A friend is visiting San Francisco from out of state and expressed an interest in relocating to the area. He has a budget of about $430,000 to buy a house. There are no properties of any kind in the city at that price so he was considering various peripheral locations. Like everyone else in his position he trawled the internet real estate listings inquiring about alternative locations. What’s this place like? How about this one? Could I live there? This house looks good and it’s in my budget…
The next day I happened to have some business in one of the places he asked about and decided to pull off the freeway and poke around. I parked on a hillside and spent a couple of hours walking the neighborhood. There were water views that took in the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and any number of verdant landscapes on the horizon. At times it felt like I was standing inside a classical Japanese painting of gracefully arched trees and shimmering water. At other times I got flashbacks to my childhood in the late 1960s in Topanga Canyon down in Southern California. The place had a quiet old school Hippie vibe dotted with newer executive homes.
This is Richmond, California. It’s directly north of San Francisco across the bay. On paper Richmond looks like a pretty sweet spot with some reasonably priced homes not far from waterfront mansions. A little cottage with a patch of garden in the general vicinity could be wonderful. But there’s a catch…
Richmond is home to a century old cluster of oil refineries, associated chemical manufacturing plants, industrial rail lines, sea ports, highways, and other necessary but unsavory components of modern civilization. San Francisco and its pleasant suburbs couldn’t function without these things. The gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane, plastics, and all manner of other essential products have to be processed somewhere. But these facilities have a devastating impact on everything around them. So Richmond is a sacrifice zone that allows the rest of the Bay Area to carry on.
The homes my visiting friend was looking at on the interwebs weren’t on this hill – not even the bad side facing the cracking furnaces, fractionating columns, condensers, and smokestacks. They were down in the flats. For anything close to $430,000 you get a poorly maintained home in a high crime area pressed up against the refineries. The sound of the freeway traffic, the rumble of the rail yards, and the smell of heavy industrial activity all combine to make most of Richmond the housing destination of last resort for people with few alternatives.
While the petrochemical industry is profitable the municipal government is perpetually insolvent with predictably bad schools and a demoralized police department. And Richmond sits directly on top of the Hayward earthquake fault. The refineries and many nearby residential areas were built on reclaimed marshland subject to liquefaction. What could go wrong?
I advised my friend to keep looking elsewhere.