LA's Housing Future is--San Francisco?

MAILANDER MUSINGS - "I don't know that you really have much fine dining down there," the waiter at Frances, a busy Michelin-star restaurant in Castro District in San Francisco said to my wife and I as we began comparing notes on the culture of our rival cities.  "Great ethnic, sure, but fine dining--I don't know."

"Well, we have lots of fine dining," I countered.  "But you have to pay for it."  The same waiter ultimately served up a bill to us that was about half of what we would pay at Lucques or Drago Centrale, for cuisine that was on a perfect par with LA's top restaurants.

And that in a blanched California walnut shell, complemented by Point Reyes blue cheese of course, is the difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles culturally.  The trick of the northern city--permanently packed into finite space because of its peninsula boundaries, is to stick to a friendly, human scale wherever possible.  The waiters, the cabbies, the bellhops with their amulets, are all as friendly as Mouseketeers.  It has been called a civic fun zone, a doll house New York; there should be turnstiles as you enter the city and county limits.

Conversely, the trick of the southern city--spilling megalomanically across mountains, deserts, flood plains, swamplands, canyons, even forests--is to obliterate the human scale and submit to a modern, highly-mechanized one.  It has been called a planning catastrophe, a wannabe New York; and famously, when you leave town, you note right away how much smoother the roads are.

LA and SF: LA has better ethnic food but not better fine dining.  The restaurants are bigger and pricier but they are not better.  LA has better street culture but not better museums.  LA has a so-so public park and crazy public beaches and SF has a world-class public park and frozen public beaches.  LA has more commodious homes but no sense of urban cohesion; San Francisco has more dramatic megacluster but yet engages civic life wonderfully at street level.  There's more representation in LA, but the politics are worse, and the County of SF contributes far more to the state of the city--because it is the city--than the County of LA does to its city.  LA has a far larger tax base but far worse public services.  &c.  They got Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, and we got all these food trucks...

A lot of this owes simply to not only the geography but the way the cities were settled: San Francisco especially around Cape Horn, from Boston and other eastern seaboard cities, with a strong nineteenth century, Protestant sense of civitas, now an antiquated notion but not to some of the landed.  The people lured there are still hoping for a gold rush, maybe clicking their heels together and strike it rich with the right piece of Twitter code or the right venture capital backing.  LA, settled over land, by rail and Route 66, the old polyglot pueblo with the rosary beads on the City seal suddenly flooded with barrels of Midwestern folk hoping for a better life than the dust bowl, seeking out fame in step with fortune, a good contract in entertainment or a great line of fashion accessories.

But through the generations--I've been visiting the Bay since the 1960's--the single greatest challenge to both cities has increasingly become the problem of the housing stock and the cost of quality housing.

It's not uncommon in San Francisco for a prospective renter to offer six months' rent in advance to move into a one-bedroom apartment that may cost between $1800 and $2500.  It's a lot lower in LA but not when you factor in the fact that almost no apartments come with stoves or fridges, and you increasingly pay to garage a vehicle as you increasingly pay building fees on your tony rental.

Realtors and the politicians they own have in recent years dodged the fact of the high cost of rent in both our cities by creating something called the "rent ratio"--the multiple of rent paid per year expressed as a ratio against what it would cost to buy similar space as a home.  The rent ratio of San Francisco, according to CBS MoneyWatch, is 37 as of 2010, and therefore "the #1 best place to rent in the country."  By this ratio, NY (!) is the second best place in the country to rent, and LA is fifth, MoneyWatch had the audacity to suggest.

Can't you just feel the heat of this kind of lie? It makes Paul Ryan's convention speech look like a holy book.

Of course, what drives up housing prices to such an astronomical degree that they even eclipse the price of gouging rents is an unusually small number of owner-occupied homes--an economic Armageddon LA is headed towards as well.

In San Francisco, the city is now 70% renters. Homeowners in this environment are a kind of gourmet carrion--politicians needn't service them, and they can even pick them over.  But there is such a shortage of homes to own in such circumstances that the homes themselves become even pricier, not owing to any particular architectural merit but because ever-increasing numbers of top-tier renters are interested to buy them.

Los Angeles is now well over 60% renters, with more on the way.  A healthy balance in a city or a state is about 50-50.

And what of the places that have far more owner occupied homes than rental properties? You guessed it: they're the kind of place you might not think of as destinations.  West Virginia leads the nation, where a whopping 79 percent of the homes are owner occupied, and only 21 percent rented.

The Mayors of both cities--both steered to power by San Francisco political mandarin Ace Smith--do not engage the rental to owner-occupy ratio--it's a little too complicated to explain to grip the attention of many voters, so why bother? But it more than anything else is responsible for artificially high rents--and probably artificially high home prices--in both places.

If rents are increasingly subsidized by mommy's money anyway, who's really watching? But here's the way it really works: the wage earners and property tax payers pay the pensions that pay the parents that subsidize the rents--the rents that go back to the property owners, who pay more taxes ... and too bad if you're left out of the vicious cycle without a sugar mommy pensioner, and have to pay these rents and fees yourself.

Already the folks in their downtown lofts readily invite a comparison to the San Francisco street experience when describing their own transformed community.  And outlier developments like Atwater Crossing and the transit hub housing at Cypress Park's Gold Line Station already exude a recognizable Frisco vibe.

And there is another area in which the northerners have caught up on us--or rather we to them.  I have been to San Francisco twice in the past year and not once have I had to pay for parking anywhere--I could always weasel my way into a free space if willing to hike a few blocks.  I was even able to park my car for free overnight in The Haight if I was willing to move it before 7 a.m.--which I was.  This seems certain to change should I risk a third trip soon.  But I don't know if I could say the same thing if I were down from the Bay and trying to park Downtown, on Sunset in Silver Lake, or at one of our museums.

It just may be that large parts of Los Angeles are governed by tighter parking regs than large parts of Mean Ol' Frisco, and that parking now comes at  a higher premium here.

"I wouldn't even know how to get there in a car," our waiter at Frances told me, when I told him I had successfully parked for free about five blocks south of the Ferry Building.  When I told him he could now take a subway from Downtown LA to Los Feliz or Culver City, he didn't really smile, though--he looked a little worried, in fact.

"Don't worry, we'll never buy into those silly cable cars," my wife assured him.  "They need to get those things out of the way."

And with that, I did see that our waiter at Frances was smugly reassured to hear us talking like Angelenos again.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at

Vol 10 Issue 70
Pub: Aug 31, 2012