Do We Have The Right To Choose Our Neighbors?

December 14th 2016

I wrote an opinion piece for the SF Chronicle. They ran it with some great edits for length, so I figured I’d put my original, longer, and worse version here for posterity’s sake.

San Francisco is one of the most progressive cities in the nation, especially when it comes to national immigration. We believe so much in the natural right of people to join us here in America that we fought to keep our status as sanctuary city even in the face of being federally defunded for it. We pride ourselves in our rejection of plans to tighten immigration controls and deport undocumented immigrants. Yet take that same kind of conversation to the local level and all bets are off. City meetings have become heated, divisive, and prone to rhetoric where we openly discuss exactly which kinds of people we want to keep out of our city.

Consider the recent Board of Supervisors meeting to appeal the plan to build housing at 1515 Van Ness. Despite the project’s plan to rent 25% of its units at a below market rate, many members of the neighborhood group Calle 24 expressed anger that the project might bring tech workers into the Latino Cultural District. Elsewhere in the city, members of the Forest Hills homeowners association opposed a project that would convert a church into 100% affordable housing for seniors and the formerly homeless. One of the grievances aired was that it might bring mentally unstable or drug addicted people into Forest Hills.

Both of these groups are reacting to the threat of change to their neighborhood. Calle 24 is opposing what they see as increased gentrification and a loss of Latino identity in the Mission. Forest Hills is attempting to preserve their idyllic suburb-within-a-city aesthetic of detached single family homes. In both cases, residents took it as a given that they were within their rights to control the demographic makeup of their own neighborhoods. Like conservatives who see entry to the country as discretionary, these city residents see entry into their own neighborhood as something they have veto power over.

This isn’t an ethically coherent position for San Franciscans to hold. If we so strongly believe that national immigration is a human right, it seems strange to only block migration into our own neighborhood. Where do we get to draw the line? I think how people feel about this issue boils down to whether they see migration as a right or a privilege. Conservatives in America see national immigration as a privilege we need to carefully dole out. Liberals tend to see immigration as a human right that needs to be protected. San Francisco progressives view living in certain neighborhoods as a privilege to be earned, and see nothing wrong with preventing certain groups of people from moving into those neighborhoods.

Tech workers have now become the most visible of these groups. As the most recent affluent demographic to appear in San Francisco, tech workers have been been cast as shallow opportunists who indifferently displace existing residents. However, most tech workers who move here are simply migrants from less affluent parts of the country. They’re people from places like the midwest who are just trying to find good jobs in one of the last functioning economic engines in the country. If we believe that San Francisco should be a shelter for people from less prosperous countries, why shouldn’t it also be a shelter for people from less prosperous parts of our own country? Even more pointedly, more than a third of Silicon Valley tech workers are immigrants themselves. For many people in China, India, and Eastern Europe, working in technology is one of the few ways out of their country and into ours.

Neighborhood activists want to protect their vision of San Francisco, and that is absolutely a noble purpose. However, blocking future residents isn’t the way to go about it. How would you even do it? The current approach of attempting to just halt construction hasn’t proven effective at preserving neighborhood aesthetics. To truly control who lived in a neighborhood, you’d have to create some official tribunal that would essentially have the ability to vet applicants by their demographics. This is would be very dangerous and likely illegal, especially when considering the Fair Housing Act. It’s hardly a progressive idea to institutionalize exclusionary policy, especially deliberately.

If we really believe that migration is a human right and not a privilege extended at the discretion of current residents, then we need to acknowledge that neighborhood meetings where people feel entitled to debate the virtues of future residents are anti-migration by definition. We need to acknowledge that making room for, say, an Indian tech worker on an H1-B who is trying to get a green card serves the very same ideological purpose as making room for an undocumented worker from Mexico. Denying migration to our city to selective groups of people is impractical and counter to our very own progressive values.