The New Gold Rush: Using technology to tell evicted tenants’ stories

Nov 10, 2014

Protests against the tech industry’s impact on housing have grown in number and variety. They’ve been personal, with individual tech executives being targeted. They’ve been artistic, with brass bands, acrobatics, and street art.

No matter the form, they all raise a few key questions. At a recent Google bus protest during the morning commute on Market Street, evicted tenant Martina Ayala took the microphone to ask, “Where is the affordable housing? Where is the justice? Where is your Googliness?”

A search for answers has led some protesters right back to Google and other tech firms. While many activists hold the industry accountable for San Francisco’s rental crisis, their feelings about tech products is a different matter. In fact, powerful software is key to a partnership between the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and students at Stanford University.

Making the map

Landlords filed 1977 eviction notices in San Francisco between March of 2013 and February of 2014 – a 14-year high. Students at Stanford’s Geospatial Center plan to use Google’s geographic information software to put a human face on those eviction statistics.

The students are programming a map that lets viewers click where someone was evicted to see their photo and hear their story. Urban Studies students such as Natasha Weiss go out to get the interviews that populate the map.  

One of the tenants Weiss interviewed was Rick Gerharter, who lost his apartment in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights. Originally from South Dakota, he moved here in 1977 in search of a supportive community where he could come out as gay. A few years ago, his landlord decided to sell his building and wanted the tenants out.

Gerharter says, “We protested and it went on for several months. Elmer my roommate got diagnosed with HIV during this whole period. It couldn’t help but hasten his death, all the stress involved in that.”

When the interview is done, Weiss brings it back to the lab, edits it, and uploads it to the map, which is called “Narratives of Displacement”.

The difference it can make

The map is the brainchild of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Their first creation was a time-lapse map, which they made last year. It portrayed Ellis Act evictions as exploding dots. The more units in the Ellised building, the bigger the explosion.

Mapping Project founder Erin McElroy says, “We really wanted to make visible what the accumulation of evictions over time looks like. It’s one thing to know, ‘Oh a few people in this neighborhood were evicted over the last couple of months. Or this neighborhood has changed over the last year in different ways.’ But when you actually see that in accumulation, it appears really different and you can see which neighborhoods are hit the hardest. We wanted to show that.”

The map begins in 1997, at the start of the first dot-com boom. Initially, just a few dots pop up here and there. But soon, the dots begin to spread all across the city. By the end of 2013, San Francisco resembles a face covered by erupting sores.

Urban cartographers

At the San Francisco Tenants Union, six men and women are hunched over their laptops, combing through the city’s online databases. They are working on another map that will show who the city’s top 12 evictors are. They hunt down where the building owners work, and who they do business with. 

Once they dig up the facts, they work on design. Buildings owned by landlords who have used the Ellis Act multiple times are identified with bright orange circles. When you click on a circle, the landlord’s name and corporate affiliation appear. Go deeper into the webpage, and more information about the landlord pops up.  

At Stanford’s Geospatial Lab, the Urban Studies students set up accounts on several social media sites for their map.

Jordan Carroll, one of the students, notes the irony of their work. “It’s kind of ironic we’re using all of these websites like Facebook and Flicker to do our map. Because it’s supposedly the tech companies like Facebook and stuff that are displacing the people. But, we’re using those services to help create this map.”

Carroll says that he’ll be thinking about the tenants’ stories when he faces upcoming choices.

“I’ll be graduating in just over a year and looking for a place to live,” he says. “When I do find a neighborhood to live, I’ll be more conscientious of the process and try to get to know the neighborhood more. Be a more active member other than like a passive, just like moving to wherever is the cool place to move to and not really thinking about it.”

The students’ project may use cutting edge technology, but its purpose is an old one. The map helps people who feel powerless realize they’re not alone, and then brings them together to challenge what’s happening.

The Mapping Project volunteers have five new maps in the works. As evictions continue in San Francisco, they’ll add more dots and stories. 


Narratives of Displacement Map

Anti Eviction Mapping Project

Stanford Sustainable Cities Course, Deland Chan Instructor

Instructor, Deland Chan (

Stanford Urban Studies Department

This story originally aired on April 29, 2014.