The Land of Lowered Expectations

Too many people in San Francisco seem willing to settle for less.

From the ridiculous housing situation to the transportation system which just doesn’t work to the the filthy and unsafe streets to the everyday hassles of everything from a trip to City Hall to a trip to Safeway, San Franciscans pay a premium for what is, in many ways, a severely substandard quality of life.

And why do people do it? Some just don’t care. Even more think they have to in order to live in a “stimulating urban environment”. Still others are just trapped here for one reason or another. Many people here have just given up on expecting (or even contemplating) decent, pleasant housing for a reasonable price, or clean streets, etc. It’s as if the whole city had collectively thrown its hands in the air and decided to give up on many of these niceties of life, assuming that such things were solely for “bland suburbanites” and people in other parts of the country.

Housing and Rent Control:

Housing is definitely issue number one. People here work hours and hours of overtime just to pay the rent on dingy, squalid hovels which may or may not have adequate heat and hot water. Many of these people would be capable of owning a reasonable home in almost any other city, yet month after month they throw money away renting substandard housing in San Francisco.

The again, what are the alternatives? San Francisco lacks that crucial middle step between squalor and splendor. There’s very little opportunity to “trade up” housing-wise, unless one is able to move a really long way up. So-called “starter homes” don’t exist here. When one’s lot in life improves, what is one to do? Give up the rent-controlled apartment for one that’s 50% nicer, but costs four times as much?

That’s the joyous legacy of rent control. I know these are fighting words, but it’s not only an unfair system of shifting the burden of financing the city’s “housing program” to a select few property owners, but a particularly effective means of keeping low- and middle-income people marginalized for life.

Landlords will, in almost all cases, boost the rents on vacant units as much as they can, simply because that’s the only point at which they can ever be assured of any signifiant rent increase. Who can blame them? Prices have to equalize somehow, the law of supply and demand being the powerful force it is. Thus, rent control will always mean that rents on occupied units will be always be artificially low and rents on vacant units will always be artificially high. Thus, rent control eliminates the possibility of upward mobility for low- and middle-income renters who can rarely afford to leave their original rent-controlled apartments for an upgrade. It’s just not justifiable for them given the dramatic price increase it inevitably involves.

With respect to housing, there’s very little incentive for gradual improvement over the course of one’s life. And that lack of incentive inevitably leads to lowered expectations and stagnation in other aspects of life as well.

Crime and Grime:

Face it. Much of San Francisco is just plain filthy. Large chunks of the city are extremely uninviting due to the presence of trash, feces (animal and human), panhandlers, graffiti, drug dealing, and other assorted ills.

Low-income working people in the Tenderloin and South of Market and the Mission should be outraged that the city is not enforcing laws which would make their neighborhoods cleaner and safer. And many of them are. Even more, however, have just given up, recognizing that San Francisco apparently places a higher value on its non-productive citizens than on those who keep it going.

When my car is broken into, I don’t call the police. I have no fantasy that they would care nor that the call would do any good. I’d gladly go through the somewhat involved process of filing police reports if I had any idea that it would change anything, such as resulting in additional patrols and enforcement, but I know better. I’ve come to expect nothing from San Francisco. At least I’m never disappointed…

We take it as a matter of course that “street cleaning” means that parking tickets will be issued, not that actual cleaning of any real sort will occur. We realize that — in a city where there are debates about whether urinating on the sidewalk should be illegal or not — enforcement of “quality of life” crimes will be spotty at best and prosecution will be virtually nonexistant. We know that while graffiti artists are good and should be nurtured, building owners who unwittingly provide a canvas for them are bad and must be fined.

We know where our city’s priorities lie. Living in San Francisco, we’ve learned that — in general — nothing will ever get much better. And many of us just don’t care anymore. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t deserve any better.

Everyday Hassles:

There are lost of everyday hassles people live with here simply because they believe they have no choice. It’s a pain in the ass living in the big medium-sized city. The most simple things from doing laundry to buying groceries to (heaven forbid) dealing with the city can become almost Kafkaesque tasks. It’s easier to buy illegal drugs than some basic necessities. And did you ever try to get rid of a large piece of furniture or an appliance? It’s not pretty, unless you break the law just cart it down to the street, where it may be picked up in two or three weeks.

Granted, much of this is merely a result of the tight urban fabric and would be an issue in any older, densely-populated city, but it doesn’t help that San Francisco is plagued by (a) a transportation system which is friendly neither to the automobile nor to mass transit, (b) a significant lack of some basic services — e.g. supermarkets — relative to its population, and (c) a municipal government which seems more concerned with keeping its citizens from smoking in, or driving to, its city parks than from pissing, or shooting up, in them.

In Conclusion:

A lot of people think the trade-off of living in San Francisco is worth the hassle, inconvenience, and reduced standard of living involved. More power to them. They don’t believe they’re settling for less, or they’re comfortable with the idea that they are. Obviously, a lot of people want to toil endlessly at dead end jobs just for the “privilege” of living here, and who am I to say they’re wrong?

But I’m not one of those people anymore. I don’t think I’m getting much “bang for my buck” here and my expectations are a bit higher. Or at least a bit different. And I think many other people might agree if they looked at the situation critically and rationally…