SAN FRANCISCO -- While small in scale, scattered protests targeting buses filled with tech workers have highlighted a larger issue: the growing gap between those benefiting from the Bay Area's tech boom and those who have been left behind.
The protesters insist their anger is not aimed at the tech workers themselves, but rather at the inequities highlighted by the tech industry, which generates enormous wealth that provides big paychecks and attractive perks -- including free transportation and free gourmet food -- to workers whose ability to pay has helped push up rents. Many of those outside the tech industry, meanwhile, have seen their rents rise beyond their reach as their salaries have remained flat, or even fallen, over recent years.
"All of those buses you see lined up are a clear symbol of a larger story," said Santa Clara University psychology professor Tom Plante. "It's not that the buses are the problem. It's what those buses represent that's the problem."
The average rent in San Francisco shot up 11.9 percent -- to $3,096 per month -- in the third quarter of this year from the same period last year. In Oakland, the average rental price is $2,124, up 10.3 percent from last year, according to RealFacts, while San Jose's average rent rose 9.2 percent, to $2,015.
Protesters say they also resent that the private buses in San Francisco pick up and drop off workers at spaces reserved for public Muni buses that are marked with signs warning of $271 penalties for violators -- fines that protesters say should have added up to millions of dollars in penalties so far against Google (GOOG), Yahoo (YHOO), Apple (AAPL) and other companies.
Neither Apple nor Yahoo responded to requests for comment. Google said in an email that, "We certainly don't want to cause any inconvenience to SF Bay Area residents and we and others in our industry are working with SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) to agree on a policy on shuttles in the city."
Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, called the protests "misplaced anger."
The people on these buses are hardworking individuals just trying to get to their jobs, he said, and don't "deserve to have rocks thrown at them and glass flung on them," Guardino said. "Let's also not forget the perspective that each bus that seats 50 people prevents 50 cars on our freeways carrying just one person."
The companies represented by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, most of them technology based, have contributed $50 million over the last 13 years for affordable housing, Guardino said.
The protests began in June at San Francisco's annual Pride parade when Erin McElroy, Leslie Dreyer and others raised $2,000 to rent a private bus similar to the ones Google uses, and then decorated it with a giant decal that read, "GET OUT: Gentrification Eviction Technologies."
The 30 protesters who marched alongside the fake Google bus passed out postcards with information on California's Ellis Act. The act allows mass evictions on rent-controlled units -- usually to convert rental units to condominiums -- as are occurring in San Francisco's Mission District.
That was followed by several other protests, including three last week, one involving a Facebook bus in San Francisco, and two targeting Google buses in Oakland. One of the Google buses had its tires slashed and rear window smashed.
Craig Frost, a contractor with Google, was aboard the vandalized bus when he tweeted a picture of a profanity-laced flier protesters handed out that read, "If you want a Bay Area where the ultrarich are pitted against hundreds of thousands of poor people, keep doing what you're doing. You'll have a nice revolution outside your door."
The flier ended in profanity with, "GET ... OUT OF OAKLAND!"
Paula Tejada received an Ellis Act eviction notice this summer for her rent-controlled flat in the Mission and worries about her future -- and whether she can continue running her popular empanada shop, Chile Lindo.
"Thanks to the fact that I have rent control, I was able to build a business that contributes so much to the community," Tejada told this newspaper. "It's ironic that (real estate) developers all the time bring clients to Chile Lindo to show them how quaint the neighborhood is. But when I got my Ellis Act eviction notice, my first thought was to sell the business and leave the city. There's an emergency going on and the blocking of the Google buses is drawing attention to the issue."
While the protests have been held in San Francisco and Oakland, the income gap is widening throughout the Bay Area. Professor Plante's son is a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School, where some of his classmates grow up with private jets and exotic vacation homes -- while a third of the incoming freshmen will not graduate, he said.
"We affectionately say that three (students) will go to Yale and three will go to jail," Plante said. "That's amazing in Silicon Valley, but it illustrates why people are frustrated that only a small percentage of people enjoy great wealth while the poverty around here is remarkable."
Plante jokes to his techie neighbors that he and his wife, Lori, are waiting for a knock on the door of their Los Altos home -- followed by an eviction notice.
"They're going to say, 'You are both too low-tech for Silicon Valley and you're going to have to move,' " Plante said. "Unless you're a tech person or a venture capitalist, you feel like you don't belong here."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.