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A Primer on Housing 

See the supervisors posture. See them learn. See them approve housing.

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
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According to one manner of thinking, San Francisco awoke this week to find its housing crisis in full retreat.

The four-year battle against live-work loft projects -- unattractive buildings that slow-growth activists blamed for gentrifying blue-collar neighborhoods -- was over. Last Friday, Mayor Willie Brown declined to veto legislation imposing a moratorium on construction of the live-work buildings. The live-work boom had, for all intents and purposes, gone bust.

The dot-com boom, which activists had blamed for goosing housing prices and purging diversity from the city, had also quieted. By February's end, this silence had calmed the local housing market; the price of $1,400 studios near Union Square, for example, had dropped to $1,200. Local realtors said $1 million houses, which had been the subject of 30-offer bidding wars a year ago, were now drawing only three or four bids.

Hundreds of new apartment units, approved for construction, were expected to be completed during the next year just as an expanding national economic slowdown embraced the Bay Area. The likely result seemed almost surreal: a further and real softening of San Francisco's once-rigid housing market.

Meanwhile, the new S.F. Board of Supervisors -- independent, left-leaning, fresh-faced, and energetic -- was busy considering progressive housing measures such as expanding rent control, outlawing tenancy-in-common condominium-style apartment conversions, increasing low-income housing funding, and experimenting with housing cooperatives.

"A lot of longtime tenants are getting evicted and getting displaced, and San Francisco values the character and diversity of our neighborhoods," said Dis-trict 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, the lefty-ist of the new lefty board members. "I think we need to look at other avenues for dealing with the housing crisis."

After five years of drizzly, bone-chilling housing winter, during which the price of an average S.F. apartment more than doubled, bright, bone-warming spring sunshine seemed to pierce the clouds.


To experience how much better the housing situation has gotten, I decided last week to take a stroll around the heartland of the live-work boom with Marco, a genial laborer originally from northern Mexico, and Rolando, a rangy new arrival most recently of Memphis, both of whom had graciously agreed to serve as guides. We set off walking from the day-labor yard near Franklin Square Park, where the two workers had been waiting for possible jobs, and toured the North Potrero and SOMA neighborhoods where they live. According to Marco, who didn't want his real name used because of a quirk in his immigration status, these regions of the city had recently seen a miniature dwelling construction boom.

Or a construction boom of miniature dwellings, as the case may be.

"It's like a neighborhood," said Marco, describing the cluster of new homes recently established around the south end of 11th Street. Marco wasn't, of course, referencing apartments or condominiums or live-work lofts. He was talking about hobo villages tucked into alleys, under bridges, in bushy empty lots, inside makeshift tents -- wherever, it seems, the locals who live in this area stand a reasonably good chance of avoiding police hassles and the threat of freezing to death. Which is a real threat; a few hours earlier, Marco said, he watched the police survey a spot under I-80 where some laborer friends had discovered the body of a fiftysomething "neighbor" of theirs.

After a morning of poking through these new subdivisions, it became clear that, at least for the bottom rung of San Francisco, our city's housing crisis is anything but over. Balled-up sleeping bags covered in plastic, domed tents, shopping carts covered in sheeting, makeshift cabins made of cardboard and nylon tarps were home for hundreds, even thousands of people -- people who work, people who earn money, people who cannot possibly rent a place to stay, even occasionally, in San Francisco.

A room at a smelly, dangerous, skid-row hotel now goes for $45 a night. Sixth Street flophouses charge $190 a week. A typical day laborer earns $70 every third day.

Which brings me back to the good feelings associated with the live-work loft moratorium, the done-for dot-com boom, and San Francisco's housing thaw. The fact of the matter is, San Francisco still suffers a crippling housing shortage. The shortage strips the city of its diverse cultural life. It strips the city of families, of workers, of the kind of diversity that has made San Francisco an eclectic example for the world. When the price of tiny S.F. studio apartments drops from $1,400 to $1,200 a month, that means it's necessary to make $65,000, rather than $70,000, per year to afford some of the humblest housing imaginable.

For all the problems associated with live-work construction in the city, live-works represented half the new housing built here during the past two years. As such, they had a price-ameliorating effect. Much was said during the live-work debate about replacing live-work with more agreeable apartment buildings. But the fact remains that there are no proposals on the table for building the 70,000 or so new apartments the city now needs.

Events of the past few weeks suggest that, at the first hint of a break in San Francisco's housing winter, our new city fathers began charting a course that could worsen San Francisco's housing shortage dramatically. Just the same, there's a certain type of power associated with having one's heart in the right place, which I believe this Board of Supervisors does. With its strong moral compass, this board just might recover from early mistakes and chart a path to redemption from our housing disaster.


Chris Daly is one of those supervisors who I believe harbors a sincere concern for the poor and a neophyte's utter misunderstanding of housing. Consider, for example, the tenancy in common. In a typical tenancy-in-common arrangement, former renters band together to buy an apartment building. Tenancy-in-common conversions allow copy editors and bank secretaries to own their own homes, and escape the vagaries of the rental market, and gain control of their financial futures.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
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