Calling Bullshit

Housing Affordability Has Been Getting Worse for Decades (And the Problem Isn't Unique to San Francisco)

There are three arguments floating around as to why the rent is too damn high in San Francisco, all of which just happen to serve the interests of local real estate developers:

  • San Franciscans make it hard to build!
  • Rent control actually causes rents to go up!
  • This has been happening since the Gold Rush!

All of these arguments hinge on the assumption that what’s happening right now in the Bay Area generally is somehow unique to San Francisco specifically. This morning, an article about the “yuppification” of San Francisco from the L.A. Times, published in 1985, was making the rounds on Twitter, and plenty of people making these arguments have cited it as proof of one, or all, of the above. It certainly does sound familiar!

Whatever its name, its result is spiraling housing costs, clogged traffic, an exodus of middle-class and poor families and declining black and Latino populations. And the trend seems certain to continue despite a new effort by the city to limit growth, restrain housing costs and preserve neighborhoods.

But it doesn’t just sound familiar to San Franciscans, because it’s happening all over the country.

It’s true that by 1985, the impact of the de-industrialization of American cities and increasing income inequality was first starting to reshape the streets and skyline, helped in no small part locally by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein (who’s husband, incidentally, is investment banker Richard Blum, chairman of the board of commercial real estate developer CB Richard Ellis). Not to mention the economic policies of the Reagan administration, neo-liberalism’s legendary benefactor and hero. Economic policies which have thrived through the following Republican and Democrat administrations, including the current one.

What is new is that it’s accelerating. And as the divide between the haves and have-nots grows larger, the haves are concentrating their wealth and the have-nots are either clinging to ever-more-precarious perches on the one hand and following the money in a desperate search for economic opportunity on the other.

Earlier this week, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a blog which documents the passing of that city’s urban institutions, populations and traditions, published a lengthy article on, frankly, Manhattanization, partly in response to Spike Lee’s recent remarks on what’s happened to the Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth. It’s as colorful an illustration on the impacts of real wage decline since the 1970s as the above graphs.

Many New Yorkers today, across racial and class lines, do wish for old-fashioned gentrification, that slow, sporadic process with both positive and negative effects—making depressed and dangerous neighborhoods safer and more liveable, while displacing a portion of the working-class and poor residents. At its best, gentrification blended neighborhoods, creating a cultural mix. It put fresh fruits and vegetables in the corner grocer’s crates. It gave people jobs and exposed them to different cultures. At its worst, gentrification destroyed networks of communities, tore families apart, and uprooted lives. Still, that was nothing compared to what we have today.

I want to make one thing clear: Gentrification is over. It’s gone. And it’s been gone since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Gentrification itself has been gentrified, pushed out of the city and vanished. I don’t even like to call it gentrification, a word that obscures the truth of our current reality. I call it hyper-gentrification.

If you want a window into what that earlier era of gentrification looked like, Mission Local also reached back to their archives for an interview with author Michelle Tea about her experience moving to San Francisco in the early 90s (shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake momentarily relieved pressure on the San Andreas fault, population in-migration, and real estate prices).

Mission Local: Why did you move to the Mission?

Michelle Tea: It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted — like almost all of the storefronts were closed.

But somewhat tragically, wherever artists and activists go, real estate developers tend to follow, often because they lead the artists and activists there in the first place. Before moving to the Bay Area, my apartment in Brooklyn was at Underhill and Washington Avenue in a community largely composed of immigrants from the Carribean—“because that’s where the cheap rents were.” The year was 1998, and my girlfriend had found the place through a broker, who told her straight out, “We’re trying to move white people here.” Less than ten years later, a Richard Meier-designed condominium had sprouted up on the site of an old synagogue at Grand Army Plaza. A few more years after that, “New York’s first steampunk bar” opened a few blocks from my old place.

The units in the Meier building were sold from a realty office in SoHo, which had itself been transforming from a former light-industrial neighborhood with a heroin problem into a chic retreat for couture boutiques by the time that L.A. Times article was published in 1985. The denizens of the downtown art scene who survived and succeeded kept their pied-à-terres well after moving their families to the North Fork. One couple had me score some cocaine to save them the trip to Washington Heights, which now is actually being called WaHi by apartment brokers presumably looking to move white people in.

By then, the only “art” actually still happening in SoHo was sometimes even funded by venture capital like Josh Harris’s legendarily profligate failure Pseudo.com on Broadway. Which is to say, the process of reshaping neighborhood demographics and urban industry was no longer an ad-hoc effort led by a handful of privileged but tolerant middle class white people fleeing the cultural homogeneity of the suburbs. Now it’s funded by institutional investment in startup businesses and real estate development and enabled by local governments interested in attracting the middle class refugees from the rust belt who can afford to relocate and learn professional skills (which all sounded harmless enough when it was called “brain drain” in the old dead tree media).

We moved to Oakland’s Temescal in 2000 largely because it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to make much progress toward any kind of financial security on artist incomes in New York. Here, there was well-paid, if very temporary, web development work for me and a job at a non-profit with low wages but good health insurance for her. We did our part for displacement, certainly, but like the many techies in Silicon Valley’s lower contractor caste who sometimes get to ride the private shuttles, we might have had more stylish lifejackets than most, but we were just trying to keep our heads above water by swimming along with the currents of global capital like everyone but a few.

•••

Let’s go back to that article from 1985, and the plight of the Brandolino family’s experience having to move from their rent-controlled apartment North Beach after “a group of lawyers bought the 17-unit Victorian building in which they had been living to convert it into offices.” They couldn’t afford units in their old neighborhood at the going rate of “$900 or $1,000 a month” on their combined income of $30,000 a year, so they moved to Brisbane—which has no rent control, and could hardly be characterized as “anti-development”—where they found a place for $500 a month.

In today’s numbers, according to the inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their income would now be near San Francisco’s median around $65,200, presuming it rose in step with inflation (which they haven’t). That would also put the apartments in North Beach out of their reach around $1,950 to $2,150 and the place they found in Brisbane at more like $1,100. But what are rents in North Beach and Brisbane right now? Based on an average of listings, one bedroom units are $2,995 and $1,839, respectively. And that’s assuming the Brandolinos were living in and looking for a one bedroom.

Granted, the average of units in Brisbane is from a very small sample, but again, if the reason real estate developers won’t build is because “the system is intentionally designed to make it as difficult as possible to build new housing,” according to Supervisor Scott Weiner, then why haven’t they been capitalizing on the massive demand by building units in Brisbane? Back in 2006, the suburb was the last stop on Google’s shuttle bus route, and a wave of Googlers were moving in.

But these were people who’d presumably already paid off their school loans and saved a down payment, if not cashed in on the 2004 IPO. The latest generation haven’t had time to make that progress for themselves, and the only they have of doing it is by working themselves to exhaustion at some fly-by-night mobile app startup, so necessarily they’re flocking to the region looking for places to rent. So why weren’t thousands built in Brisbane built during the last boom?

We can look back to that old L.A. Times article for some ideas. The second section leads off with, “a few years ago, there were no vacant offices here. Now, there is a 10% vacancy rate.” What happened was, as the vacancy rate increased, the value of the commercial real estate that companies like CB Richard Ellis were building began to drop. But it was still more expensive per square foot than building in San Mateo County, and because municipalities in California have more to gain for their tax base from commercial development because of Prop 13 restrictions on property taxes, among other reasons, the next twenty years did see a building boom. It’s just that it was corporate campuses and office space sprawling along the peninsula, not apartments.

What housing was built pushed further and further into the exurbs as people chased the home ownership dream, even as transportation costs rose and infrastructure spending dropped. And we all know how well that worked out.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, real estate developers actually turned coat and allied with planned growth advocates because, by limiting new construction, they could bolster the value of what they’d already built, as detailed in Richard Deleon’s San Francisco political history “Left Coast City.” So the optimism in the following paragraph from our archived article, it turned out, was misplaced — much of these buildings never happened:

The first glass and concrete downtown high-rise sprouted in 1960, [California historian Kevin Starr] said. Now, there are 120 buildings of more than 10 stories in the 470-acre downtown area, with 60 to 70 more expected by the year 2000, the Planning Department says.

Keep that in mind when you read articles from the likes of New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton, who wandered off the reservation to chime in on local real estate development and parroted pro-development advocates like Wiener’s quote above. Bilton reported that Redfin’s numbers showed homes selling for, on average, 60 to 80 percent above asking. Hard to believe? That’s because it isn’t true, as Priceonomics pointed out. The New York Times had to issue a correction, because in fact over the last two months it’s true that 60 to 80 percent of homes are selling for above asking, but the average premium is only six percent.

A Pod to Piss In

pPod: Open-Air Urinal/Masturbation Station Soon to be Accepting Fluids in Dolores Park

As we reported last Spring, the City has been long hoping to install a European-style pissoir in Dolores Park to save the Muni tracks from their weekly processed Tecate washdown.  And, now, they’re becoming a reality. Via the Chronicle:

First came the iPod - now comes the pPod, a custom-made, open-air urinal that San Francisco is installing at Dolores Park to help deal with the hordes of male hipster inebriants that descend on the popular Mission spot on weekends.

Essentially, says Recreation and Park Department project manager Jake Gilchrist, “we are talking about a screen and a drain” that can get the potty job done using “a much simpler design.”

That’s right, degenerate hipsters! Now you can ‘go public’ without having the police bust your bladder.

At a cost of $15,000, the celery stick (you be the peanut butter) will be installed in the coming months near the 20th and Church Muni stop.  For the time being, we’re only getting one, so we imagine this won’t have much impact on the lines. Alas, potty progress?

[SF Chron]

Not Dolores Park

Free Music Saturday Afternoon, From BFF.fm and Burger Records

Do you need something to do this Saturday afternoon?  Of course you do!  With Dolores Park poised to be chopped up any day now, and bona fide summer temperatures forecasted for this weekend, you’d be wise to get sweaty at Thee Parkside.

From 3-6pm, BFF.fm will be co-presenting Burger Frequencies Forever, an afternoon show with Burger Records, featuring worthy rock groups like White Cloud:

and Future Twin:

We should also mention it’s free.  Also, you can buy burgers from the grill (if you’re into that sort of thing).

A Reason to Visit the Wharf

Filmmaker Offers Fresh Perspective on Local Landmark

When just a teenager visiting San Francisco for the first time, a highlight of the family trip was the Musée Mechanique. This was back when video arcades were still a thing, but the clunk and whir of the old-timey automatons hadn’t lost their charm and even felt fresh next to the CRT-and-joystick sameness of that era’s Atari, Midway and Nintendo cabinet games. It’s since been moved from the old location out by Ocean Beach to its current home at Fisherman’s Wharf, but like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1, little of the magic has been lost to time or more modern distractions. If you haven’t been, or haven’t been in a while, hopefully this meditative short will remind you what it’s like to look through childish eyes in wonder again for just a moment.

Sigh.

[h/t Broke Ass Stuart]

Majority Report

Oakland's Panopticon Effort Scaled Back, Mayor Vows to Move it Forward

All eyes from civil liberties watchdogs across the Bay Area were on Oakland’s City Council meeting last night for the discussion of and vote on agenda item number 14, Domain Awareness Center (DAC) Phase 2 Contract Award. And there would be much discussion, with opponents that included the National Lawyers GuildACLU of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation heeding Oakland Privacy Watch’s call to “flood the hall.” Collectively, the audience submitted 149 cards to weigh in with public comments, now being fanned perpetually above.

Five hours later, the Council voted 5-4 to significantly curtail the effort, restricting it to only the Port of Oakland and Oakland Airport facilities owned by the city (at least until the city can come up with a privacy policy). The decision was welcomed with a mix of applause and jeers, as many had hoped for the project to be scrapped entirely. Mayor Jean Quan broke the tie with a “yes” vote on the more limited implementation after showing up around 10pm and reportedly killing time going through her mail and checking out catalogs.

Those watching at home and playing bingo couldn’t see some of the more theatrical moments beyond reach of the cameras, like “One man in a balaclava [who] used his smartphone…to take close-up pictures of city staffers and interim Police Chief Sean Whent as they waited to speak” according to Chronicle reporter Will Kane. He reports another masked man using his public comment time to read Michel Foucault out loud, while Oakland North shared pictures of protestors with LED signs reading “SINK THE DAC.” Councilmembers buried their head in their hands and plugged their ears as the boisterous meeting dragged on.

Quan, who backed the full program but was forced to settle for the more limited proposal, was surprised by the vehement opposition but vowed to move forward. “It didn’t occur to us … that a system that would just help the existing cameras coordinate better in an emergency would become so controversial.” Similar systems, implemented with the help of federal money, exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Overtly intended to help first responders in emergency situations, the program and the technology behind it raised concerns that it was a stalking horse for the continuation of a “Total Information Awareness” approach to counterterrorism that would grow beyond emergency response to include surveilling local activists and policing everyday citizens. In the context of the Oakland Police Department’s ongoing struggles, the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance, behavior prediction algorithms leveraging “big data” and mobile tracking and recording technology like smartphones and wearable technologies such as Google Glass, the audience’s fears don’t seem entirely unreasonable.

“You could say that we won on some level,” vocal opponent Dustin Craun told the Oakland Tribune’s Matthew Artz. “But I think they put their foot in the door for expanding it later.” Which? Pretty much!

“The most important thing is that at least the port security system will be there … and it will give us time to talk about privacy,” Quan assured fellow supporters. Once those rules are in place, the City Council will likely reconsider features, including the centralized video monitoring system and connections with ShotSpotter microphones for notifying and locating gunshots. “We’ll bring them back one at a time,” Quan promised.

Opponents were just as committed, and the issue could have implications for the upcoming mayor’s race, where Quan has been sliding in the polls. Popular Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who voted against the DAC, was the most popular choice for mayor in a December poll, with Quan in third.  Officially Kaplan isn’t planning to run until 2018, but in the meantime Occupy Oakland veteran Jason “Shake” Anderson recently announced his candidacy with the Green Party, offering guaranteed opposition from the left to the increasingly moderate Quan.

Holy Loaded Gun Batman!

SF Chronicle Declares Who Ruined the Mission: Latino Artists

Debating who ruined the Mission (or if the Mission is ruined at all) has long been the sport of choice of journalists and the otherwise disaffected.  Top billing generally goes to techies, hipsters, white people, Mark Zuckerberg, bloggers, baristas (with or without facial hair), dad, the clientele of Zeitgeist and Trick Dog, anyone named Chuck, corporations, and Jello Biafra.  This we all know.

Now, admittedly, the topic is getting a bit stale, which means it is the perfect time for the information tortoises at the San Francisco Chronicle to chime in.  And chime in they did.  With a circa-2007 titled listicle “You know your neighborhood is gentrified when …”, which this editor read purely for the schadenfreude of watching The Chron stumble through another ham-fisted attempt at relevance, the publication hilariously put part of the blame on the neighborhood’s gentrification on Victor Reyes and other muralists:

We’d like to argue that graffiti replaced by organized street murals is one of the more beautiful early signs of gentrification. Pictured: Victor Reyes working on his mural on the corner of 23rd and Mission streets on a Walgreens in San Francisco on Friday, April 16, 2010. He’s in the midst of a series of murals, each depicting a letter of the alphabet.

Totes!

[Photo: ArtFan70]

Love Hurts

Bi-Coastal Dating Experiment Hasn't Even Gotten to Dinner Yet, Already Feels Awkward

The Dating Ring, a Brooklyn-based startup that has been arranging group dates between thoroughly-screened candidates since last year in New York City, recently expanded its operation to San Francisco. After a few weeks spent commuting along the peninsula, founder Lauren Kay kept joking that she should fly eligible women from New York City, where her data suggests there’s an over-abundance of candidates, to meet the many, many perpetually single boys by the Bay.

Kay shared the story of progressing from inspiration to execution with San Francisco Magazine:

“We kept joking about doing something like this,” Kay told us over the phone from NYC. “But people didn’t realize it wasn’t serious. When you’re running a startup, if people say they want to buy something, you should listen.”

“My sarcasm tends to get lost on the lovely people of San Francisco,” she also shared with TechCrunch after launching “Cross-Country Love: Help Fly NYC Women to SF,” another crowdfunding campaign from a company with existing investment from startup incubator Y Combinator. Locally, the logic makes perfect sense: we have people checking Tinder instead of checking each other out, and if our dear, departed Uncle Milton taught us anything about love, it’s that the best way to maximize returns is through leveraging capital to arbitrage market inefficiencies.

Or, as Kay summarized in her promotional announcement on the The Huffington Post:

Most people don’t like to mix hard statistics and love — one is dry and mathematical and the other is supposedly serendipitous and magical. But when it comes down to it, dating is, in large part, a numbers game.

Y Combinator just happens to have hosted a Female Founders Conference earlier this week, presumably in part to address long-standing systemic sexism, giving Model View Culture’s Shanley Kane an opportunity to take a break from presenting statistical evidence of the persistent discrimination in Silicon Valley funding and employment to warn the women of New York to save their money if they’re actually looking for grown-ass folks.

In other words, maybe the reason there are so many single bros in Silicon Valley isn’t a problem of supply but of demand.

Enter Valleywag’s Nitasha Tiku, who called into question the implications of raising money to fly women across the country for the convenience of busy techbros by way of comparing the idea to the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Comfort Women” program during World War II, which enslaved women across Asia for systematic rape. That didn’t go over well, either! Calls for a retraction were made, and rebuffed, but an apology issued

In response to an email inquiry for comment on Valleywag’s coverage, Kay went on the offensive: 

We are disgusted by the comparison and yellow journalism, but not surprised at all by how low Valleywag is willing to stoop to get page views. It is an extremely offensive comparison - not just for us, but especially for Asian and Asian American Valleywag readers, particularly those who have women in their own families who were subjected to this horrific trauma.

However, when asked about testimonial made in the promotional video declaring men in New York being either “gay or awful” (and why she thought potential dates might find things any different here), Kay agreed the joke was tasteless and would be cut from the video, but pointed out that “we have been LGBT friendly and we arrange straight, gay and bisexual dates.” She has capitalized on all the attention by also launching a campaign to fly men from San Francisco to New York, citing demand and promising that it was in the original plan all along.

How big is the market for mail-order men? Probably not as big as the existing market for mail-order women—last year, AnastasiaDate revealed to Fortune that it made $110 million in 2012. (Which, incidentally, is the same year that a lobbying group representing the industry urged congress to amend the Violence Against Women Act in order to roll back protections for immigrant women who make allegations of abuse against their American husbands.) But where some may see this market’s existence arising from interpersonal relations distorted by traditions of gender inequality intersecting with the massive wealth disparity wrought by the globalization of neo-liberal capitalism, others see opportunity!

It remains to be seen which of Kay’s campaigns, if either, will prove successful. There’s certainly any number of people who might appreciate a service that flew entrepreneurial men from San Francisco in search of love to anywhere else, anywhere at all. However you feel, at this point you can be forgiven for wanting a drink or excused for a trip to the bathroom and a splash of cold water. If you were really smart, you would have arranged to have a friend call so you can pretend that some emergency just came up and you’re really sorry but you have to go.

Because even if you miss out on Memorial Day weekend, the budding romance between Kleiner Perkins’s Juliet de Baubigny and News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch could fizzle and then they’ll both be back on the market in Silicon Valley and New York City, respectively. Worried about having to pick up the check after trying to take either of them out on the town? You can always raise the money on Crowdtilt!