I was recently asked by a neighbor to write a blog post about greed in the super heated economic bubble here in San Francisco. I told her I think the problems that vex her are more complicated than pure greed, but I’d give it a shot. Keep in mind, where a person stands on any of these issues depends a great deal on their particular circumstances. The point of this post isn’t to argue in favor of one thing or another, but to illustrate how some people experience the city at this moment in time.
So… my friend has lived in the same spacious rent controlled flat in an old Victorian for many years. Her tenure predates the current tech culture by decades. Chatting over lunch in her kitchen and dining room is like visiting a bygone version of San Francisco where everything is more relaxed and comfortable and perhaps a bit less glossy. Over the last several years she’s seen half the buildings on her block transformed by the tsunami of money that has washed over the neighborhood. The elderly Chinese couple who own her building will eventually pass and when they do she knows their adult children will sell the place and she’ll be forced out. For her it’s not just a matter of leaving the building or even the neighborhood, but leaving the city altogether. There’s simply no possible financial scenario that will allow her to stay in the Bay Area on her income as a freelance graphic designer. That world is gone and she doesn’t have a Plan B.
Her preoccupation with the new money culture in the city has been especially stirred up by the activities of the building directly next door. Back in 2010 the owner of the building had a structural engineer certify that the building was unstable and therefore uninhabitable. This could be seen as a landlord who was deeply concerned for the health and safety of his tenants, or a legal tactic to remove them. A series of challenges ensued, but at the end of the day the building was emptied, fully gutted, and renovated. The apartments were then sold off as condos. The average sale price in 2014 was just shy of a million dollars for each of the one bedroom apartments. Some of the people who purchased the units were investors who then rented them at the current market rate of $4,950 a month.
One of those renovated condos was bought by a young Russian DJ. I’ve met him and he’s actually a perfectly nice guy. I’m listening to his audio stream right now – house trance techno electronica… Evidently he’s a big deal in international music circles. (I’m more of a Billy Holiday Ella Fitzgerald kind of guy, but I digress.) Shortly after he moved in he decided to take six months off and travel to Thailand. While he was gone he left the apartment in the hands of a popular home hosting service that arranges short term rentals to tourists and business travelers. In theory the service was completely turnkey with booking, cleaning and so on. But in reality the apartment needed a bit more care over such a long period of time than the company was able to provide. The Russian asked my friend next door if she could help out. “Could you” this and “Would you mind” that. Individually none of these favors was particularly onerous, but collectively it became a lot of work as the months dragged on. The Russian was having such a good time in Thailand he decided to extend his stay. At a certain point my friend let it be known that her services had gone beyond merely being a helpful neighbor and it was time she was paid for her work. An e-mail exchange ensued with a list of time that had been spent on various projects. The Russian felt that he had been misled. “That seems like a lot of money.” This was coming from someone who just spent nearly a million dollars on an apartment and can afford to spend half a year on vacation in Asia. You can see how this might rub my friend the wrong way. Hence her frustration with the freakish economic situation in the city.
On the other hand, there are a fair number of people who are living in tiny run down apartments with multiple room mates paying outrageously high rents who feel that a massive rent controlled apartment is a seriously sweet deal. Sure, it will come to an end someday, but dude! Really? You’re bitching that it doesn’t come with a lifetime guarantee? Suck it up cupcake. Like I said. Where you stand on these issues depends a lot on your particular situation.
For those of you who aren’t intimately familiar with the local dynamics I’ll give you some context. On most nights friends and family gather around our kitchen table for dinner and we discuss the events of the day. Over the last few years we’ve hardly had a month go by where someone hasn’t had to pack up and leave the city because of eviction, unreasonably high rents, or a lack of available housing at any price. Other folks who already owned property decided to cash out and took their substantial profits to more affordable towns.
Last week we had a couple over who had rented a charming house with a back garden in Bernal Heights for nearly twenty years with the enormous benefit of rent control that kept their expenses well below the market rate all that time. The landlord sold the home a few months ago and the new owners evicted them in order to live in the house themselves.
They reluctantly moved to an apartment in Oakland. They don’t hate the apartment or Oakland per se, but it’s definitely a transitional space for them. They’re looking to move as soon as they decide what exactly they want and can afford. There was a lot of talk about how San Francisco has become inhospitable to people with normal budgets. At a certain point I asked them why they hadn’t prepared for the eventuality of the big move. They knew what the real estate market was like. Their eviction couldn’t have come as a surprise. They’re both professionals with solid incomes. They could have pulled together a downpayment and bought property at any point during the last twenty years when prices were more reasonable. Instead they enjoyed the benefits of a great rent controlled place. It was a perfectly reasonable economic decision and it served them very well for two decades. But there were trade offs. Now it’s time to come up with a new plan. Let’s just say they didn’t appreciate my interpretation of their situation.
A couple of months ago we noticed one of the longterm tenants of a nearby building packing up and loading his furniture into a moving van. We were shocked. He had lived in that apartment with rent control for forever. We all thought he’d eventually leave feet first. It turns out that the landlord paid him $30,000 to go voluntarily and he agreed to take the money. Once the landlord gets new tenants he’ll likely receive $3,800 or more per month for that unit so his $30,000 “investment” in freeing up the apartment will be repaid in eight months. $30,000 won’t buy you anything at all in San Francisco, but it’s pretty good seed money in many parts of the country. If this guy is smart he’ll use the cash to put a downpayment on a house in a less expensive town.
Now, here’s something else to consider. San Francisco is in an enormous economic bubble. It won’t last. These things never do. And when the bubble pops there are going to be a whole lot of folks who paid top dollar for real estate that’s going to be worth infinitely less. Any number of things could puncture the balloon: another Wall Street crash, an earthquake, a shift in foreign investors, or the inevitable maturation of the tech sector and its associated stock options and super sized bonuses… When that day arrives everyone’s situation may change and the general perception of who’s a winner and who’s a loser may flip as well. And we’ll all have to suck it up. That’s life.