Many readers are familiar with the 8/80 urban planning meme. It’s a simple concept. Can an eight year old and an eighty year old each meet their daily needs on foot, possibly with the extension of a bicycle or a little public transport from time to time? Most North American communities fail this test. To be honest not very many people seem to care. We like our cars and drive-thrus just fine, thank you very much. Someone can always chauffeur little Billy and Grandma around. What’s the big diff? It’s a problem no one wants to solve. I’d like to start a new meme I’m calling the 24 / 58. Let me explain.
Back in May my niece graduated from university down in Southern California. Since then she’s been doing all the usual things young people do: waiting tables, taking on part time gigs, volunteering for work experience and resume fodder. All the while her student loans are ticking in the background like a little time bomb. But she recently got a two month internship in Menlo Park which is smack dab in the middle of the Stanford University, Silicon Valley, Google, Apple, Facebook, blah, blah, blah cluster. An internship in the right place has the potential to jump start her nascent career. There’s also the opportunity to rub shoulders with the kinds of people that could alter the course of her personal life. But in order to take the internship she’ll need a place to live in the area.
I offered her the Murphy bed here in San Francisco. A free place to crash, plenty of food, and laundry service were all very appealing. But then there was the question of transportation. How would she get to and from work when Menlo Park is a daily hour and a half bumper-to-bumper traffic freak show up and down the 101, plus parking drama, the cost of gas, etc. There are trains and buses, but they’re tuned to 8 to 5 commuters and she’ll be working a lot of late nights and weekends when transit is spotty. The commute is a three hour per day part time job unto itself.
I suggested we find her rental accommodations within walking or biking distance of her summer job. I’d cover the cost for her. We spent a month searching for something – anything. It was rough. To say Menlo Park is a seller’s market is a gross understatement. Beverly Hills is a slum in comparison and the competition for rental space of any kind is global, not merely local. It’s the same all up and down the peninsula from San Francisco in the north to the outermost exurbs of San Jose in the south.
Eventually we found a spot for her – a bunk bed in a shared room. The entire house is fitted with bunks in all the rooms. Four bunks to a room. Shared bath down the hall. Each bunk is $1,200 a month. The management was profoundly ambivalent. I asked a few basic questions. How much space is there in the common kitchen for groceries? Long pause. A deep stare. “Do you want the bunk or not?”
The house is physically a fully detached single family home that conforms to all the usual restrictions. In most parts of town this kind of de facto rooming house wouldn’t be tolerated by the neighbors. But the house is in an odd triangular microclimate pressed up against an active rail line, a highway with wrap around off ramp, and the back of a supermarket strip mall. I counted all the bunks and multiplied them by $1,200. The owner turned his lemons to lemonade. So this is where my niece will lay her head for the summer. She can ride a bike to work in less than fifteen minutes.
At the same time I was helping to accommodate the twenty four year old with her housing needs I was also working to assist a friend with his situation. The couple next door divorced after fifteen years. The details of the break up are irrelevant. No white hat. No black hat. Just complimentary neuroses that boiled over after stewing for entirely too long. So what happens when a fifty eight year old is out of a home and looking for a place to land and start over again in the Bay Area housing market?
The Murphy bed was out of the question. There’s a grand total of twelve inches between our apartments and life with Godzilla and Rodan wasn’t an option. Rents are insane and there is effectively no availability anywhere. So I drove him and his possessions down to San Jose where he’s temporarily crashing with a mutual friend until he sorts out his affairs. The most likely scenario is that he’ll be moving back in with his extended family in Utah.
So there you have the 24/58. Can your community accommodate both these kinds of individuals somehow? Mine can’t… I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t about housing or transportation or NIMBYs or rent control or infill development or any of the little things people obsess over. Instead it’s a side effect of a larger economy that’s been bifurcating the population into winners and losers for the last forty odd years. It’s not possible to fix housing until that big picture is resolved. I have no idea how society might do that.