go into Walgreens, security follows me down every aisle and sometimes asks me to leave. Once, a Walgreens security guard stood in front of the entrance to stop me from coming into the store. He had never seen me a day in his life, but based on my appearance he would not let me in. My clothes were in good condition, I had my hair tied back and I was wearing a $50 Kangol hat. Still, something about the way I looked told this security guard not to allow me in the store.

I, of course, took this up with Walgreens. I must give the district manager credit, he handled the situation professionally, and with empathy. He showed the security company the surveillance video, had the guard removed and told them they would have to train their security guards not to follow anyone if they wanted to keep the contract.

Recently, I went to a restaurant I frequent called Chipotle. I ate my meal outside due to Covid restrictions. I went back inside to refill my drink 10 minutes after ordering. The manager looked at me like I was something he scraped off the bottom of his shoe. He told me I couldn’t come back in, and that I had to leave.

I assure you I am not homeless, nor am I a thief. I have a college degree – I graduated magna cum laude. I used to work in the financial district before I got laid off.

Believe me, it’s humiliating. But more than that, it just pisses me off. This is my city; it doesn’t belong to the tech yuppies. I was here first, long before they came along and ruined one of the greatest cities in the world. 

I reached out to the owner of that restaurant. Well, actually, he reached out to me after I wrote a rather scorching Yelp review. I had a technical problem with my internet server, so I could not directly reach him, so I wrote another review, asking him to provide another way for me to reach him. He never responded. 

Chipotle now has their employees filling the fountain drinks for customers. They even have to turn the machine on with a key. There were formerly free refills; that’s why I went back in to fill my drink. The way they responded was as if I was stealing the refill.

Believe me, it’s humiliating. But more than that, it just pisses me off. This is my city; it doesn’t belong to the tech yuppies. I was here first, long before they came along and ruined one of the greatest cities in the world. 

Meanwhile, the island’s developers tried putting a $7 per day toll on the low-income residents of the island to pay for transportation improvements – including a ferry – that we will never see. These eventual transportation improvements will be enjoyed by the millionaires who will displace the island’s low-income residents when construction is complete.

They have tried using a loophole called a “DDA distinction” to avoid compensating for the relocation of a couple thousand low income residents who have lived on the island for 10 or more years. They are being treated as if they are short-term residents who moved to the island for the purpose of cashing out when they are displaced from the island. This applies to nearly half of the island’s residents.

In reality, these people moved to the island not to cash out, but because they were priced out. We moved to the island under duress. We had no choice. How can you hold that against us?

We have, of course, been fighting them on all of this. Recently, a new supervisor named Matt Haney was elected for our district. He actually cares about the low-income residents. He has been a crucial ally in protecting our rights from the land-grabbing charlatans who are developing the island. If you ever see him running for mayor or something, vote for him. He may as well be a jackalope, a species so rare it is commonly believed not to exist: a politician with a conscience. 

They will stop at nothing to drive us out, first with an unaffordable toll on the island, now another toll coming to access downtown San Francisco. They are pulling out all the stops to ensure the city remains exclusively for the wealthy.

Another reprieve may be in sight. The most recent news is that the tech bubble is finally bursting, causing an exodus of tech yuppies who are moving on because, due to Covid, they don’t have to work in an office.

You couldn’t get the smile off my face with dynamite.

Already the rents are dropping. It is my hope that the middle class will be able to reclaim the city and move into these luxury high rises for much cheaper rental prices.

It would seem that the universe is righting a societal wrong, saving the few remaining middle class and low-income residents of San Francisco, and hopefully providing affordable housing for the Bay Area’s middle class.

It would be in bad taste to make light of Covid by suggesting that it has a silver lining. I will avoid that cliché – I know better than to risk tempting karma. Still, though, it’s funny the way the universe can sometimes provide justice in unexpected ways.

To contact the writer, email editor@sfbayview.com or call 415-671-0789.