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Benefit Raises SF's Feel Good Levels for a Night, but Can It Last?

03/17/2014 07:31 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

The recent charity benefit at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall not only staged a lovely show with some stellar performances by big music and Hollywood names, it also extended an olive branch that stretched across current conflicts in San Francisco and beyond.

Except for Bonnie Raitt, who lives in the Bay Area, I doubt if Annette Bening, Renée Zellweger, Danny DeVito, Josh Groban, Glee's Amber Riley, Randy Newman and Kathy Griffin fully realized the prevailing hostile environment in San Francisco as they took the stage for "A Starry Evening of Music, Comedy and Surprises."

The event raised money on behalf of Painted Turtle, the camp for cancer kids that grew out of an organization founded by actor Paul Newman, and for UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, named for one of its major benefactors, the founder of Salesforce.com, Marc Benioff. Jack Nicholson, who was promoted as appearing, did not attend.

The performers volunteered at the request of music business veteran and event organizer Lou Adler and gave San Francisco a rare in-person encounter with film and television stars who were there for the sole purpose of aiding children who have suffered from life-threatening and chronic illnesses. A few of the children with musical talent performed throughout the show.

Taking on Extra Significance Amid Tech vs. City Conflicts
The event, however, carried with it the potential for healing around a different raging issue.

In the current version of the ongoing saga that is San Francisco, the technology industry has been playing a villain. Their well-paid workers have helped drive up housing costs. Tech ventures have enjoyed the city's resources but ignored the community's issues and needs, some of which the latest tech boom has exacerbated, and many of which pre-existed the advent of $8,000 per month rents for a luxury two-bedroom in the Mission.

Many feel that the tech industry vs. the city conflict is endemic of an even larger problem --wealth and income disparity in America. It is showing up strongly in San Francisco because of the city's small size and because the tech jobs that pay well are plentiful here and therefore exert a greater impact on the local economy than they might in a larger metropolis.

Benioff is leading the charge to recast the image of technology from villain to protagonist. Just days before the benefit event, he announced the formation of SF Gives, which intends to raise $10 million in two months for various San Francisco anti-poverty programs. The organization has already enlisted $5 million in donations from big tech such as LinkedIn, Zynga, PopSugar, Jawbone, Box and, of course, Google.

I say "of course" because its "Google buses," which use municipal bus stops to pick up employees and transport them to work in Mountain View, have become, fairly or unfairly, the symbol of tech's separation -- income and otherwise -- from the rest of the city. To offset some of the tensions, Google donated $6.8 million to San Francisco's Free Muni for Youth program less than one month ago.

Real Estate Speculation and Lack of Government Oversight
The crux of the crisis, however, is affordable housing. Real estate speculation, resulting in evictions and dislocations not seen since the last tech boom 14 years ago, bears a sizable share of the culpability here. Such speculation is running rampant in part because the government laws that should be providing check and balances have proven insufficient.

California State Senator Mark Leno's proposed legislation that would force new owners to wait five years before forcing evictions could slow the housing turnover in San Francisco. Some city housing advocates insist that funds from SF Gives should only address the affordable housing crisis.

More to be Done by All Parties
San Francisco has no shortage of needy people and critical social issues that tech leaders can address. In the past, Benioff has donated $100 million to the hospital, which will open a new facility in Mission Bay in early 2015, $1.5 million to the homeless, and $2.7 million to the schools.

Benioff was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a sense of belonging and home in the city.

Most technology leaders did not grow up enjoying the advantages of San Francisco -- but their companies did. The city's environment and culture no doubt attract and retain talent. The tech industry needs to develop a feeling of responsibility that matches the opportunity that they have found in San Francisco, especially those tech companies that are well-established.

At the same time, the current blanket vilification of tech workers that has taken hold in the city needs to calm down. It only adds to the polarization. A city wants and needs people with good paying jobs in its midst. The problem is that other professions and occupations have not kept pace.

Finally, real estate speculation of existing housing needs to be offset with proper and enforced government regulation. Classically, it is government's role to step into a loggerhead such as one that San Francisco is experiencing and devise a solution that will not only plug the hole in the housing and resources dike but also lead the way to a workable future for the city. Perhaps a regional approach is necessary.

In the meantime, the benefit last week served as a brief but welcome respite from all the anger and served as an example of a tech CEO stepping up to the plate.

At one point in the show, Bonnie Raitt mentioned that she hoped the event -- which raised more than $1 million -- would increase "the oxytocin levels" at Davies Symphony Hall. It did.

Let's hope it spreads to the rest of the city.

A Starry Night Benefit in San Francisco

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