Housing is today’s top conversational topic at upper middle class dinner parties in San Francisco. It’s displaced jockeying over whose been to the best, most recently opened, restaurant; discussions over whether a $50 bottle of wine is really worth it; and debates about yet another Bush versus Clinton presidential race: would it be a deeply disturbing sign of the dominance of our plutocratic overlords or at least a possible break-through for women. Anxiety over too pricey real estate and too many (crazy) homeless even trumps jokes over that other amusing-alarming presidential candidate.
The housing conversation ranges over a series of interconnected trends and troubles. Property owners are stunned at the value of their real estate, which has made paper (multi-) millionaires out of even those with homes in neighborhoods that were epicenters of the foreclosure crises just six years ago. This, then, triggers an economic identity crisis: “I don’t feel rich, yet I am…But I’m not as rich as the new techie class…maybe I should cash out and move to Idaho, or New Mexico, or even Daly City…But what would I do, who would I be, there…”
Equally worrying is the fact that almost none of our kids will be able to afford to live in San Francisco, and possibly even in the Bay Area. At a recent gathering there were audible gasps when one of the guests relayed that their son and daughter-in-law, a lawyer and architect, had abandoned their search for a San Francisco home, redirecting their house hunting efforts to the East Bay. The fact that two six-figure professionals can’t afford to live in the City implies that even the next generation’s upper middle class families have been squeezed out. That bodes poorly for the future of San Francisco’s public schools, and the ability of grandparents-to-be to live within a Muni ride of their extended clan. And it feeds back into the economic identity crises: do I want to live in a City dominated by old people (i.e., me) who live far away from their children amidst a concentration of rapidly rising singles and the wealthy?
The most vexing topic is the homeless, and more specifically, the smaller population of mentally unstable street people. There’s universal disgust with the number of times a day San Franciscans have to walk by a pool of vomit or human excrement, or cross the street to avoid a screaming naked man with garbage bags wrapped around his ankles. This taps into the tortured psychology that pits our status as wealthy property owners against our identity as compassionate City dwellers concerned about the less fortunate. It also irritates that most American of impulses, that we can and should be able to fix everything.
Former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Care not Cash approach gave hope that municipal leaders were at least trying to pragmatically solve homelessness, if not mental illness. Five years later this optimism has morphed into a sense that the current mayor doesn’t care, and is only interested in cash from developers and major sports franchises. Popular as he allegedly may be, when Ed Lee makes San Franciscans nostalgic for Newsom something isn’t quite right.
Housing rich, identity challenged, worried about our children, and concerned-angry about the homeless and the scary. Perhaps in this mix of assets and emotions there’s a way forward. Under GreenFinanceSF property owners can tie financing for energy-related projects to repayments channeled through a special line item on their property tax bill. This gimmick enables productive loans to be elongated and securely attached to a potentially underutilized financial asset, a San Francisco home. A similar model could be used to finance tax-free, low interest rate municipal bonds, dedicated to investing in family-friendly homes, and places for the homeless and the mentally ill. That is, today’s upper income property owners could buy a piece of tomorrow’s San Francisco for their children, as well as contribute to capital solutions for those that are adrift.
Whether our politicians take up this idea, or voters approve the $310 million housing bond on next month’s ballot, it hasn’t escaped dinner party chatter that the offspring of the less-than-one-percenters and the homeless have something unpleasant in common: neither can afford to live in San Francisco. Which creates yet another emotional whirlpool: if my kids can’t live here, then why should I put up with others making the streets into their bedrooms (and bathrooms)? Over the scent of after-dinner coffee, one can smell the rising frustration. At some point that’ll turn to anger, and, ultimately, action. And then we’ll have something distinctly different to talk about.