Grass Roots

39 thoughts on “Grass Roots”

  1. I don’t mean to oversimplify but it darkly amuses me that in wacky California plastic straws are an emergency but streets filled with human feces and millions of dirty needles are acceptable.

    If for no other reason than public safety and health, the tolerance of street living cannot continue. Rebuild the asylums; call them something more modern and humane-sounding if that makes it more palatable, but the incurable mentally ill and lifelong substance abusers must be placed, against their will if necessary, into facilities where they cannot create unsafe and unsanitary conditions for the rest of us.

    Just this week my husband had business at our city hall, which is nearly always surrounded by homeless people. One such person approached him, demanding money, after he parked his car and was headed inside. My husband declined, the man was belligerent, and my husband was able to evade him and get inside the building. Came back out to find the gentleman had used a rock to scrape up the side of the car. Could have just as easily used the rock on my husband. Or a knife. This is not acceptable in a civilized society.

    1. I understand your position. So let me restate mine. Crazy liberals don’t want people held against their will. And crazy conservatives don’t want to pay for the facilities that would get the mentally ill and/or drug addicted off the streets. Jails have become de facto holding tanks for many of these individuals, but the state is broke and has decided to decriminalize non violent activity as a cost saving measure.
      Society doesn’t want to deal with the people living on the street. So we absorb the consequences of not having a solution.

      1. I think Society hates the reality of people living on the street because it is Society that put them there. They are (some of) the collateral damage of “progress” and “a better world”. Even worse, they are painfully obvious, which draws the ire of all the Utopians who keep insisting that things are getting better and whatever is not better will continue to be fixed until it is, indeed, better. And the homeless and sick keep multiplying…. Lord have mercy.

        1. Well, I blame the tech folks for refusing to relocated to Austin, Raliegh, you name it were cost of living is cheaper. They made this nightmare. For example, lots of places in the US can do tech just as good as the Bay Area.

  2. ” You can blame the Nanny State or Crony Capitalists. Flip a coin. What’s your preferred cartoon villain? (Hint. It’s a combination of both. Just like the closing of the asylums.)”

    Both leftists and the right agitate against BIG (Government/Business). The 20th century was an exhibit of big oligolpols including government. It was a way to guarantee the supply of goods, housing, markets for domestic appliances etc. Problem was to make the mass market, mass production and mass coverage (governmental supply side through Social Security etc) work you had to specialize in supply or scale – and different scales were costly and mostly reserved for the upper-end market, luxurious goods etc. Which is how we ended up with equality and sameness of goods and mostly suited no one (“Any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants as long as it is black”). Hence the political rally points against Big (Enemy of ideological choice). But until Internet took off you had no other choice but to rely on (Big!) broadcasting reports etc. for reports, unless you had time and access to physical archives and interviews in person etc. (which you didn’t unless you were a journalist or academian in research on a given subject). And whereas (big) mass production guaranteed a production of goods in huge series which contributed to diminishment in variation and big waste, today 3D-print and such means you could have both mass production and a variation of supply in goods suited to your taste.

    This is what has been under change for the last 20-40 years. We will however still live with institutional arrangements, vested interests etc. for a forseeable future.

  3. My wife operates a little downtown retail shop. She doesn’t make any money. Her shop owning peers make little or no money. The vacant storefronts don’t seem to keep rent from increasing and buildings from selling. If you don’t sell booze, coffee or inherit your building, then shop ownership seems to be a lifestyle choice or vanity write off for your other income stream.

    Interesting to see the van dwellings. That plus a gym membership and free parking seems like a pretty livable option.

    I always enjoy your spin-free perspective.

  4. What’s the alternative to homelessness for these people? Working a crap job 60 hours a week (plus 15 hours a week commuting in public transportation) to live in a studio apartment on the outskirts of the suburbs where they don’t know anyone? What if that’s just not appealing?

    Beginning with public policy wonkery doesn’t scratch the surface of this issue. However, when you dig deeper you get into some tougher questions like “What’s your purpose in life?”

    1. “What if that’s just not appealing?”

      Holden Caulfield is a great character, but not not necessarily the best life coach. Or do you think that living on the streets, in the elements, around needles, feces, and other homeless people (a fair number of whom could be psychotic or violent) is *more* appealing?

      That would get old real quick.

    2. Going to work, paying the bills, cleaning the bathroom, changing dirty diapers, clearing a clog in the kitchen sink drain, those aren’t always appealing either, but they’re requirements of being responsible. If the only way for someone to live a life they find appealing is to make a public nuisance and danger of themselves, then maybe it’s okay to say “sorry, you can’t live like that around here.”

      If you had a roommate who thought their purpose in life didn’t leave them any time to do the dishes and expected you to clean up after then, you might think they need to re-examine their choices.

  5. And to think, these are the problems of places that are the WINNERS.

    A quick look around the country shows there is a large surplus of real estate — office, retail, empty bedrooms in owner-occupied one-family homes.

    But all the high level economic activity is consolidating into a small number of areas as if they were black holes.

    When I studied development economics 40 years ago, it was asserted that one of the ways underdeveloped countries were underdeveloped was the virtually all high-level activity was concentrated in one or two “primate cities” — Mexico City, Lima, Jakarta, Lagos, etc. — that everyone was moving to.

    Which was different than the highly developed United States at the time.

    1. The difference between winning & losing between metros areas is much narrower than the difference between winning and losing within metro areas.

      If you compare high flying San Francisco to totally stagnated Milwaukee metros, the incomes of Milwaukee’s 15 – 95th percentile overlap SF’s 5 – 85th. MKE has about 10% more very poor and SF has about 10% more very rich. The middle 80% is pretty similar. But housing in SF is 10-15X median incomes, versus 2-3X in MKE.

  6. When did the landlord buy that building he used to shake down the optometrist for $16K? He may be so deep into equity he can afford to be unreasonable.

    1. Alternatively, he may be deep into debt. If the building is valued by his bank at a multiple of the rent, lowering the rent lowers the value. This in turn raises the loan-to-value ratio of the debt; once it goes over a magic number, the owner can be forced to refinance. It may be easier to slow-bleed than to be forced to re-finance right now.

      1. Buildings are valued at multiples of rent paid, not theoretical rent. Cap rates in SF aren’t particularly notable. Contrary to this post, SF has a retail vacancy rate of 3%. Now that 3% is generally considered to be of the sum total of gross rentable square feet, not actual number of shops, so one empty 10k sq ft grocery store is worse than 10 650 sq ft store fronts from a statistics perspective, but in any case that is the factor which confounds all of of this, that SF is such a constrained market and why owners wait for higher rates.

        So the story is commercial property is no different than housing in SF.

        1. I struggle with the statistical analysis vs. “reality on the ground” thing. I admit I don’t really understand the dynamic fully. For example, in any town in Sonoma County (north of San Francisco) there’s a statistical average rent for a statistically average home or apartment. But when Joe and Jane go hand-in-hand looking for a place to live the physical availability and prices asked are very different from the theoretical abstraction.

          1. If you look at the American Community Survey rent, it includes all kinds of people who have been there a while and have all kinds of deals — public or subsidized housing, reasonable landlord who is not in debt and knows them well, rent regulated, etc. There is always a tendency to protect older and “tenured” people.

            When Joe and Jane go looking, those deals are unavailable.

            Moreover, your blog has chronicled cases where people who had those deals lose them, both in SF and in Sonoma after the fires. They are generally faced with very bad choices.

            A typical solution in what you called The Olde Country in Brooklyn works like this. You have a building owned by Grandma, or Aunt so and so, that is going to be inherited by several children and/or cousins, most of whom have long moved to the suburbs or other states. But one sibling/cousin stayed, and took care of Grandma or Aunt in their later years.

            Then Grandma or Aunt dies. The siblings or cousins, who have long lost touch with the relative who stayed, can now sell the building for a big price and split the proceeds. After a while they want the poor relative, who can never hope to afford what Brooklyn now costs, out. They end up having their own relative evicted. I know of one person, who had scraped out a living renting floor refinishing equipment and refinishing wood floors, who ended up on the street just like that.

  7. This is your blog. I’m not trying to disrespect you but I disagree with most of what you’ve written.

    We focused on two specific problems: the continuing expansion of the homeless population, and the record number of vacant storefronts.

    Yes, it’s impossible to run a store when dope fiends can steal $950 worth of merchandise with no fear of prosecution since the voters passed Prop 47. The property owner must write off the losses on his tax return since the solution is intractable.

    There’s a gap between a $15 an hour job and a $1.4M apartment. There is no solution that’s going to bridge that gap at the required scale. So the task at hand is to navigate the consequences of not solving the problem.

    The Mexicans behind me make about the same and keep a roof over their heads by living more densely. Up here, interviews have found that most of the homeless have come from out-of state. Some didn’t even know where they were – they were given a bus ticket here. Why are they coming here if it’s more expensive? It’s a great place to do drugs. We provide tons of services including NARCAN pumps and lifesaving for overdoses. There is an entire homeless industrial complex living well while not fixing the problem.

    Almost none of the people on the street are just down on their luck. The overwhelming majority are addicted to hard drugs and are crazy from a life of hard drug use. Most don’t want to go to shelter where they won’t be allowed to live as they please. They need to be in mandatory drug rehab.

    1. My adopted brother was homeless for a while. After he graduated high school he moved in with his extended birth family in San Francisco. But they got tired of his drug use and lack of motivation and kicked him out. He had a job but it wasn’t nearly enough for his own place and he wasn’t “together” enough to be with roommates. We offered him money and shelter, but he was too proud to accept our help after he had “disowned” us.

      Once he was homeless, it was very hard to get back on his feet. He lost his job pretty quickly and mental health issues surfaced. Hard to know the cause and effect there.. All the services are in San Francisco so that’s where he stayed. Eventually he got into subsidized housing, but his life is going nowhere so he’s basically a ward of the state.

      Perhaps the answer is to make mental health and drug rehab mandatory, while at the same getting tough on street camping and getting everyone into a bed, whether they like it or not. That’s what NYC has done more or less to “solve” the problem. But there’s no political will out here. Yet.

      1. Historically the pattern has been to do the law enforcement part but skimp on the housing and social services. One result is that jails become de facto asylums without the staff or funding for the job.

        1. Part of the challenge is the cost of the drug rehab and mental health facilities, but I don’t think we should under-estimate the impact a lack of courage has also. Who want’s to be the person who decides old Joe over there needs to be involuntarily committed and take the risk he ends up with Nurse Ratchet? Who wants to be the one that decides Rachael is too unstable to be in the same housing unit as Janet and her two young kids? And who wants to be responsible for deciding if the people making those decisions are making them well (especially if saying they aren’t means going up against their union and it’s grievance procedure)? Declaring someone a criminal provides some emotional anesthetic for when the problem gets too bad to just ignore.

    2. “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into.” (Jonathan Swift?). Life is complicated – that’s for sure! – but I do not believe ‘mandatory rehab’ works.

    3. “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into.” (Jonathan Swift?). Life is complicated – that’s for sure! – and sometimes there are no easy, discernable answers. So, as per the quote, I do not believe that ‘mandatory rehab’ is a practical solution for the most part.

  8. Greetings from Reno. When I look at your pictures I see a real mining town. The council of puritanical elders trying to scrape together some semblance of order and civility while tectonic forces shift underneath their feet. It’s a Victorian dystopia where the morals that were imported to the Bay Area from New England can’t be reconciled with the Wild West. Washed out prospectors in their lean-tos, eating cold beans, stranded, with all the money gone on a claim that didn’t pay. Speculators making wild bets, hoping that they are just inches away from the mother lode. Priests peering out of the curtains of the abbey, waiting for a time when the sermons will make sense again…

  9. Here in the Portland area, which has not reached San Francisco prices, but is trending in that direction, we have a real problem with zombie properties. There are hundreds if not thousands of all but abandoned houses around the city that are declining and eventually turn into problematic drug and vermin infested disasters. Due to incredible layers of bureaucracy and the default proposition that property rights trump all other social objectives, it is difficult or impossible for the city to address the issue in any meaningful way.

    Were I in charge and had a magic wand, I’d figure out how to address the problem on a mass scale, hiring landscapers to go in and clean the places up after short notice, put liens on the properties to pay for their upkeep, and then turn them over quickly to home buyers willing to renovate them and occupy them if the absentee owners don’t step up. The city tries to do this but it seems like a 5-10 year process and they only manage to address a few homes here and there at a time. Too many absentee owners who might be foreign investors, inattentive out-of-state heirs, or geriatric locals who have acquired more properties over the years than they can keep up with.

    I’m less familiar with commercial real estate, but I suspect some of the same issues are present. It is all in the incentives.

  10. I didn’t know how commercial rents affected the value of a building. That explains it. I think these retail stores with no tenants should be remodeled into ground floor housing for people without homes. And your observations about how both conservative and liberal ideologies de-housed mentally ill people and kept the old insane asylums shut down is true. At the end of the day, ideology will not solve our problems, only bi-partisan pragmatism. It truly is a quandary for SF: historic preservation, extraordinary values for existing housing, the enormous numbers of all residents who must pay exorbitant prices for rents, all of it is perplexing and frightening because our society is coming apart and affecting us all.

    BTW it’s wonderful to see people gathered to discuss this.

  11. Thanks to you, I’m getting a real education on these issues. I too am very frustrated by the circumstances but now knowing what motivates it helps a bit. Seems to be no easy solutions unless as you stated we use the “obvious, fast, simple, affordable solutions”. It will take multiple agents who have brass cojones to choose them since they “just aren’t palatable to the general populace.” Reminds me of an 80’s tune by Bonnie Tyler – I need a Hero: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gwPDpQGOQo

  12. ” Or more accurately the obvious, fast, simple, affordable solutions just aren’t palatable to the general populace. If they were we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place. I made a statement that I believe reflects external reality and she visibly recoiled. There’s a gap between a $15 an hour job and a $1.4M apartment. There is no solution that’s going to bridge that gap at the required scale. So the task at hand is to navigate the consequences of not solving the problem.”
    By “general populace” I think Johnny means the upper 40% of the income and wealth scale. It’s been clear to me that if “we” wanted to get people off the street and into houses/apts it would have been done long ago. I have been around for nearly seven decades and I have seen this situation from many perspectives, having lived in a van for a few months about 45 years ago.
    One of Johnny’s fellow bloggers from the San Fernando Valley did a quick bit of research a while back. He added up the amount of money spent, by government agencies, over the last 35-40 years, for counseling, sheltering, counting, and studying the homeless. A quick search of online house ads revealed that if that money had been spent on actual houses all those people in Los Angeles would have a roof over their heads. The houses would not have been in Southern California, but the Mid-West. Apparently such an action is not “palatable”.
    I tend to agree with the ‘radical left’ types that suggest that for every new person that gets a 6 figure job and one of those $1.4 M apartments, one or more people are forced out on the street.
    I have had similar discussions with activists of all varieties about “homelessness” and they are all quite bothered and dismissive of suggestions of that trend. The usual response is that “we” need to allocate more money/pass a ballot initiative and that will be “a step in the right direction”.
    Somehow, regardless of the amount of money, most of these “steps” end up ineffectual.
    An example is the city of Los Angeles purchasing used travel trailers from FEMA that were in Paradise California after the fire. Such an accommodation might be better than the sidewalk, but for how long. RVs are notorious for roof leaks, plumbing and electrical failures, and a very short usability time when lived in.
    A friend of mine had a job doing maintenance and repairs on rental properties. Often he would be in the outer reaches of places like Riverside California. He noted that almost every house had what is now called an Additional Dwelling Unit. It could be a converted garage, a travel trailer, a camper unit for a pickup truck, or a tent. All with an electrical extension cord leading to the main house.
    So except for the places that are now kept vacant, for financial reasons, most everything is maxxed out already.
    With some new laws taking effect here in California about Additional Dwelling Units and housing density, the reaction of local governments here in SoCal was revealing.
    One city counsel member said that they did not like being “dictated” to by the State Government. Further they lamented “losing control of when and where” housing is built.
    Of course the answer, in most cases, unless it’s the $1.4 M variety, is Not Now and Somewhere Else.

  13. “We’re due for a market crash. We’re due for an earthquake. The nature of the conversation will change completely on the other side of these events and I want to be ahead of the curve.”

    If all that happens, I suspect a lot of units will open up in a hurry, because so much of the housing stock is occupied by a rotating cast of highly educated people cashing in on the tech Gold Rush. Not that they’re bad. It’s just supply and demand. But during a protracted recession the transient 20 somethings of the 10% move to greener pastures and there’s more wiggle room for San Francisco values…

    For me, on the other hand, if I have to open at a hot dog stand on Market Street to survive, I’ll do it because for better or worse the Bay Area is my forever home. Well, to be honest, if things got really bad, I might join the I-5 caravan to Oregon (with fake plates and a mustache of course) or even go to Europe, assuming it was still functional. Got Jure Sanguinis?

    1. It’s complicated. After a natural disaster a lot of property loses value and jobs are lost. But surviving properties in less affected areas tend to become more valuable. And some professions are in greater demand with more profitability.

      After a market crash there are a lot of losers. But it’s also a great time to buy repriced assets at a discount. People who are in debt struggle. People with cash on hand can benefit.

  14. Very well written. I laughed at your friend’s reaction to your observations! I know a Priest who serves in a community dominated by engineers. He tells them that there are problems that cannot be solved by a process document. They often recoil.

    I’m of the opinion that change will happen; it just naturally does. That’s not progress; a Better World is not the result of all our activism and planning. We have the world we have. We just have to live in it.

    1. Anywhere else in the country I’d be labeled a leftie. Here in San Francisco I’m often looked at as a freak conservative. So I guess I’m a moderate. Mostly I just want things to work and I’m disappointed by both sides.

      1. LOL. Opposite for me; I live in a “red state” and am probably considered a screaming liberal by The Base. If I were where you are, I’d be considered a freak conservative.

        So I too am a moderate who wants things to work, with a modicum of fairness.

  15. Out here in the hinterlands we hear a lot about the homeless issue and lack of affordable housing in San Francisco. I have reserved judgment until I heard from the one source I knew I could trust to give an even-handed evaluation from the front line. Thank you for providing that.

  16. Except for the politics and economics and finance of it all, turning those storefronts into homeless housing would be easy.

    As for your optometrist’s former storefront, I’m dealing with the same issue here in my small city in NE OH, except it’s a vacant 30 year old former Super KMart. The owner’s appear to not be making a real effort to get it reoccupied because I’m confident it’s also loss deduction on their taxes as the owner is also major developer elsewhere in the country with high profits.

    Once you start and continually refine your understanding of The System, you get see it everywhere.

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