A couple of years ago I chatted with a woman I met at the local community garden around the corner. We had actually lived four buildings away from each other for many years but had never met. That’s one of the nice things about a community garden. You get to meet more of your neighbors. I had just started tending my veggie allotment after being on a waiting list for eleven years. This is so typical of San Francisco real estate. Even plants have trouble finding a vacancy.
But our friendly small talk turned awkward when she asked if I rented or owned. This is a serious flash point here in the neighborhood. She’s been a rent controlled tenant for twenty five years. I saw the look in her eyes when I told her I owned. Die Yuppie Scum. I explained that I arrived around the same time she did back when I was a lot younger and poorer and the Mission District was a scruffy place middle class people avoided. I convinced a group of friends to chip in and buy a nearby building collectively. We’ve all been here ever since. Then I asked her why she didn’t buy property back when it was still possible all those years ago. Our mortgage is the same as her artificially low rent. She didn’t like the direction I was taking the conversation.
No one really owns any part of San Francisco. We’re all just renting from God. The crust of the earth could shake us all off like fleas at any moment. We all need a Plan B – a place we can retreat to after an earthquake, or unemployment, or eviction, or ill health, or plain old age. We’re all on borrowed time. I recommended she take some of the money she’s not giving her landlord (she’s paying $900 a month for an apartment that should be at least $4,200) and develop a back up strategy. Perhaps she could buy a little cottage or city condo in some other inexpensive part of the country. Call it a vacation home. Call it a retirement investment. Call it insurance. Why not become a landlord yourself elsewhere and generate a little income on the side? She wasn’t having any of it.
This morning I woke to the sound of fire engines outside my bedroom window. It was her building. It’s gone. Up in smoke. The interior is gutted. The fire marshal has put chains on the gates. Her own personal Black Swan has arrived. I’ve seen how this story unfolds. Insurance representatives. Lawyers. Lots of lawyers. Building contractors. Multiple city bureaucracies. No one will be living in this building for years. While rent controlled tenants have the right to return once the building is restored they still need to wait for the place to be habitable again. In the meantime she’s effectively homeless along with a few dozen other people. No Plan B.