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How Burrowing Owls Leads to Vomiting Anarchists Leads to the Definitive Story About San Francisco's Housing Crisis

Scott Lucas | April 29, 2014 | Story Tech World

"I wasn't intending to write something that long," says journalist Kim-Mai Cutler over Skype from Hanoi, Vietnam. "But if you break it up into fifteen or twenty pieces, people are only going to read the parts that they agree with." She's of course talking about her tour de force of a blogpost for TechCrunch, "How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists," which has won the Internet in the two weeks since it was published. Cutler's in Asia tracking down the creator of Flappy Bird, but right now, we're talking about an even more unexpected hit: Her.

Cutler's been living in a market-rate apartment for five years, and the Bay Area for much longer than that, so she's had a front-row seat to the region's spiraling housing crisis. But, as a writer for TechCrunch, the Valley's most trafficked news site, she's also been tracking one of the prime drivers of the cost increases—the economically-supercharged crop of Facebookers, Twitterati, and, Googlers in our midst.

For San Franciscans who've become inured to the popular if polarizing tech-backlash genre (Ed: guilty), Cutler's story elicited a rare response in these parts: near unanimous approval. (Not all the way unanimous, though: "Some [progressives] called me a neo-liberal. Some libertarians were mad at me. I felt good that both extremes thought I had done a terrible job.") The fact that it was published on a site that also lends its name to such industry circle jerks as the Crunchies made it all the more shocking.

Part of what brought the article to fruition was TechCrunch's relatively loose editorial hierarchy. "Kim told us a month ago that she had this large format piece on housing," says Alexia Tsotsis, the site's co-editor. "We weren't expecting it to be seventy five pages. She asked us for forgiveness, not permission." Cutler had been working on the piece in stealth mode for months, collecting scraps of information and correlating facts, before showing it to her editors. "I wanted to be pragmatic about it," she says, "instead of emotional."

Once TechCrunch had the piece ready (it took five editors working over the course of a month to get it in publishing shape), Tsotsis left it to Cutler to push it out to the world. "I told her that maybe she could publish it on my birthday," says Tsotsis. Cutler missed it by two days, the editor says, laughing. And by the time Cutler did actually hit "publish," she promptly got out of Dodge, boarding a plane for Asia the next day.

And then it blew up. The story easily became one of Tech Crunch's most viewed: 26,000 Facebook shares; 3,000 tweets; follow-up stories everywhere from the Chronicle to the Columbia Journalism Review. (From a completely non-represenatative in-office poll, we also know it was the topic of conversation at brunches from Balboa to Berkeley.)

This was a hugely surprising result for a story without a narrative through line. There's no humanizing tale of, say, two elderly Holocaust survivors heartlessly kicked to the curb by a rapacious landlord in order to build micro-condos for Google stock millionaires. "You know that Fast Company story about Chelsea Clinton that started with fried chicken?" says Tsotsis. "We wanted to avoid that. The classic anecdotal lead is played out." Rather, they wanted to take an Ezra Klein approach of sorts: can the human interest in favor of the hard facts. "I hope I gave people a sense of why we can't just randomly build more housing, even though we need to," says Cutler.

That's one of the big take-aways from the piece: Context. San Francisco isn't isolated from the Bay Area, and the Bay Area isn't isolated from the world. "I'm in Hanoi right now," Cutler says, "talking to an expat who pays $500 a month to live by a lake. I said to him, that sounds like living by Lake Merritt in Oakland. He said, yeah, it's all the same, it's just a different lake." Of course, she notes, that lakeside rent is out of reach for many native Vietnamese. It's part of a wealth stratification playing out across the world, not just in the Mission.

Both Cutler and Tsotsis promise to follow up on the post when Cutler returns to SF. Tsotsis wants to explain the vagaries of the protest groups—the Mission's anti-displacement groups aren't the same as Oakland's Counterforce—and Cutler wants to look at the roles of public housing and foreign capital flows. There's also a chance to look at the experiences of other cities, to shift through what what makes the housing better or worse.

That might sound a little academic, but as "Burrowing Owls" proves, there's a big audience for someone who can do all this in a dispassionate fashion. "People in the media are rewarded for sticking to their own views," says Cutler. "There's no common discussion. It's pernicious."

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