A downside of private streets: who exactly owns it?

There is a dispute about the ownership of a wealthy private street in San Francisco:

Tina Lam and Michael Cheng of San Jose said that in 2015 they were looking at parcels being auctioned online by San Francisco’s tax office when they saw a description of “this odd property in a great location.”

“Part of Pacific Heights, the right location, land in a good neighborhood. We took a chance,” Cheng told the San Jose Mercury News. He said they bought the land sight-unseen, beating out 73 other bidders and dropping $90,000 for the street and its common areas…

The Presidio Homeowners Association, which has maintained the space since 1905, blames a wrong address for the misdirected tax bills at $14 a year, bound for an accountant who had not worked for the association since the 1980s. The debt grew to $994, and the street was sold to recoup additional fees and penalties.

But the association did not know the back taxes threatened ownership of the street, the suit against Lam said. No notices were posted on the street, and no one on Presidio Terrace knew it changed hands until May 2017, when an investor representing Lam asked whether the association wanted to buy it back, according to the suit.

Is an odd case like this enough to suggest that having private streets is a bad idea in the first place? While the municipality does not have to pay the same costs to maintain the infrastructure, it seems like the private street is often an attempt by wealthier residents – whether homeowners or firms – to control their settings. And then there is a compelling reason for local government to make a claim to the street, there is a fight from the owners who felt that this property was theirs.

“Monster houses” contribute to San Francisco’s housing issues

An overview of the tight housing supply in San Francisco hints at the influence of teardown McMansions:

Its residents have had much to grumble about in recent years: an influx of “monster houses” built by the well-heeled who buy, tear down and rebuild on lavish scale; a gaggle of Google buses and other shuttles that take techies to and from jobs in Silicon Valley.

Many Americans don’t like teardowns popping up next door. They typically take one smaller home and turn it into one larger home. But, do such homes restrict housing supply? Perhaps indirectly: (1) they bring in wealthier residents who likely don’t want multi-family housing and (2) they increase the value of the property meaning it would be more difficult to convert the same lot into multi-family housing. At the same time, McMansions could later be converted into multiple units (as proposed by some).

Generally, I would guess being for McMansions likely means being against affordable housing. Yet, the two subjects don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?

Can we have both protected open spaces and affordable housing?

Conservatives argue that the affordable housing issue is simple: stop protecting open space and let developers build more housing units.

But, beginning in the 1970s, housing prices in these communities skyrocketed to three or four times the national average.

Why? Because local government laws and policies severely restricted, or banned outright, the building of anything on vast areas of land. This is called preserving “open space,” and “open space” has become almost a cult obsession among self-righteous environmental activists, many of whom are sufficiently affluent that they don’t have to worry about housing prices.

Some others have bought the argument that there is just very little land left in coastal California, on which to build homes. But anyone who drives down Highway 280 for thirty miles or so from San Francisco to Palo Alto, will see mile after mile of vast areas of land with not a building or a house in sight…

Was it just a big coincidence that housing prices in coastal California began skyrocketing in the 1970s, when building bans spread like wildfire under the banner of “open space,” “saving farmland,” or whatever other slogans would impress the gullible?

When more than half the land in San Mateo County is legally off-limits to building, how surprised should we be that housing prices in the city of San Mateo are now so high that politically appointed task forces have to be formed to solve the “complex” question of how things got to be the way they are and what to do about it?

The argument goes that this is an example of supply and demand: open more space for development and housing prices will have to drive as supply increases. Is it really this simple? Here are at least a few other factors that matter in this equation:

  1. The actions of developers. Even if more housing units could be built, there is no guarantee they could build cheap or affordable housing. They want to make money and they argue the money is not in affordable housing.
  2. Is cheap suburban housing (what is typically promoted by conservatives in these scenarios – keep building further out) desirable in the long run? Opponents of sprawl might argue that having a cheap single-family home 30-50 miles out from the big city is worse in the long run than a smaller, more expensive unit close to city amenities and infrastructure.
  3. What exactly is the value of open space? Conservatives sometimes argue this is another sign of the religion of environmentalism but there are realistic limits to how much housing and development land can hold before you end up with major issues. (For example, see the regular flooding issues in the Chicago area.) If green or open space is simply about property values – keep my home values high by not building nearby housing – this is a different issue.
  4. There is a larger issue of social class. I’m guessing there are few Americans of any political persuasion that would choose to live near affordable housing. There is a stigma associated with it even if the housing is badly needed. Lots of people might argue affordable housing is needed but few communities want it in their boundaries and middle and upper class residents don’t want to be near it.
  5. Another option for affordable housing is to have denser urban areas. Think cities like Hong Kong where a lack of land and high demand have led to one of the highest population densities in the world. If a region wants to protect its open and green space, why not build up? Many city residents don’t want this – the single-family home urban neighborhood is a fixture in many American cities – and conservatives fear a government agenda pushing everyone into dense cities.

Opening more land to development might help lead to cheaper housing but it would take a lot more to get to affordable housing that is within a reasonable distance from job and population centers.

Three tips for avoiding turning a $250 million bridge into a $13 billion one

A new book chronicling the long saga of the new Bay Bridge offers these lessons for avoiding massive cost changes/overruns:

Reference other projects. Frick points to a couple ideas for controlling mega-project costs. Scholar Bent Flyvbjerg, who has studied infrastructure cost overruns around the world—and who often boils them down to political deception—has promoted the idea of basing costs on a “reference class” of similar projects already completed. The fear with that is project leaders won’t bother to keep costs down if they know they can hit a certain number, but Frick says that possibility bothers her less than the uncertainty surrounding costs that goes on right now.

Widen early cost ranges. Giving a precise cost number out to multiple decimals, as the state legislature did with its $1.285 billion estimate in 1997, makes the figure seem more scientific and precise than it really is, and creates that much more public frustration when the costs keep rising in the future. “In the early planning stages, ranges in the projects would be really important to provide,” she says.

Track progress more closely. Frick also suggests that officials pay more attention to “transaction cost economics”—an approach that “analyzes project development over time,” she writes, in an effort to identify the precise “political and economic origins” of new costs. This fuller accounting also considers costs that often go overlooked, such as the time and energy that go into public participation. Without better cost estimates, projects will continue to suffer from the type of strategy described to Frick by one senior engineer:

“Basically at the onset of a project I think the higher ups prefer a dollar amount and schedule that doesn’t shock the public.”

Which, as the Bay Area knows, only makes the shock that much worse when it finally arrives.

The typical resident is going to look at this and ask how in the world this was allowed to happen. Large infrastructure projects have a lot of moving pieces but the change in price is still hard to understand. Of course, there may be a political penalty for adhering to this advice – a higher projected cost upfront is likely to limit support. Yet, going with an unreasonably low projection with no cost range borders on dishonesty.

You don’t want to win the McMansion award from protesters

Some antitech protestors recently handed out a McMansion award in San Francisco:

Wearing a pig mask and sequined suit jacket, Amy Gilgan stood outside of Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night to accept the McMansion award at the second annual Crappys on behalf of Jack Halprin, a Google lawyer, landlord and frequent target of San Francisco’s antitech ire.

In sparkles and sneakers, technorati streamed past protesters and into the concert hall for the eighth annual Crunchies Awards, the supposed Oscars of Silicon Valley. Few turned their heads to witness the sidewalk satire. Investor Ron Conway, who last year stood on the Crunchies stage and offered his sympathy to the protesters, buzzed by a group of taxi drivers rallying against Uber. Evening news crews scaled back their coverage.

This year the pig masks were new, but the message was old. The verve of the antitech demonstrators felt diminished, and even they noted that the turnout was low.

McMansion sounds like an invasive species for the self-interested and wealthy. Some of the backstory:

Tirado said things started off  badly  as soon as Halprin bought and moved into the seven-unit building two years ago. First, Halprin forced one tenant out under owner move-in laws. Then another existing tenant was evicted,  again through the owner move-in process. Halprin told tenants that his domestic partner would be taking over the second unit. That partner, however, never materialized, according to Erin McElroy, an organizer with Eviction Free San Francisco. The affected tenant has since filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit against Halprin.

The remaining six tenants, which includes two teachers, a small child, an artist and a disabled senior, received Ellis Act eviction notifications in February of this year.

The protests continued through December. This is a big issue right now in San Francisco: in a very expensive housing market, Silicon Valley employees and companies have been perceived by some as throwing their weight around regarding properties and sending buses for workers. While this could be thought of as a more localized issue in some cities – perhaps gentrification occurring in particular neighborhoods – it is bigger than that since prices are high all over the Bay Area.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. It is interesting that we don’t hear as much about protests on this issue in New York City even though Manhattan is similarly expensive and luxury construction is booming. Perhaps the land there is being redeveloped from non-residential uses and/or fewer people are being displaced?

2. Generally, I don’t think winning an award with McMansion in the title is intended as a compliment.

The house the Tanner family on Full House could really afford in the Bay Area

With rumors of a possible Full House remake, Trulia took a look at what the Tanner family could realistically afford:

Like the concept of home itself, the Full House house is largely placeless: Shots of the exterior come from the Lower Pac Heights Victorian at 1709 Broderick, the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square encourage all kinds of assumptions in the credits, and the address the characters use (1882 Girard) is actually wedged up against the 101 in Visitacion Valley. Still, it’s fairly obvious that the Tanner family of today could not so easily swing a Painted Lady, or its stand-in, in this market. Trulia actually ran the numbers and came up with the budget that a morning-show host, a musician, and a rock-paper-scissors champion would need to house the pre-mogul-phase Olsen twins and those other sisters. That number is $1.23M. And you know what? We found them a house!

First, the math:

Trulia used 1709 Broderick as the baseline. They say that the property sold last year for $2.865M. (Which is weird. Per the MLS, the last sale was in 2006, for $1.85M. Property Shark estimates the property’s current value at just over $2.05M—perhaps they were looking at that?) Gah, so much of this is theoretical, anyway: The real 1709 Broderick is only a three-bedroom, and according to these plans, they need at least four.) Anyway, the point is that the Bob Saget hair helmet and its costarring ‘dos need a lower mortgage payment. Here is what Trulia figured, assuming 20 percent down and a 30-year, 4.1 percent fixed-rate mortgage:

Let’s do the math: if Danny (played by Bob Saget) made close to $160,000 a year as the host of the local TV show, Wake Up, San Francisco, Joey made $30,000 doing stand-up gigs around the country, and Uncle Jesse raked in $48,000 as a musician, together, they could only afford a home around $1.23 million or about a $6,000-a-month mortgage.Of the homes around the $1.23M mark on the market right now, this four-bedroom Victorian in the Inner Richmond, just a block and a half from the park, is the only candidate that makes any kind of sense. It just squeezes in under budget at $1.15M, comes with a backyard large enough for a picnic table and the doling of woodwind-scored life lessons, and even has mint-sherbet-shingle synchronicity with this actual Painted Lady. There’s no garage, though, so Uncle Joey would need to live in the storage space.

Two thoughts:

1. This gives some quick insight into the superheated Bay Area housing market. The Tanners are not buying a cheap house with this estimated income yet they are clearly not living in the implied homes from the exterior shots because they could not afford it.

2. This is a common trend among family sitcoms on television: the “normal” family depicted often lives in a home that is realistically way beyond their means. I’ve been looking at some research regarding depictions of homes on TV and this dates back to the nuclear family sitcoms of the 1950s where families tended to live in pretty big houses for their time. Sociologist Juliet Schor argues that this increased level of consumption on television – the middle-class family living in bigger houses and having more stuff, seemingly without having to worry about finances – influenced American consumer patterns as their expectations of “normal” changed.