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Tech Companies Could Pay for Evictions if the City Redefines Displacement 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2015
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For a time, San Francisco's "Google buses" were the tech boom's gleaming white symbols of gentrification. Activists were furious when the tech shuttles ferrying workers to campuses on the Peninsula used public bus stops for the low price of $3.66 per stop (less than a round-trip on Muni). They were madder when rising rents appeared to follow on the buses' heels, making the city's housing crisis worse.

The tech shuttles now appear to be here to stay — and that's okay with the activists, who think they can make the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook pay for evictions caused by rent spikes near shuttle stops.

A lawsuit going to trial next month — filed by housing activists and public sector employee union Services Employees International Union Local 1021 — could force a lengthy California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of the tech shuttles' use of Muni stops. The suit could also force the city to conduct a review of what "displacement" means.

State law forbids the city from charging tech shuttles more than the cost of using a stop. In order to charge higher rates, the city would need to study the gentrification effects of commuter shuttles. Once the impact was quantified, that money could then be added to the cost of administering the shuttle program, litigants say.

CEQA has been used early and often to block construction projects opposed by slow-growth advocates and other obstructionists, but the displacement argument is new — and one that the Planning Department thinks is bunk.

According to department spokeswoman Gina Simi, displacement in CEQA is described as "the physical removal or elimination of a housing unit," she says, noting that the definition of displacement under CEQA "cannot be applied to rising rents and shuttle stops."

While no one tore down a Victorian to put in a shuttle stop, the litigants argue that rising rents are nearly as bad as the destruction of housing.

Land-use attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley thinks there's a case to be made. "The loss of housing is always an environmental issue" under CEQA, she says.

Since rents are so high, a San Franciscan evicted from a rent-controlled home near a shuttle stop may need to move out of town.

"That'll increase traffic and transportation impacts, or they'll need affordable housing somewhere else," says Brandt-Hawley, who is otherwise not involved in the tech shuttle fracas. "That is an environmental impact. That's right in the guidelines."

In the meantime, the litigants may be pressed for time. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency may award the tech shuttle program an exemption from CEQA before the lawsuit goes to trial on Nov. 13. If that happens, the litigants may need to re-file, according to attorney Richard Drury.

In any event, expanding the definition of displacement — and, by extension, the use of CEQA — will be a challenge. "I think we're the first people litigating the issue," Drury says.

There's a first time for everything.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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