I have mixed feelings about “gentrification”. In fact, I’m not even sure there’s a definition of gentrification that everyone can agree on. On one hand, rundown housing is dangerous and inefficient. It often wastes money through inefficiency that the people who live in it cannot spare. But it’s also true that fixing faulty housing too often ends up being the kind of gentrification that puts homes out of the reach of people with modest income, those who need modestly priced homes most. As usual, money is the motive.

Rundown housing is dangerous and inefficient,
but gentrification puts homes out of the reach
of people who need them most.

In most cities, I would guess, many of the fires result from old buildings with out-of-date electrical wiring that doesn’t meet the code of thirty years ago, let alone current code. The nearly inevitable result is that some of these buildings catch fire, even if the tenants have been scrupulous about electrical use. And of course, sometimes these fires kill people, particularly people who for one reason or another take the batteries out of their smoke alarms. Such things are more rare in new buildings where the code requires wired smoke alarms, but then, the people who lived in the old buildings often cannot afford to live in the new ones.

San Francisco is pretty much like other cities with regard to gentrification, I’m sure. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of gentrification at its worst. The neighborhood is a pleasant one, much favored by the ever-increasing population of rich IT people, but it’s never been cheap to live here.

The profit motive is the biggest culprit behind these excesses. Developers snap up houses and apartment buildings even before they go on the market, whether or not they are in serious need of improvement, and it almost doesn’t matter how much they pay for them. They gut the building, which means everyone has to move out. They replace everything, starting with the plumbing, wiring, and heating. The interior is often radically rearranged, with larger rooms and sometimes amenities such as wine cellars and hot tubs. Very expensive bathrooms and kitchens are installed, with marble countertops, chi-chi sinks and tubs, and the latest top-of-the-line appliances. Garages are expanded. The places are “staged” with expensive furniture for show. Each unit is sold for one to five million dollars. And they do sell. The average home in SF goes for a million.

The profit motive is the
biggest culprit behind these excesses.

A good part of the elevated prices these places fetch is due to their overpriced amenities. Buying appliances with the mortgage means paying for them twice, and an industrial size Wolf range and double-door Sub-Zero refrigerator are certainly not necessities. Cooking can be done just as well on any decent range, and any fridge will keep your veggies cold. Some of these places would be more affordable with more modest appliances, or they could be sold with none at all, and certainly no “staging”. It’s done that way in many places. Nor does everyone need marble counter tops and the like.

But what happens to the working people whose home is now gone? Many have to leave the city to look for an apartment or house in some distant area of commuter homes that they can afford. And they spend two hours a day driving to a job they used to get to in fifteen minutes.

Working people are forced to live elsewhere.

Since I arrived in the city a quarter century ago, there have been two major neighborhoods the city administrators wanted to develop. These developments were to include a significant number of human-scale “affordable” or subsidized houses and apartments, plus small shops. It never happened, in either case. One development, where a large chunk of city blocks were razed, was no-man’s land for nearly two decades, and ended up with mostly massive monolithic apartment buildings. The row of badly designed stores on a main street has been completely empty since the beginning, years ago. The other project, after being stalled for fifteen years, ended up with no housing at all, but rather an ever-expanding campus of monolithic research buildings, with large numbers of monolithic apartment buildings on the periphery that no one can afford on average income. The people we all rely on for their service work have to live someplace else.

It’s a difficult situation. Dangerous old buildings must eventually be renovated or replaced, but replacing them with very expensive units benefits only the developers. Building a larger number of “affordable” homes would benefit everyone, but developers cannot be relied on to do it. Not when they can make all that money.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Even though it’s before my time as an adult, I understand there used to rent control programs in most of the major cities with NYC being a perfect example. I believe that’s what helped maintain the economic diversity in Manhattan for decades. Now that’s it’s gone, it is impossible to live on the island without being rich. My friend pays $2400/mth for a tiny one bedroom.


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