California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

Cost and time overruns on public projects do not matter once the task is done

In a look at the troubled construction of the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, one civil engineer puts the problems in perspective:

Paul Gribbon, a civil engineer who brought Portland, Oregon’s $800 million Big Pipe sewer project in on schedule and within budget, points out that, along with cost and time overruns, there’s another general law regarding megaprojects. “Once it’s up and running, once there’s a shining new bridge or light-rail station, people tend to forget about how much it cost, in all senses of the word.”

If the project eventually gets done and it all works, life moves on and the delays, frustrations, and extra monies fade into the past.

But, such challenges seem to be common in at least a few major American infrastructure projects in recent decades. What could help reduce these odds? Or, are these projects so complex that even a small issue – such as cracked steel beams in San Francisco – can create significant ripple effects and headaches?

My guess is that the civil engineer is correct: after delays and blown budgets, people just want something to work. The frustration during the process will dissipate as the public takes it as normal. They will feel relieved when the troubles are over. Yet, the long-term goal across all these projects should be to continue to seek timeliness and on-budget performance as the size of these projects can influence numerous other civic and municipal priorities as well as create inefficiencies for many.

Suing for more suburban housing

A California law makes it possible to sue communities regarding housing:

Pro-housing activist Sonja Trauss, a pioneer in the YIMBY movement, was reading about a controversial 315-unit affordable apartment project in Lafayette in 2015 when she learned about a 1982 state law she’d never heard of before: the Housing Accountability Act.

The law said municipalities must approve a housing development as long as it is consistent with local zoning rules and general plan objectives, would not create a public health hazard or take water from neighboring farms, and would meet state environmental standards…

The California Renters Legal Advocacy Fund, or CaRLA — a group Trauss and her YIMBY allies formed in 2015 — is waging the sue-the-suburbs campaign. CaRLA has used the Housing Accountability Act to sue on behalf of developers in Sausalito, Berkeley, San Mateo, Sonoma, Dublin and Lafayette…

While the lawsuits will eventually result in some increase in the Bay Area’s housing stock — none of the projects in question have opened yet — the bigger impact so far has been to make municipal officials aware that violations of the Housing Accountability Act could result in expensive litigation.

How long until California changes the law to give communities more say over these matters? Not surprisingly, the end of the article mentions a counter group that a co-founder says is “not NIMBYs or anti-housing; for us the issue goes back to democracy and local control.” Suburbanites do like their local control.

This certainly would not be the first time the courts have been used to allow new housing construction in wealthier suburbs. It may be the only way to force compliance from suburbs that would rather not have cheaper housing and different kinds of residents. Unfortunately, it can be a very slow process within specific cases and overall progress is limited. Perhaps the threat of lawsuits and several successful cases in the past could force suburbs to move more quickly but I would guess some would still aim to drag out the process as much as possible.

Final thought: it would be interesting to track what happens to these developments allowed by the courts over time. Do communities eventually accept the housing units and residents? Would a positive response to a new development than encourage the community to pursue other similar developments? Or, does a court victory lead to hardened resistance?

How close to San Francisco does a house have to be to be considered “in San Francisco”?

The short answer: closer than north of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The current edition of Brother vs. Brother on HGTV features two homes undergoing renovation in the Bay Area. However, they are located in the suburbs of El Sobrante and Pinole, respectively a 45 minute and one hour drive from San Francisco. This is similar to a post from years back when I wrote about Procure Proton Therapy claiming a “close to downtown Chicago” location with their Warrenville facility. Can the show truly claim to be about houses in San Francisco?

I would say no for three primary reasons:

  1. The location is just too far away from San Francisco to claim it is in the city. One could visit San Francisco from these locations but the show is not about San Francisco; it is about suburban housing. This is particularly noticeable in each episode with the size of the homes, the price of the homes, and the property each house sits on.
  2. This is not just about being relatively far our from the big city; the homes are also beyond Oakland. The Bay Area is a unique one in that there are three major cities within a relatively short distance from each other: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The largest in population is San Jose, the 11th largest city in the country, followed by San Francisco at 13th, and Oakland at 45th. Even though San Jose is closest to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the most prestigious city with Oakland trailing both. If these suburban homes are to be connected to a big city, Oakland would technically be more accurate.
  3. Many suburbanites rarely make it into the big city if they do not work there or have business that regularly takes them there. They may still identify with the big city in the region, especially when talking with people from other parts of the country or world who have little knowledge of little communities but know certain big cities. Yet, their day-to-day experience is markedly different from that of a San Francisco resident.

I know the marketing is driving this. “Brother vs. Brother: San Francisco” is a lot more exciting than “Brother vs. Brother: Bay Area Suburbs.” Still, the consistent shots of San Francisco is a bit much when these are suburban homes that could fit in many regions across the United States.

 

A lottery for limited affordable housing, part two

A story about a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco discusses the technique of using a lottery to award limited goods and how the lottery happens:

Lotteries that allocate scarce resources are not set up to distinguish the neediest from the merely needy. Rather, they reward random chance, which is a distinctly different notion of what’s “fair.”…

For years, San Francisco conducted public lotteries in a bingo drum. But the raffle tickets were always getting stuck in the drum’s crevices. The city also tried a big box. People couldn’t see what was happening inside, however, and tickets got stuck under the lid.

This exercise — rolling the drum, shaking the box, inspecting for trapped tickets and repeating — lasted hours on a building the size of Natalie Gubb Commons. Ms. Torres would bus around town, picking up applications, dropping off applications. Lines would wrap around some developers’ offices on deadline day….

Last year, San Francisco moved the whole process online. Renters can now more easily apply, which means that more do, and the odds have grown longer. But the system is more humane. The parts of the process where it has been most awkwardly apparent that people in need are competing are now less visible. The city still holds public lotteries, but they are primarily pep talks.

Three things jumped out at me about the lottery process and how it is presented:

  1. On one hand, a lottery can seem fair in this situation. How else would would limited public goods be fairly split up? We know that in regular life, having more resources and better connections tends to lead to more opportunities. For people with fewer resources and fewer connections to powerful people, isn’t a lottery fair?
  2. On the other hand, having to go through a lottery for something as basic as an affordable place to live seems crazy. The documentary Waiting for “Superman” used the lottery for a good school very effectively in its plot. By starting and end with the image of honest American families simply trying to get a good education for their kids through a lottery, it all looks absurd. The lottery itself is an excellent argument for why more affordable housing is needed.
  3. The actual mechanics of lottery are intriguing. A public drawing has a lot of potential for drama, both with images of excitement and disappointment. (Again, Waiting for “Superman” played this up.) But, actually having a fair system of drawing names is more difficult than it looks. And how can the applicants be reassured that it is an effective process? The shift to online makes some sense and yet I could imagine the process now looks even less transparent. How do we know the online system isn’t rigged? Is it truly random? What if the algorithm is biased?

I know waiting lists are commonly used for housing spots – and this has the advantage that Americans often like that people should at least have to put effort into getting on the list – but a lottery has both strengths and weaknesses.

A lottery for limited affordable housing housing, part one

Affordable housing is in short supply in numerous American cities and an example of a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco illustrates the issue:

Subsidized housing is often rationed this way, by lottery. Many apply, few win, most are disappointed. The process is meant to be more fair than first-come, first-served. But lotteries make literal a deeper unfairness. For homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is available to anyone who qualifies. For poor renters, there is never enough housing assistance to go around…

Amid all the wealth in this neighborhood, a one-bedroom at Natalie Gubb Commons would rent for around $1,000 to $1,200 a month, a three-bedroom up to $1,700. Apartments next door were three times as much.

That discount is possible through a mix of resources. Mercy Housing, the project’s nonprofit developer, effectively got the land free as part of a city requirement that the neighborhood’s redevelopment include affordable housing. The market-rate developer next door was subsidizing the project, along with city funds. Revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program helped. And Mercy used the backbone of nearly every affordable housing project in America, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

But the tax bill’s implications for poor renters will be more profound. The odds are likely to grow worse than these: Last year, 53 households applied per each new affordable unit at The Meridian in Los Angeles; 84 for every home at Parcel 25 in Boston; 391 for each unit at Stargell Commons in Alameda, Calif.; 979 for every home at Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments in New York.

This is a reminder of both the acute need for affordable housing in more expensive cities as well as the limited approach to the issue from the federal government. Places that are often held out as the promise of America for their cultural diversity as well as their economic potential – such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. – are often difficult places for those who are middle-class and below.

Additionally, the federal government has never wholeheartedly committed to helping provide housing for all. As the article notes, American housing policy subsidizes single-family homes. This has been an intentional policy choice for decades, beginning before the post World War II suburban boom and then continuing through mass suburbanization as well as into the twenty-first century. It would be difficult to have a direct national political conversation about this since it tends to happen through elected representatives who rarely discuss housing and through various government agencies. Also, it is hard to know whether all those people who have moved to single-family homes in the suburbs have done so because that is what they truly wanted among numerous equal options or they were pushed to some degree by the political and cultural leanings in those directions.

There is another intriguing aspect of this article: both how the lottery is discussed as well as how the lottery is conducted. More on this in a post in a few days.

Wealthy San Francisco residents may have their private street back but this may not bode well for the city

Remember that private street with wealthy residents in San Francisco that fell behind on its taxes and was sold at auction to some other California residents? The street is now back in the hands of the well-off residents:

For now, Presidio Terrace belongs to its residents again. Their victory isn’t cause for celebration, either. The city’s first-ever tax sale reversal smacks of preferential treatment. It’s hard to imagine elected leaders going to bat for, say, each homeless individual who has had property seized by the city. Farrell, the city council member quoted above, is also the author of Prop. Q, a controversial measure approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 that allows the city to clear homeless camps given 24 hours notice.

But the saga of Presidio Terrace may not be over yet. Although the city promised they’ll get their $90,000 purchase price back, Cheng and Lam have said they plan to sue. For progressive politics, San Francisco was once a city upon a hill. Now it’s rich people squabbling over one.

While New York City rightfully gets a lot of attention for its mix of world-leading buildings, residents, activities, and expensive housing, San Francisco may be a more fascinating case. A limited amount of land (both due to local policies and different topography) plus rapidly increasing wealth in recent decades (with the tech industry leading the way) plus consistently liberal politics yet sharp divides between the rich and poor makes for big housing problems. Kind of like how President Trump regularly uses Chicago as a case of how crime is not being addressed, San Francisco has become a common conservative rallying cry for how not to address housing and growth.

At the same time, many of the housing issues facing San Francisco also are issues for many other American cities: how to construct more affordable housing when few want to live near it? How to encourage jobs for many residents that provide good standards of living (which then gives people access to more housing)? How to encourage economic growth and development across the city rather than within particular trendy or desirable neighborhoods?