Act of Godzilla: San Francisco Is Menaced by Monsters from the Deep — Real Ones

Right-wingers and left-wingers, progressives and moderates, East-coasters, West-Coasters, Midwesterners: Everyone agrees. Watching monsters destroy San Francisco makes for good cinema.

Sitting within a movie theater in this city while cheering a depiction of its spectacular demise is a counterintuitive pleasure; it harks to leather-clad motorcycle punks clambering to the picture show to cheer on Chuck Norris as he hurls their brethren through barroom windows. Those punks were resilient: After being tossed through plate glass by Norris, they'd pop right back up to be shot by Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.

But, in real-life San Francisco, what's gone is gone.

And after Godzilla and his fellow beasties have had their fun, a second catastrophe begins, because the city's rent-controlled housing stock will be reduced to rubble and ash. In its place, a forest of new condos will germinate, unencumbered by rent control. City residents for whom the term “market rate” is a cruel joke will exit en masse, as surely as if they were fleeing an oversize lizard.

A longtime friend once awoke in a cold sweat after experiencing a nightmare of sorts: He was in the employ of the X-Men and tasked with calculating actuarial tables. Your humble narrator is tormented with a different vision: If Godzilla were to lumber into our city, what path could he take that would raze the fewest of the city's 170,000-odd rent-controlled units?

Since cinematic monsters from the deep seem to breach cities via the abandoned warehouse district, Mission Bay seems a natural choice. Here's your silver lining: Rent control applies only to pre-1979 buildings and, in '79, much of Mission Bay was a barren wasteland suitable only as a backdrop for the aforementioned Norris-vs.-punk confrontations.

If Godzilla emerged on Ocean Beach and rampaged through the Outer Richmond or Sunset, he'd be treading upon many a single-family home — but those aren't covered under rent control. If he veered left and cut a swath through the Presidio, he'd wreck federal, non-rent-controlled dwellings.

Treasure Island's units also aren't rent-controlled — and with its cesium-rich soil, it might be an appealing destination for a radiation-hungry monster.

And yet, numerous city officials point out that rent-controlled housing is everywhere. Even in the Sunset and Richmond, older homes with a second unit would be covered; in the event of a disaster, many a rent-controlled tenant will, literally, come out of the woodwork.

And then their luck will run dry.

In this city, notes structural engineer Patrick Buscovich, we have an “Act of God” clause. If a building is smote via the action or inaction of a supreme being, its owner can rebuild it — even if its size far exceeds current zoning regulations. And, once rebuilt, it needn't be rent-controlled.

You've spotted the paradox: Owners of aging, rent-controlled structures with long-term tenants would actually be better off if their properties were destroyed. “Godzilla,” Buscovich says with admirable seriousness,” would be an Act of God.”

So would an earthquake.

Last month, The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America published an article inspiring far nastier dreams than bean-counting for mutants. Long-term analysis of Bay Area fault lines reveals we've been living through a peculiarly quake-free epoch since 1906. In days of yore, large tremors occurred with more regularity. The upshot, per lead author David Schwartz: We may not be fated to suffer a repeat of the massive temblor of '06, but a spate of really damn large temblors. Whatever the case, we've been blithely enjoying an earthquake-free Eden — “and that has to end,” he says.

Municipal officials know this, and are working, at municipal speed, to retrofit San Francisco. But earthquakes travel at a far quicker clip than the plodding, consensus-driven pace of policy generation in our city.

After years of back-and-forth, some 6,000 of the city's most vulnerable multiunit residential structures were identified last year, and have until September to go through a screening process. Perhaps 4,000 of them will undergo mandatory retrofitting, estimates Patrick Otellini, the city's chief resilience officer. And that process is expected to take another four to seven years.

This, however, represents a mere fraction of the city's aging, rent-controlled housing stock. If The Big One — or even A Bunch of Pretty Big Ones — comes sooner, more than the city's plans will be dashed. And, most crucially, some landlords are indeed incentivized to put off costly retrofitting jobs — until they're no longer necessary.

“I have come across owners who act like that,” Otellini says. “It is a sad side of human nature. They think more about property value than the value of human life.”

And that's depressing. But hardly surprising.

It isn't illegal to be immoral.

The city is making progress, but is also racing against a hidden clock. All that's known is that time will, eventually, run out. But this is a city that likes to take its time.

A Private School Earthquake Working Group has been meeting since 2012. And yet, Otellini confirms, he's getting significant pushback from the local diocese regarding proposals that would merely require structural evaluations of city private schools.

Actually fixing the problems these analyses uncover isn't even part of the discussion.

We're not going to reveal what happens at the end of the current iteration of Godzilla. Here's a hint, though: The hero survives, even if one of our more scenic bridges does not. There figures to be a sequel; this was, after all, the 29th installment of the venerable giant lizard franchise.

We have no idea what will be demolished next. Or when. And, in this, a special effects-laden sci-fi blockbuster is not that different from the San Francisco of this world, shaky as it is.

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