Peter Seto wakes up at 5:30 a.m., drinks a cup of coffee and makes the 18-minute cross-town commute to San Francisco’s waterfront. There, he hops in the driver’s seat of a 45-foot luxury coach outfitted with tinted windows, plush seats, TVs and wireless Internet to chauffeur a bus full of programmers around the Bay Area.
Seto, 60, is benefiting from the burgeoning technology industry as part of a growing cadre of bus drivers chaperoning employees to Google Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and other companies. Yet, his $50,000 annual pay is hardly luxurious in a city where software engineers just out of college can expect more than twice that and are fueling a boom that has sent median home prices skyrocketing past $850,000.
“It’s very difficult for some people,” Seto, who started driving after his garment company closed, said in an interview between his morning and afternoon shifts. “I’ve seen a lot of friends move out. They would rather buy a house outside the city.”
San Francisco’s private bus drivers are at the center of a swelling debate about income inequality and the role of technology’s nouveau rich in turning the city into a place that’s becoming unaffordable for everyone else. With the highest rents in the country and rental evictions at a seven-year peak, the rising presence of company-funded buses in densely populated neighborhoods has led to protests and occasional violence in a city known for tolerance.
Across the nation, the inequality gap is attracting more attention, with President Barack Obama calling it “the defining challenge of our time” in last month’s State of the Union address, and the CIA World Fact Book ranking the U.S. 41st among 136 countries for family income distribution. The widening disparity between rich and poor set off the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
For San Francisco, the trend has created an economic conundrum. High-profile initial public offerings from Facebook and Twitter Inc. and the influx of technology companies has brought jobs, higher tax revenue and increased demand for pricey dinners and multimillion-dollar home renovations. Just last week, Facebook agreed to buy mobile-messaging application WhatsApp Inc. for as much as $19 billion.
Unemployment in the city has dropped to less than 5 percent, compared with 6.6 percent nationally, yet the average monthly cost of a two-bedroom apartment jumped 12 percent in January from a year earlier to $3,350, according to real estate site Trulia Inc. San Francisco has the second-highest level of inequality in the country, behind Atlanta, according to a Feb. 20 report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“While a lot of people are benefiting, especially people who are moving here for the tech industry, a lot of longtime residents aren’t benefiting,” said Erin McElroy, 31, who has organized blockades to protest the buses as a member of the group Eviction Free San Francisco. “The buses are definitely symbolic for a larger systemic shift and gentrification.”