Three Ways To Improve Crumbling City Neighborhoods

A hackathon to find ways to make life better for the people in a San Francisco neighborhood only starting to be touched by the tech boom yielded inspiring results that could work in any city.

Three Ways To Improve Crumbling City Neighborhoods
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San Francisco is one of the most prosperous cities in the U.S. The latest tech boom is bringing in throngs of new businesses and employees with lots of money to spend. But this wealth is not spread equally; out of the 39,000 people who live in the city’s Mid-Market district–the densest area of San Francisco–31% earn under $15,000 each year, under 54% are employed, and almost half live in extreme poverty. All this at the same time that companies like Twitter are moving into the neighborhood and rents are skyrocketing.


Creative Currency, an initiative from HUB Bay Area, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, and others, brings together developers, designers, and social finance experts, among others in an attempt to create new systems of exchange–by using financial data to empower local residents, creating sharing platforms for the underserved, and using popular concepts like crowdfunding and microcredit to help social service organizations and locals in need. The initiative, which is currently focusing on the Mid-Market neighborhood, started with a hackathon this past April. “There are very few places in the world with as stark of a contrast happening as with what’s happening in Mid-Market,” says Jon Axtell, co-organizer of Creative Currency.

We spoke to members of three out of the four winning teams, all of whom will showcase their projects at a demo day later this summer.


YourSQFT team member Patrick Keenan, who has a background in design, coding, and web development says that he’s been to a lot of hackathons, but Creative Currency has been his best experience yet. That’s not surprising considering that his team came up with such a clever idea: an online platform–a virtual matchmaking service, really–to connect renters with short-term leases and employees in Mid-Market.

The YourSQFT team has created a WordPress hack that allows users to list spaces for rent and all of its attributes (how many square feet it is, what is it permitted for, etc.)–spaces that two weeks to six months from now might be turned over to long-term tenants, but are vacant right now. The team’s project description explains: “For the renter, our focus is on creating a seamless experience to rent space and hire labor in Mid-Market. Within the purchase process, we bundle the leasing of the space with the hiring to employees from the local area.”

“The vacant spaces in Mid-Market are a big problem for local business owners and a blight to the community because of the message they send–that no one wants to invest here, it’s not worthwhile,” says Keenan. The hope is both that vacant spaces will be taken up by businesses, and that the local under and unemployed population will benefit–something that YourSQFT is actively working towards by partnering with local employment organizations. The project hasn’t been launched to the public yet, but stay tuned–all of the original hackathon team members are still onboard.


This project aims to fill the information exchange gap in the local homeless shelter and agency system. The Bridge platform offers real-time information exchange for service providers and clients. In its current iteration, Bridge allows service providers to update availability for bed registration and meals (future versions will allow for information on jobs and financial assistance). As providers type in their availability, the system updates so that other service providers can see.


A shelter might list, for example, that it has no top bunks available. This is important–the elderly and disabled can’t necessarily climb up to top bunks–but it’s something that today’s bed reservation systems don’t take into account.

Ultimately, the team hopes to create a two-way communication system that can be used by service providers on one end and clients on the other. The client-side interface would be accessible through public library computers and text messaging, since many members of San Francisco’s homeless population have cell phones.

The Bridge team is already forging ahead: “We’ve identified a couple of community-based organizations willing to try it out,” says team member (and cartographer) Heather Sparks.


The idea for this project, which is still in the concept stages, came about when team member (and designer) Aynne Valencia started noticing San Francisco’s public health problem while riding the bus. “A lot of what we look at every day are the chronic homeless, but one of the areas that’s less touched upon are the people on the edge, the working poor–the people who are living in their cars or maybe are just recently homeless,” she says. “It’s small things like being able to take a shower and charge up their cell phone that really will make the difference between them falling off the edge or being able to find their way back.”

RefreshSF aims to reach these people before they join the ranks of the chronically homeless by using crowdsourced funding to kickstart public works projects. Valencia imagines using a system like San Francisco’s Clipper card (a transportation pass that has a recurring payment system attached to it) to allow people to give small donations–25 cents per transaction, perhaps. These donations would create a pool of money for things like public shower facilities and “dignity stations” where people can charge up their cell phones, change their clothes, and “get their humanity back a little bit,” says Valencia.

The RefreshSF team is currently gearing up for a Kickstarter campaign. According to Valencia, the team’s first prototype will be a public fountain where people can clean themselves off.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.