February 2013

Publisher's View: Hotel

Steven J. Moss

Starting perhaps four decades ago, San Francisco’s essential character began to change, becoming much wealthier and less family-oriented. The event wasn’t overtly noted or celebrated, though, in retrospect, the closing of Playland, a 10-acre amusement park near Ocean Beach, in 1972 could serve as a marker. Back then the City’s economic engine was largely driven by roll-up-your-sleeves manufacturers and wholesalers, financed by cuff-linked bankers and insurers, who mingled their families at Playland, Golden Gate Park, and Camp Mather. 

Today, manufacturing and warehousing has been mostly squeezed out; the traditional banking and insurance sector — the kind where you knew the name of the banker who held your mortgage — is three-quarters the size it was just fifteen years ago. People who make or move things have largely left town, replaced by the newly dominate sectors: health care providers, scientists, data manipulators and managers, backed up by a steadily growing hospitality sector. Since 1990 the population of every income cohort other than the very poor — less than $25,000 a year — the City’s version of the middle class — $125,000 a year — and the wealthy — more than $175,000 annually — has declined. The “Big Four” — tycoons Stanford, Hopkins, Huntington, and Fair — have been replaced by at least 3,000 San Franciscans with similarly deep pockets.

The quarter million children who played in the still ample open spaces and went to school mid-century last have dwindled to less than half that amount, a meager 13 percent of the population. As families left the City so too did construction of family-sized housing. Less than 200 single-family homes were built in the last ten years, compared to the almost 20,000 units that were erected in buildings with more than 20 units. In 2010 755 studio or one-bedroom units were constructed; while just 566 two-bedrooms or larger were created, three-quarters of which were two-bedrooms.

There are some countervailing trends to the concentration of wealth and childless adults in the City, though much of these are underground. An unknown but likely notable number of extended families — predominately Asian-Americans and Latinos — are moving in together, especially in the Southside neighborhoods, by modifying, legally or not, their garages and adding in-law apartments. Craft manufacturing — chocolates, beer, ceramics, and handbags, among other things — is trickling into San Francisco. Both of these movements bolster the ability of working wage families to stay, even thrive, in the City. But they are a drop in an ocean of twenty-somethings, single seniors, and the well-off who increasingly define San Francisco.

Whether San Francisco’s new face is appealing, or not, depends on one’s politics. Despite occasional rhetoric from City leaders, the needs of families with school age children are likely to continue to get short shrift compared to the desires of health care executives and high-tech investors. Attention will increasingly be paid to a growing population of infirm seniors — including those who have clung to the City through massively under-market, rent controlled apartments — the better-off of which will benefit from easy access to high quality medical facilities. 

Local government’s priorities will evolve towards creating what amounts to a seven by seven luxury resort, with suitable, if pricey, amenities. After all, even our tourists are getting wealthier: 1.4 million fewer visitors came to San Francisco in 2010 than in 2000, yet those who came spent $680 million more on hotels, restaurants, and other services. Soon enough, the City will be less noted for its bridges, ushering in all comers, as the water that surrounds it, serving as a moat to keep out those who can’t afford to live here, or even sample our wares. 

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