Podcast Transcript: 283 – Housing and Golden Gates
We’re joined by journalist Conor Dougherty to talk about his book Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America. Conor talks about growing up in San Francisco, his literary inspirations for the book, and the arc of some of the real characters in his book.
Full transcript below:
JW (1m 50s): Conor Dougherty. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
CD: Thank you for having me! And I have to note we are about a block and a half from my childhood home right now, and after this is over I might go see my dad.
JW: That’s awesome. I should say that this book that we’re going to talk about, Golden Gates, that you wrote, is going to intersect with a lot of my life and I don’t think you quite understand yet but we’ll talk about it (Laughs).
CD: I’m excited to see! Well we’re definitely intersecting with my life right now.
JW: Yeah, exactly.
CD: By the way, I should just start with this. You and I were just talking about, before we started, I probably came trick-or-treating to this very apartment that you and I are sitting in right now, and I think in some ways that idea is what maybe compelled me to think about this book. This neighborhood we’re sitting in Noe Valley is now known as probably one of the richest neighborhoods in the world. I mean that sounds intense to say, but I’m sure it stacks up. But I grew up here and the thing I always say to people is, people say, “Well, it’s changed so much,” and I go, “It has changed so much in the sense that the people who live here are so much wealthier that some of the homes look so much nicer.” But this unit that you and I are in cannot be substantially different than it was when a family lived here, when a middle income people lived here. So the neighborhood has changed and that it’s gotten much wealthier. But as somebody who’s lived here since 1978, it’s not changed at all. And so to some extent, this idea that cities are not changing, not building enough, that this wealth is just wealth going into these same vessels. The actual look of the place has not changed at all. I think that has always been for me, and it’s kind of nice that we’re like literally right on the same blocks that I’m using as my frame of reference. I think for me, like that was what I always had in the back of my head. I was like, San Francisco did change a lot, but it also didn’t in many of the most important ways.
JW (3m 42s): Yeah. I mean that’s, it’s really interesting because you have this neighborhood that probably has been the same for a very long time. I just saw a picture that MUNI posted of something in the 1920s, and I’m looking at the palm tree that’s right there in that same picture, right? And all these houses are the same except for that apartment complex across the street. But mostly this block hasn’t, like you said, it hasn’t changed.
CD (4m 3s): Not at all. In fact. So the Whole Foods used to be Bell Market. It was always a supermarket.
CD: You know, it’s also funny to me, this is like a whole other topic, but I always find it so fascinating, is that certain businesses, even though they go in and out of business, are like always that business. So the ice cream store on Castro and 24th used to be Bud’s Ice Cream when I was a kid. And now it’s a different ice cream place, but it must be that they have these freezers or something and it’s cheaper if you sell the business with the freezer, I don’t know
JW: Is that the sub sandwich place?
CD: Yeah, but they also have ice cream?
JW: They have ice cream, yeah.
CD: And it was always an ice cream place when I was growing up there. And right across the street, this one is just random, right across the street is this, I forget what it’s called, but it’s like Peasant Pies or something?
JW: Yeah, yeah. I go there.
CD: When I was a kid, that exact same business was called Knish Konnection, K and K, thank god they didn’t have the third thing on it. And a knish is like a sandwich with meat in it and stuff. So I’m like, wow, this place has been selling like handheld pies. Why is that? You know, I just always find it fun. Obviously bars stay bars that has more to do with the liquor license, but even the same types of businesses are there, but their prices are just a little higher and the clientele is different. Although the hardware store did become the One Medical, that was probably the biggest change I’ve seen.
JW (5m 23s): Right. Well, it’s so interesting, you know when people come and visit, if they’re planners or in transportation or whatever, I take them down 24th Street and then I have this whole spiel about, this used to be this and this was this and this changed to this, and this is the smallest Whole Foods in the country because it wasn’t allowed to build any bigger, and the parking lots had to say the same and all this other stuff. So I have like a little tour that I do and this used to be a theater, but now it got torn down, you can see it’s a newer building, blah, blah, blah. It’s really fascinating. Have you seen that–
CD: –The cheese shop is another thing that has been there forever!
JW: Yeah, the cheese shop, and I saw an article recently where the guy’s like getting a little older and he’s like, well, I wonder what I’m going to do, if I’m going to run the cheese shop, if I’m gonna sell it. It’s like, “Don’t sell the cheese shop!” (Laughs).
CD (5m 58s): I know, I know it’s, I mean I remember as a kid just the flip side of that is I remember as a kid people thought it was weird to have a cheese shop like that. I feel like my family, you know, they were more suburban people and thought it was really weird that we lived in a city, cause my parents were sorta like the early waves of things. I mean this is maybe one reason why I’m a little bit more kind, or I’m a little bit more, I dunno what the right word is, but about gentrification? Cause I know we were kind of… my mother was a manager at Chevron, so drove out to the Richmond Refinery and then my dad was in politics and then ultimately became a landlord.
But the people who lived in that neighborhood were still the kind of old German and Irish families, the Reichmuth family, Germans, were our neighbors and they were much more like kind of union carpenter type laborer jobs. But good laborer jobs, right? So when they saw us coming, and my mom has a PhD, I just remember people thought that was strange that someone with so much education would live on that block, so now that block is going through what economists and planners now call hypergentrification. You know, where people who have one to two million homes are being challenged by people with four and five million homes.
JW: Right, there’s not a lot of reconstruction.
CD: Yeah, but I mean I feel like I watched the first wave of that and really was part of it. I mean, I used to have to wear, I still say that one of my most toughening processes for me as a child was that I went to Notre Dame de Victoire, which is a K-8 school on Pine Street. We would have to wear these sailor suit outfits and coming home on MUNI, which I did ride alone after the third grade in those sailor suits.
JW: On the J?
CD: Yes. Was like, the torture you would get from from other kids was substantial. I still to this day talk to people, Gavin Newson, by the way, went to that school. He’s much older than me, but I’ve seen pictures of him in that same sailor suit and everyone who ever had to wear that sailor suit has, like, got a horror story about, like, being messed with. Anyway. So I forgot what we were talking about, but anyway–
JW: (Laughs) –We were talking about the neighborhood generally I feel like.
CD: Oh yeah, they thought it was strange that we went to private school. When they saw our uniforms, they were like, “What is this?” So the fact that those kinds of people who would send their kids to private school, like lived on that block was so strange to some of the older people on that block. So I kind of have in my head like, “Oh, we were kind of the beginning of it.” But of course the terms like that, even though gentrification was technically a term then, it wasn’t used widely.
JW: Right. And before that even, this was an Irish, Italian neighborhood as well I mean–
CD: –there was Germans too.
JW: Germans, yeah. So my noni, she went to Mission High School. That’s where she met my nonnu. So my, my Italian grandparents, and apparently lived, we don’t know exactly where she lived off Dolores, but she lived off Dolores at some point back in the thirties and so my mom grew up in the Outer Mission in San Francisco. So you know, I’m linked to this neighborhood specifically by that. But also in your book, you talk about Lafayette. And my grandparents on my dad’s side actually moved to Lafayette in 1963, and my grandfather actually campaigned to incorporate the city.
CD: Wow. Which, which, which I talk about in the book!
JW: Which you talk about in the book. So I saw that and I was like, wow. So when I told you earlier, I was like, this is connected to me more than you might expect, you know, I live in your neighborhood. My grandparents lived in this neighborhood. My other grandparents live in the neighborhood that you talk about in the book. It’s very connected.
CD (9m 26s): Totally. And before we dive into some of the stuff, I want to just say one thing, which is that the book can at times feel very local, but I really wanted it to be a national book. It’s almost like a national look at local government, right? So actually when I wrote this book, I did travel fairly extensively for the book. I went to Minneapolis, I met with a ton of tenant groups, one, one in particular Inquilinos Unidos, and then with some of the YIMBY groups and even people like Lisa Bender, who is the president of the city council there and was instrumental in the end.
JW: And our friend Yana who’s been on the podcast before.
CD: Yeah, she, Yana, I talked to her a bunch. I’ve seen her I think every time I’ve been there the past three times. And then I went to Boston, I went to Boulder, I went to Vancouver to try to get more of an international perspective. And where I ended up with was that the deeper local stories in a place could get me a greater depth of understanding about this than fanning out, because every time I went to a different place that was the exact same thing. It was, you know, there would be different shades of it. You know, Minneapolis had a more reserved political culture than say San Francisco, Boulder has the kind of more college town vibe, but we have single family homes everywhere. We have, I think most cities have give or take three quarters of the land mass, big cities that is, to say nothing of suburbs, given over to single family homes. We have the same patterns everywhere and we have the same housing problem everywhere.
But as we know, local policies play a huge role in this. Local policies by and large determine where, how much and at what cost we build housing in america. I always say to people, “Hey, we passed fair housing in the 1968 Civil Rights Act, well, how’s that working out for us?” A lot of these local policies essentially can thwart pretty big, pretty celebrated federal policies. And so I thought that going deeper into like, “Okay, here’s how local government actually works, and let’s really unpack this one region at a time, like a suburb, a neighborhood, a tenant, a single family home owner, a business person, an activist, you know, and just to unpack it one little bit at a time,” I thought that that would be a smarter way to help all of us understand how instrumental these policies are in our lives.
And it seemed to me like it would be, it just felt really repetitive when I was writing it to be like, “Oh, the same things happening in Boulder. Oh, the same things happening in Minneapolis,” you know, like moving the camera around and capturing different perspectives of housing in generally one place. I mean, we do go to other places in the book, but not to the depth I do in the Bay Area. I just thought that that was such a better way to tell the story. And you know, sometimes I regret that I didn’t put more different places in it, but as I was reporting, it just really felt like the same thing. And, and I just wanted to, so, uh, some Hollywood person called me about the book. I have nothing to announce, but, and the thing they said–
JW: I thought it would make a good movie. (Laughs)
CD: Well, the thing somebody said and I actually did think to myself,”Wow, they really get it,” is they said, “Oh, this feels like an episode of Parks & Rec!” And Laura Clark who is a YIMBY person in the book, she has said to me at various junctures, “Oh, I feel like I’m living in Parks & Rec,” so people really do kind of, and Parks & Rec is this kind of lovely show where you have this like hyper dedicated person, she’s funny, but the fact that this person is very dedicated comes through, and then the zaniness of these meetings kind of comes through, and what I’ve been so gratified in the response to the book is that a lot of people are like, “I did not expect this to be funny.” And it’s cool because you go to these local meetings and you realize two things, right? It’s like two mirror images of each other. On the one hand you’re like, wow, is this it? Like is this democracy, is this really all that’s holding us together? But then the other side of it as you go, you know, I can really step in, and a pretty small, pretty determined group of people can in a startlingly short amount of time start to have a real effect on their city. And I think that there’s something really inspiring in that as well as kind of scary.
JW (13m 41s): Yeah. Yeah. Well it’s scary when you, when you see how much influence, just a couple of people speaking at a city council meeting can have on just killing things, right? NIMBYism and whatnot.
CD: Yeah, but the opposite can also–
JW: –but the opposite is true as well. When I was going through the book, I was trying to think about what it reminded me of in a positive way. And I came upon three ideas. There’s, and you mentioned it actually, I had thought about this before you mentioned it even in the book, but you had mentioned How the Other Half Lives and Jacob Riis. And so that came into my mind before you even got there. Robert Caro, cause you talk a little bit about power, right, and how that is connected in that scene with Campos. And Sonja talking about power was really interesting to me as well. And then you also get a little bit of Tom Wolfe where, I don’t know if you’ve ever read A Man in Full, but it was one of the books that was kind of assigned to me in college as a sociology class and how he kind of threads through Atlanta and the development process there and all of the things going on, but tells a story about each of these characters. All three of those kind of came together I feel like in this book. I don’t know if you had any inspirations in terms of like literature or is there anybody that you kind of looked up to? Because I do think that it’s a wonderful read. It’s a fun read. It’s an easy read. Like you just mentioned, people weren’t expecting to be funny, but it is funny because you get these little vignettes of people, but it’s also a little bit of exposé. You have, you know, the pushing out of and the gentrification that’s happening in Hispanic neighborhoods that really kind of get to that underlying discussion that most people have this upper discussion about gentrification, but they didn’t get into that kind of what it means to the people.
CD (15m 14s): So I have done maybe like a thousand interviews about this book, not a thousand, but I’ve done several and you’re the first person to ask me about like literary influences and stuff like that. And I’m just going to say somewhat vainly I always wanted somebody to ask me that, so thanks for asking me. And I’m looking at your bookshelves right now, and you have a very diverse reading list, and that’s cool cause I do too. I actually wrote a piece for LitHub about this, about different books that influenced me in the writing. And they’re all over the map, right? Like have you ever read the Easy Rawlins series? It’s like Walter Mosley in LA, and I just love detective stories, I kind of unwind with them sometimes. But you know, this guy, Easy Rawlins, who’s a African-American detective in LA and the postwar period, he’s also like a landlord, in the first book he’s like trying to pay his mortgage, like the want of property and the feeling that you’re gonna just get a piece of it and then also start to have passive income from it. Like, that theme runs like hard through those detective stories, you know? But anyway, so my influence is all over the map.
Here’s what I tried to think about what I was hitting in the book. So Tom Wolfe was a huge influence, but it was not A Man in Full it was The Right Stuff. So the one thing I do in the book is, with the exception of two places that I doubt you could pick them out, there’s no quotes in the book that are quotes to me. I have vast transcripts of people talking, none of those quotes are actually in the book. There’s one, but it’s cheated and I don’t think you could pick it out. It’s not presented deceptively, but it’s kind of hidden. Every other quote in the book, these long blocks of dialogue, there’s this whole scene where these tenants are talking about their neighborhood in a meeting. All that is just straight up recordings. And I am there but at no point are they actually talking to me.
When I wrote the first draft of this book, there were quotes cause I, you know, I’m a newspaper reporter. And there were quotes like, “That was a hard day,” you know, so-and-so said, right? And at a couple early readers were like, “Ugh this just really takes me out of the book. It just feels really stupid.” And then also between social media and these public meeting transcripts and the fact that I was there for so much of the tenant stuff, I did have enough of people in their own voices to just scrap what they said to me. So every quote in the book, again with the exception of one, is either a quote that someone is saying publicly or saying to someone else and I’m there recording it. And then I guess there is some books and social media and emails and, but no quotes in the book are to me as a reporter, I got that from The Right Stuff. Tom Wolfe didn’t invent it either. That’s a well known like literary technique, and I just thought–
JW: –he’s really good at it. (Laughs)
CD: Yes, and I just thought, well you know what, and he says in The Right Stuff that because they were all in the military, and they were in part of this giant, you know, space program, there were huge transcripts where he could get that material. In today’s world with social media and everything you can get it much more easily. So I definitely tried to make it immersive in that way and just make the reading, you know, kind of bring you into the characters as well. And I also did want to capture large swaths of society. Like I wanted to see what a struggling tenant really looks like. That was one of the few things in the book that I went into with like a very definite idea of like exactly what I wanted to do. Which was I wanted to meet someone the day they got a huge rent increase, and I wanted to follow them through the process of basically being evicted, and then to meet the people who moved in after. I went in thinking to myself, this is something I have to do, and I of course knew that this would require a certain amount of luck. So as the famous Brooklyn Dodgers manager branch Rickey said, “You make your own luck.” But I was able to be like, “Okay, I can find a tenant who’s struggling and get a pretty good sense of what’s going to happen to them,” but then I would have to go back to that same apartment and get the new person to talk to me.
That did work out in this case, and I think it leads to one of the bigger surprises of the book, which is that one of these long narratives as you mentioned, is there’s this girl, 15 year old child, Stephanie Gutierrez, who comes home one day and there’s a note attached to her door that says your rent is going up $800. Stephanie is a lower income Latino girl. Her mother does elder care, cleans houses and actually moonlights as a janitor. So she has no ability to organize or do any kind of politics. Stephanie then organizes this apartment building, through this discovers that the same owner has just bought another apartment building and organizes that one as well. One of the things that was so sad about this and when I started discussing it at an event in Seattle, I almost started crying. But I’ve, I’m almost–
JW: I’m getting there thinking about it cause I’m like, “Ahhhh!”
CD: Well, no, the thing that crushed me was, you know, I mean obviously the displacement of all these things were so, so sad. But what happened to Stephanie was, she’s a kid, right? So she’s just following people’s directions. You know, someone says to her, “Hey, if you organize the apartment building, that will give you more numbers and you will have more leverage with the landlord.” And then, “Oh wow, you have a second apartment building. If you can add that to the mix, you will also get more leverage.” She’s following this in this pretty clinical, like, “People are telling me this is the way to prevent my family from being homeless. Therefore I will follow.” But she kind of got in over her head in the sense that by the end she started to feel, she obviously never said this to anybody, but all these people started giving her all this attention, she’s leading these protests, she’s speaking on a megaphone in front of the landlord’s office, and she starts to feel like her activism has become kind of like an implicit promise to her neighbors that she can solve this for them. And then she starts to feel this insane pressure. Like, “Am I making a promise to them by getting involved in this? Have I sort of given them false hope?”
And I mean, that is an incredible amount of stress for anyone to have. I mean, you hear stories of people who run businesses or who have families or whatever. The responsibility of feeling like you have someone else’s wellbeing, as a father of two people, is quite a tough burden. Imagine being 15 and feeling like thirty some people’s ability to be housed rests on your shoulders. And she did not go into it realizing like at all that that would be the pressure she would feel. Again, she was just following directions and like Activism 101. I mean, that is such a burden to have on a child. And after the whole thing was over, she had these huge anxiety attacks. She missed school for a month. And one of the things I thought about as I was beyond just how sad it was and how difficult it was was, you know, we talk so much about costs. We talked so much about what is the optimal economic whatever thing. How does rent control contribute to rising prices elsewhere, all the debates. But I kept asking myself, you know, one of the things I’ve read in other parts of economics is how early childhood education is like one of the greatest investments a society can make. That if you can just start getting a child educated and getting them into being educated at a very young age, that the dividends that that pays in terms of future taxes, future workforce are so much higher than the cost of providing that education that it, I mean it truly is an investment in our future.
Well, so like if you disrupt that and you just destroy a child’s schooling through the stress of displacement through the missing of school, what is the cost of that and is that ever captured in our calculations of rent control and stuff like that? I, I just started to ask myself like maybe all these studies are like all wrong. And I will say that that’s where I felt like the power of journalism was. I mean I went into this, I will admit I went into this thinking like rent control was something that I could be skeptical of because I do know a lot of people from this neighborhood and others. It’s not so much that I think rent control is bad, but it’s that they, I do know people who own second homes and live in rent controlled apartments, you know, I mean I certainly have seen that type of–
JW: –They take advantage of it.
CD: So it is a blunt policy tool and that doesn’t mean I’m not going to not criticize aspects of it, but I do think when you look at a child like that and the destruction of her education, her stress, all that and just multiply that by however many kids go through that a year, a million households are evicted a year. It cannot possibly be a small number. And again, that’s where the power of journalism is because once you sit there with those people for months like I did, I don’t see how you could come to another conclusion. And I should say I had a lot of tough time getting tenant organizers to trust me that much. And this one guy who brought me in, he was an eviction lawyer, Daniel Saver, who is kind of a minimal character in the book.
JW: Yeah, he’s in there.
CD: He was the main guy who brought me in. He was with the community legal services of East Palo Alto. I will tell you, he said to me, “I don’t have any problem bringing you in because I don’t see how you could come to another conclusion if you really go see this up front.” And the amount of trust they put in to me, the amount of faith they had that that was basically the conclusion I would come to, knowing that I could do whatever I want, I mean there was no strictures put on me as a journalist. I think that that was really telling of how seriously they felt about how big of a problem this was that they said to me, you know, like, “We’re happy to bring you in because I don’t see how you could come to another conclusion once you see what this really looks like.”
JW (24m 58s): I meann I feel like that’s why I compared the book to Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives. I think if you do read this and you do read through that chapter and those chapters about that specific story, I don’t know how you can agree with the landlords that are buying up properties and flipping them and going to seminars about building wealth through buying up these properties and flipping them. Because there is that implicit, they’re just ignoring the people that live there ultimately.
CD (25m 28s): Well, so the flip side, as you, in a later chapter we see a landlord who is doing this at scale and he’s raising money online and all that.
JW (25m 33s): Right, exactly. And I was like, I was wondering if he knew that this podcast transcript was going to get out there. (Laughs)
CD (25m 40s): Oh, no no no, so I’m a reporter. Everybody in this book, everybody who wasn’t like a fairly well known public character was contacted by me and in fact. I had a long back and forth over email, this is noted in the notes with that company. I did meet Stephanie’s landlord, so those interviews are all from interviews with him. He stopped talking to me at one point, but I mean we had several substantial interviews including one in person. But the phrase that everyone has really picked up on on Twitter is retenanting. So when you see these landlords raise money online or through investor pools to buy and flip and ultimately displace people in a building, they will say, “Oh, we have a retenanting strategy.” I think there is a paragraph in the book where I talk about the euphemisms they use, right? Like retenanting is one. Stabilizing, stabilizing means raising the rent like $800, because it means you’re stabilizing cashflow. What was the other one? Underperforming asset is, that’s kind of an easy one, but retenanting is really the one that people are like, “What?!”
JW (26m 37s): Yeah. And then at the end it was just, there was a, and I can’t remember it now, but it was like just a blatant, “This is what we were doing.”
CD (26m 44s): Oh evict and gut.
JW: Yeah, evict and gut.
CD: Well, cause it’s a platform, right? So this website that I talk about in the book, RealCrowd, anybody can go on there. I mean you have to go through a process, but once you go through this process, you can list, “Oh hey, I want you to invest in this thing or that thing.” And so the explainers are kind of on them. So while most people on this website do choose these more neutral terms like retenanting, every now and then you will see someone say like evict and gut. It’s not common, but it’s definitely there if you look for it.
JW: Right, right.
CD: I should say I had an assistant, Lauren Hepler for those two chapters. She’s a native Spanish speaker and is now a reporter at Protocol. It would not have been possible without her. She was amazing. And I will say for people who want to do reporting, I knew that I could never capture the stories nearly as well as I did. And I did a bunch of interviews with Stephanie, Stephanie speaks English perfectly, but her mom does not. So a lot of the conversations with the tenants, I just recorded their Spanish, and I translated them. But the ones we did later, I mean it’s obviously night and day with Lauren versus me, because you know, once someone speaks in their native language.
The reason I bring that up isn’t just for journalism, but activism or organizing or politics or whatever. I mean it’s not like I’m telling anyone anything they don’t know. But at the end of the book, there is this scene where it was like, it wrote itself, right? So the epilogue, and there was this YIMBYtown conference in Boston, and it just so happened right up the street in a church was this kind of tenant, but there are some homeowners too, but a kind of an anti-gentrification conference with Right to the City, which is now a very well known group. So I went to the YIMBYtown for part of the day, and then I went to the church for the next day. And I actually saw certain people, I met this guy who I had met at YIMBYtown, and he was at the church. So I actually saw that there was starting to becoming some intermingling amongst these groups. But so you go to the YIMBYtown conference, it was like people went to bars after the conference, they chatted on Slack and Twitter, it was in English. Then you go to the tenant event, they had a whole room for free childcare. They had English, Cantonese, and Spanish. They were very conscious that people had to be there with children, that people were older and very conscious that they needed a multilingual coalition.
So when I watched how the tenants organized and how conscious they were of the demands on people’s lives, like children and different languages, and then I kind of contrast that with my own, how much better my reporting was, how much more people opened up and trusted me when I had Lauren doing a lot of the work. It seemed like an incredibly important lesson. I’ve noticed that East Bay for Everyone, which is a local YIMBY group here, has started doing free childcare at some of their events. I actually think that that is the smartest possible thing any group could do. It’s not that big of an investment and it really draws a different crowd. And I think that if you want to build a coalition that is going to be diverse and it is going to be, you know, capturing different tenants and at different levels and races and backgrounds and languages and incomes, you actually just have to be like highly conscious of what draws someone to an event. And I actually think that my process of reporting actually taught me that, many of the same lessons that someone would need to learn to build a more broad tenant coalition.
And you can see this in other ways, right? Like when I look at what Laura and Sonja have created with YIMBY Action, which is this San Francisco “Yes In My Backyard” kind of pro-housing activist group that I talk a lot about in the book. The fact that they have made housing something that young professionals want to get involved in, something that seems fun and exciting. Something that draws 25 year olds to planning meetings on a Wednesday, which is like a crazy thing. It is the community and the social cohesion and the fact that you might get to go get a drink with some friends after. That is not an inconsequential piece of their success, but if you do want to go beyond that, you do have to start thinking about free childcare and approaching people in their own language and thinking about what would make an event that somebody would ever even want to go to independent of the housing policy or whatever you would talk about at the event.
JW: I want to talk a little bit about how people have changed over the time you’ve written the book, and specifically we had talked earlier about Lafayette and how I have ties to there and Stephen Falk. It was interesting to see his kind of arc and change. I’m curious how that affected you when you were doing the reporting. I also am curious how you interacted with Lafayette before you knew about this place as a place that you were reporting on necessarily. And an East Bay suburb, it’s kind of smal, it’s only about what, 26, 23,000 people or so.
CD: So this is a great segue and I’ll tell you why. There’s two things about the thing that I just told you about with the tenants. One, it changed me as I just outlined and then two, as I also outlined, it was something that I was pretty calculating in what I wanted to see. I knew that lots of people were getting displaced and I knew that I wanted to see what it was like to get displaced and to meet the person who came in after. So it wasn’t, I don’t mean calculating like it was some nefarious…
JW: Right, right.
CD: I just meant we know people are getting displaced. What does that look like? What does it really look like up front? Let’s not just call it a word. Let’s really see it in action and meet the people after. Oh, I should also say one of the, the kind of literary tricks I think was one of the more successful ones, cause you ask me about this in the book, when you meet the family who comes into Stephanie’s apartment and ultimately is the group who lives there after her, you discovered that you’ve met them earlier in the book and learn their story.
JW: Everything’s connected.
CD: Yeah! But I think a number of people wrote me and they’re like, “Oh my God, I was so shocked when I realized that this other family I’d met and learned their story that they turned out to be those people,” you know? And so the reason that’s a good segue is Steve Faulk was the opposite. I had no idea what I was going to look for. And unlike him changing me, he changed over the course of the book. So let me just back way up.
CD: So my road to this book, you could date it any number of places. I wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal many years ago about cities getting whiter, I wrote a story about ADUs once in Vancouver for the Wall Street Journal. But the best possible place to really start the book is, and I promise you this will get us to Lafayette… I’d been covering economics and housing for many years, so I was hyper-aware, I’d known Ed Glaeser for a decade. Ed Glaeser is a Harvard economist who has kind of become famous for really talking about how our housing supply problem and kind of excessive zoning generally are this huge existential American problem that are reducing economic mobility and basically making housing too expensive for people. So I knew Ed Glaeser was doing that. I had known him for a while. I knew that the Obama administration was starting to release stuff on this around that same time. But all of these things really were kind of academic and or policy papers, right? I mean, it was people talking about problems in papers and you could illustrate it, you could go, “Does this house need to be so expensive?” Right? But there was not really like a constituency. And as I discovered in the course of the book, this Bernard Frieden character I talk about, he was a planner, he’s not an economist. People had been talking about how making a constituency out of this group would be almost impossible. This was something people had contemplated quite some time ago.
So then one day I meet Sonja Trauss who is, uh, at the time I was actually having a meeting with Jeremy Stoppelman who is the chief executive of Yelp. And he told me, “Oh, I’ve given money to this person, Sonja, she’s a little kooky, she runs this group called the Bay Area Renters Federation or BARF.” And I thought, “This is odd.” And then I met Sonja for coffee and she was very familiar with Ed Glaeser and all this stuff. She kind of was just parroting what people were saying in these papers. But she was really creating this movement of young people, like I said, who would go to city hall and complain at city meetings. And she was really helping to create this kind of energy. So in the way I got into the story was I was just interested in seeing is it possible to build kind of a constituency of people who don’t live somewhere yet? And really Sonja was just my excuse to illustrate academic research that I’d been wanting to illustrate for years, but had never been able to make it to a cohesive story.
So pretty much as soon as I met Sonja, she told me, “Oh, I’m planning on suing the city Lafayette.” And I thought, “Oh that’s funny.” And so my original route to it was, Oh here’s Sonja, cause Jeremy Stoppelman gave her like a hundred grand to do that. Here’s this person going and suing the city.” And so my original frame of it, when I wrote it in a story was, here’s this kind of stunt. She filed this lawsuit against Lafayette all on her own. She went and basically copied and pasted a similar lawsuit. So it was a lawsuit that used this, we can get deep into this, so there was a 315 unit apartment complex that had been proposed about a mile from the BART station in Lafayette. And for those who don’t know, Lafayette is this kind of bucolic-looking suburb right on the other side of the hill from Oakland but it’s right next to the 24 freeway, which is a pretty big freeway in the Bay Area and has a BART stop, you know a commuter rail line write in the middle of town.
JW: In the middle of the freeway. (Laughs)
CD: Yes. So people in that town always described themselves as “semi-rural” and that is their mindset. And if you were like teleported there to the middle of town and didn’t see the gigantic freeway and the BART stop, I could see how you might think that. I mean it’s surrounded by these hills, these wild open hills that have oak trees in them, and they kind of rotate from brown to green depending on the seasons but it’s not semi-rural. It’s in the middle of one of the most urbanized places in the world. And if you get on that BART train, you can be right in downtown San Francisco in 31 minutes. So somebody wanted to build this giant apartment complex there, and I should note it was zoned for exactly that and had been for quite some time. The city freaked out. The city manager, Steve Falk, who did not like the project, went in and basically said to the developer like, “Hey, can we make a deal?” This is four years, I’m fast forwarding here. Basically they come out with a plan to build 44 single family homes. There’s this law called the Housing Accountability Act, which basically says, “Oh, cities can’t just like downzone something because they don’t like it.”
JW: Section 65589.5?
CD: Yes, and so Sonja came in and filed this lawsuit on behalf of herself, and said, you know, “I’m a tenant who could have potentially lived where this apartment building was built. So you violated the Housing Accountability Act by basically forcing this developer not to build the 315 unit apartment building to build the 44 single family homes instead.” The reason I went on that little detour about Sonja is, I referred to it as a stunt at one point and she complained mercilessly about that. And she sort of said to me at one point, like, “Look, there’s a process in the world for people to file a lawsuit on behalf of themselves. That’s a process we as a society have decided we think is important so that our legal system should be accessible. And if you’re calling this a stunt, you’re basically saying it’s illegitimate for anyone besides someone who can afford like a really expensive lawyer to file a lawsuit. And I think that’s fundamentally undemocratic.”
Anyways, so what happened was this was an impossible lawsuit. It was hilarious. She’s suing the city, but the developer has now joined in the city to build this 44 single family home. So she’s essentially suing the developer on behalf of the developer, which was bananas. On top of that, the developer has assumed a legal responsibility for the project so he has to pay her to go away, which means he’s now paid to defend the city from the lawsuit he had previously threatened to file against them. It’s so weird. Anyway, so Steve Falk really was searching for a middle path and when I went looking for him, I tried to think of him as, I hesitate to say this but I’m going to, the good NIMBY. You know, that here was a guy who he did not like this 315 unit apartment complex. He thought it was ugly stucco. I mean he had a lot of really unkind things to say about it. And he thought the 44 single family homes was a good compromise. That it’s 10 times less dense than it was going to be or more than 10 times, but, but it’s still 10 times more dense than the neighbors wanted it cause the neighbors wanted no more than four homes, which had been one home per five acres.
JW: My cousins went to high school right around the corner.
JW: Yeah, Acalanes.
CD: I’ve skated there. (Laughs)
JW: So this property is like basically on the edge of a cliff almost, and it’s looking over the freeway.
CD: But it’s graded.
JW: It’s graded. Yeah, but it’s looking over the freeway and then on one side there’s the freeway and then the other side there’s the high school and then there’s this winding road that, you know a suicide road almost if you’re skating down. It’s just like an interesting scene and place for housing I would say.
CD: Totally. I mean we could have a long discussion–
JW: Yeah, yeah, I just wanted to throw that in there.
CD: No, well, what I was going to say is we could have a long discussion about this, but I mean I think it’s important to note, the city leaders in all their infinite wisdom did designate that as the place for high density housing. So a smart planner could say, “Is that really the thing that we should do?” But remember from the developer’s perspective, he’s just following the city’s rules. I mean, let’s be real. Like they had zoned this property for high density development. Maybe the developer had his own preference for where it should be, but he’s just got to kind of work with what they’ve given him. I mean he can’t just go propose housing on some random other lot that actually from a planning perspective might be much better. He’s got to do what they’ve laid out as, I mean, they essentially have a sign that says, “Come develop here!”
JW: And Sonja’s basic thing for doing this, I’m thinking, is that we need just need more housing generally in the Bay Area. So she thought there’s a property, there’s zoning on there. They’re trying to reduce the amount of housing that could possibly be built there. Let’s focus on it.
CD: She also wanted the public, and she will admit this, she also wanted to publicize the Housing Accountability Act and create a nonprofit that could sue suburbs and her in this guy Brian Hanlon, who’s kind of become this famous guy now, he runs this group called California YIMBY. He basically authored SB 50 which was this well-known law that Scott Wiener introduced, California YIMBY was the sponsor. So this was their origin story. I mean, when I met them, Brian was still working at the U.S. Department of Forestry and Sonja had just become a full time activist. You know, when I tried to do this excerpt in the New York Times, I tried to also put it in this whole thing about that development is almost kinda the origin story of so many things. Bryan and Sonja and SB 50 and you know, I mean it really, I ended up having to take all that out cause it was like too complicated, but this development is so significant. And Sonja once told me, “You could probably write a book about just that development.” And I was like, you know, you probably could.
JW: If you ever want to interview people that voted for or against it, I got you covered. (Laughs)
CD: So anyway, what happens is, sorry, just to fast forward, so here we are, there’s this new 44 single family home development being proposed. Sonja has sued the city saying it’s too small. Then these neighbors show up and sue the city basically alleging it’s too big. And the neighbors who are called Save Lafayette, they are the more low density advocacy group, shall we say. They force a referendum. So now the city is going to have an election to potentially undo the city council’s decision to approve the 44 single family home development. This is successful and this is where it gets completely weird. This election is successful, so they have now rescinded the city’s approval of the 44 single family home development. Dennis O’Brien in the very next city council meeting or planning meeting or whatever it was, shows up and says, “Okay, fine.”
JW: The developer.
CD: Yes, the developer says, “Fine, I’m going to do the 315 unit thing instead.” So it’s, this has not been settled just yet, but it’s probably going to turn out that by voting to stop the 44 single family home development, the low density group in effect voted for the 315 unit apartment complex. Now, beyond this being just a crazy story, you do not have to be some crazy libertarian to recognize that there’s a pretty high regulatory cost associated with all that. So let’s just tally this up. We’ve now had eight years, eight years in which the developer has been paying to hold that land. He’s been not building, right. We now have two development applications, these development applications between their environmental reports and other things are, you know, a million-ish dollars each in legal work and other things. We’ve now had him pay for an election consultant and run an election. We’ve now had him pay to make Sonja go away. He had to pay a settlement to that lawsuit.
So if you add all this up in lost time, in wasted resources, in all these different costs, again, you do not have to be some super anti-regulation person to recognize that that must be raising the cost of housing by a pretty substantial amount to say nothing of the eight years, I mean think of how many people died in that eight years that we didn’t build that thing. But I want to also point out one other thing. You know, there was a community process around that 44 single family home development. And you know, some of the things they came up with were great. So there is a lot of traffic around that little hill as you know, cause you’re familiar with it.
JW: I know what you mean, I’m very familiar with it. (Laughs)
CD: They ended up building a traffic circle that would point traffic the other direction. That was the smart thing to do, you know? So the community process, I think that we should recognize that, you know, community planning and community process when it is focused on “No, but–” or “Yes, and–” you know, meaning that there is a, “Yes, we are going to do this, but the smart way to do it is this,” not “No.” That process is hugely valuable. And Sonja of all people would tell you, if that was the process, it would be better to have the process be that way, then have the state intervene like it is now trying to do. So I sometimes say to people, I think the policy solution to all this is to recognize that we need community planning, all these things, but that it has to have like a, a trigger at the end of it. Like it’s like the community plan all you want, but at the end of it you’re building this thing. You know, and not the community gets to decide binary, nothing or really small things. And zoning is this large complicated participatory process and that’s great. What makes it not great is when we decide that after that large multi-year community driven, complicated process, we’re still gonna fight over every little project willy-nilly.
I think the way this should work is the way it was supposed to work in Lafayette, which is that they had this large conversation about, well, we’re building a giant train line here, we’re building a big freeway here, we’re doing all this. We should probably put some development next to those transportation resources. And so we’re going to zone this this way. I don’t know the specific process, but they had some kind of process to make that decision. But when we go and we fight over each individual building after having gone through that big process, that seems like the problem to me.
JW: We can have a whole other two hours of discussion about that.
CD: Yeah. So after the election, after all that stuff, I had this meeting with Steve Falk. He, it was kind of a dramatic meeting, he said, “Hey, why don’t you come to Lafayette? We’ll meet, we’ll talk about your book.” This is months, years after I first met him, but months after the 44 single family home thing. Sonja’s off doing other things at this point. So we have this very dramatic meeting, and he takes me to this park and this original milling wheel that this, uh, you know this wheel?
CD: That kinda became the founding of the town. And then he walked me over to this creek and said, “Oh, this is the creek that they built the milling wheel on.”
JW: I have a map from the 18, late 1800s, early 1900s that shows Lafayette on the map because it was one of the first towns in the, in the area.
CD: Yeah. And then well, technically it was built illegally because it was Mexican land.
JW: Ah, yes.
CD: And the guy who sold it to them was a Mexican citizen who was not supposed to sell land to Americans. So they were kind of illegal immigrants, if you will. The Americans from Missouri who settled Lafayette were illegal immigrants who illegally bought property. (Laughs) I mean, so Steve and I are talking about all this stuff dramatically in this park. He shows me that original general store that you’re aware of was right there behind us and we’re standing where the mill wheel, and he tells me, “Okay, so don’t tell anybody this but I’m going to resign in a couple of months. I’ve just decided I can’t take this anymore.” And then he proceeds to tell me about how he had started writing all these memos in favor of basically crimping local control such a way that the state would mandate that they have to build more housing. And if they didn’t build it, that it would become what’s called ministerial meaning that it would just end run the city council. So he starts telling me how he’s written these memos. He starts telling me how he had been threatened with his job, that the city council had not unanimously approved his contract for the first time in his 25 years with the city, how local people had been showing up trying to attack his severance package because they were trying to figure out how to fire him but make it less expensive.
So he’s telling me all this and he says, “Yeah, well, I’m going to resign. So don’t tell anybody, but come to the meeting.” And he tells me, “Don’t publish this, but here’s my resignation letter just so you have some context. And then it’ll come out eventually and you can publish it then.” This letter starts off with a bunch of nice stuff about, “Oh, Lafayette is the model of civility,” but at the end he says, “Look, we’re a small city, but climate change, income inequality, these are the existential issues of our time and we have a responsibility to play a part in them and my conscience won’t allow me to work this anymore.” The last line of the letter was, “My conscience won’t allow it.” So I’m reading this really intense letter and I go to the meeting, it turns out Dennis O’Brien, who is the developer, his COO effectively, his right hand woman, she’s there, she goes to every city council meeting, Karen, she’s, talk about dedicated. And she goes, “What are you doing here? Is something about to happen?” And she’s, I mean she can read a room like quick and I said, “I can’t tell you, but you’ll know when like a second,” because the meeting’s about to start, right? So the way the Lafayette city council meetings work is they usually have some like kid, boy scout or someone say the pledge of allegiance and the mayor goes, “Well we’re going to have Steve say the pledge.” So, so everyone knows something’s up cause that’s like very odd. And then he goes, “Well, Steve wants to tell us something,” and he reads this letter to the whole city but leaves out the, like, “my conscience won’t allow it” part. So I’m, I’m like expecting this like a really dramatic moment, but then he kind of just lets it pass and doesn’t read the most kind of incendiary piece of it. But then of course it comes out on Twitter like an hour later and it’s like everything goes crazy.
But, so you asked me, how did Steve change? And when I first met him all those years ago, when I’d wrote that first story about Sonja, that was late 2015, early 2016. He was very against this project. When he resigned, it was like mid 2018 and he’s now writing memos in favor of usurping local control. He then resigns in protest basically. And I think that that was a really interesting transformation because he’s seeing the homelessness around him. He’s starting to appreciate how dire climate change is. He sees his own home values going up substantially. He, his two children, his son lives in San Francisco somewhere, I don’t know where, but with like four or five roommates. His daughter’s a dancer, so it’s not a high income occupation and he’s kind of appreciating that he has to make space and that change starts with him. And I thought that that was an amazing evolution because it really was genuine. I think he really thought he’d never work again. You know, it’s against his professional guidelines as a city manager to exert any kind of political opinion. He could potentially be censured by the city manager’s association. It’s not like an idle risk for him to take these positions and take them so publicly.
So, you know, it’s kind of funny you also asked about the writing of the book at one point. When I went into Steve Fal, he was kind of the foil to Sonja and that was how he was presented in the first New York Times article. But when I went back to write the book, I mean Sonja is kind of like this bit character who just shows up for a second in what is basically his arc in the story. And the reason I did that was watching someone have such a radical transformation and come by it honestly, it was just dramatic. But also hopeful that people are starting to appreciate, you know, this is on all of us. I’ve also said to a number of people, I think this is important, you know, one of the problems with this housing mess is that, you know, if you told someone in a suburb like, “Hey, if we build like a five story building right next to you, climate change will be solved and the housing crisis will be solved.” I think maybe there’s someone in the world who’s selfish enough to say no, but I think, you know, a lot of people would be like, “You know what? That’s fine.” But that’s not how it works of course. It’s a collective action problem and lots of people have to do this. And so the mirror image of “Yes, there’s a million little developments, none of which matter, but in sum are the whole problem,” it’s really hard for people to feel like their actions have any real effect on either of these problems, climate change or housing supply.
So why I thought Steve Falk’s evolution was so important is he’s not any different than anyone else. I mean, he of course realizes Lafayette is not going to solve this thing, but he just kinda came to this belief that, “I have to do my part and even if I can’t see it, I have to have faith that this is the right thing to do not the wrong thing to do.” Some evolution like that is probably going to be the only thing that will really solve this. You know, the first time I met Sonja, she said to me and this quote’s in the book, but, “Until you have people saying yes on their block, nothing will really change. You can pass all the laws you want, that there almost has to be the sociological shift. That’s what I’m trying to do,” she kind of told me. Like, “I’m trying to create the idea that NIMBYism is bad and that people to absorb that almost as like an ethos.” And anyways, so watching his evolution and watching how he just believed, “One little piece of me has to kind of have faith that this can work, even if I won’t ever really see it.” I actually thought that was in a way more serious and more important than anything else about policy or state law or zoning or any of that stuff.
JW: Huh. I mean it’s been interesting to watch for sure. I mean I’ve been watching this stuff along with you, I guess, at the same time just because of my connection to the community. And so when he did resign and put the letter up, I tweeted at him, I was like, “Hey man, I appreciate your work,” and all that stuff. But I honestly didn’t know the whole story in full and it’s interesting to go back and read it, you know, in the book. And, and I’m definitely giving the book to my parents and everybody that lives in, and hopefully–
CD: Buy more! (Laughs)
JW: (Laughs) Yeah, and my grandmother’s 107 and she still lives in Lafayette up in the hills.
CD: Oh wow.
JW: And you know, she’s lived in the same house since 1963.
CD (53m 53s): I met this scholar in the reporting of all this, Michan Connor, you can Google him. And he impressed upon me that city incorporation was actually this hugely undercovered underthought-about aspect of this.
JW: Well, so when I read it, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what did my grandpa do?”
CD: Yeah, so it turns out like the ability to incorporate cities is actually this like hugely underthought-about thing because, and I’ve talked to planners about this, I was talking to Carol Galante who is now the head of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley, but was the head of BRIDGE Housing for a long time. And she said, “I always knew this, but you really crystallized it for me.” She said, “I have done some projects that were on county land and we always got the votes because it went to a county board of supervisors, and their purview is so much larger than say a city, where you just have a city council that will respond to a smaller pool of voters.” You know, there was a chapter in this book, chapter four, the history chapter kind of about California and kind of tries to use Jerry Brown and Pat Brown as mirror images of what California land planning was and that title of that chapter is “Plans of Oppression.” And I got that chapter title from the Federalist Papers, I think it was James Madison, and he wrote in the Federalist Papers basically about the tyranny of democracy, and that if you built a democracy from units that were too small, nobody would ever disagree with each other, and you would start to have this group of people that would always kind of oppress the minority view because the minority view would never be big enough to ever have a real chance to exert a counterbalancing force on it.
A great scholar named Robert Ellickson at Yale kind of posited that suburbs and kind of smaller incorporated units are the “plans of oppression.” That the single family homeowners who control almost in totality those local elections are a fundamentally undemocratic group that is so single-mindedly interested in property values and the land around them that they create these “plans of oppression.” And so the Steve Falk thing also kind of like I said, gets into, though it is this personal story that’s very funny to read, it also gets into this kind of how incorporation becomes these “plans of oppression” because it is allowing through this kind of technology of contracting that allows cities to form as much smaller units. It is giving, this is what Michan Connor kind of impressed upon me, that it is creating this kind of municipal technology that allows smaller and smaller units to form and through that basically hands our land policy for big substantial cities over to these tiny, tiny units.
JW: Yeah, I did want to ask about what the reaction has been to the book overall. I mean, I want to say like, I’m very impressed that Barack Obama tweeted about your book and that’s pretty awesome. I’m curious what you felt about that.
CD: So the reaction has been amazing. Larry Wilmore had me on his podcast, you know, and he’s super into politics and stuff, but he’s more of a kind of a national politics, you know, his frame is more, more national generally. And he was like, “Oh, you know, there’s all these little nuggets in here I never knew about, I never thought about.” And I thought that was really gratifying because it was, you know, even though he’s like this famous guy, it was someone appreciating like, “Wow, this local government is so fundamental and so important to my life.” I mean, it’s not to say he didn’t realize that before, but you know, like all things, when you read something you’re often reminded of things rather than really illuminated. I thought that was cool, vainly once again. (Laughs) Some of the reviews have said things like “Actually enjoyable, weirdly riveting!” Uh, you know, like…
JW: (Laughs) Like kind of backhanded compliments?
CD: Yeah. And I did work so hard to make real characters to capture the funniness of local meetings, but also capturing the heartbreak of things like displacement. Really kind of showing very different parts of society, but also trying to impress upon people that we’re all in this together. And so the fact that people have received it as a story that has outrage and comedy and sadness and curiosity and all these different pieces of it, that made me feel good. Because as you ask me about literary influences, like just making it feel like it could be something you would read and have that be fun was the most important thing to me. To get back to your literary question again, I think there’s all sorts of different things people do well and when they do them well, I like to go, “How do I do that?” Right? So, Malcolm Gladwell has a very nice way of like explaining large concepts succinctly.
JW: And over and over and over again. (Laughs)
CD: Yeah, and I don’t, I don’t want to write a Malcolm Gladwell book, but when I’m explaining something like rent control, trying to unpack it in an efficient way, like it’d be insane not to ask yourself like, I don’t have to be that person, but if I’m just writing one paragraph, “Who unpacks things in a really efficient ways?” I would say, you know, one person, I know it’s cliche for a white male to say this, but Jonathan Franzen if you read his books, they’re highly observational. He is clearly using the tools of a journalist even if his characters are true characters. And so watching how he kind of describes how people live their lives in the modern world, I think those powers of observation and just like almost the quietness he seems to have achieved, like you know, he can obviously walk into a room and just see things that nobody else can see. I try to like keep that in mind when I’m going into a room and reporting.
Another thing I tried to do is to ask myself which academic disciplines like actually spend time on things. So economists have a lot of thoughts about displacement but to them it’s all numbers and buildings and stuff. And that’s not bad, but it’s also limited. Sociologists on the other hand spend a lot of time talking to people and looking at them and creating ethnographies. So when I was writing about things like displacement, I was like spending a lot of time reading sociology cause that’s like something they actually do, and talking to tenants organizers and stuff like that, but also when I went to the academic stuff I was like more interested in what sociologists, Harvey Molotch and John Logan and their book.
JW: I think it’s up there somewhere. (Laughs)
CD: Yeah. So I try to always ask myself like, “Who has actually spent time and paid attention to this?” Economists have spent no time thinking about this space except for in the stacking of numbers sense. So I didn’t find that to be helpful when I was doing it. But it doesn’t mean I don’t find economics helpful. It just means I see it as a tool like any other that has its uses and it’s non uses. And I think that that’s also like a good tool for organizers and planners to ask themselves about like, you know, when we’re talking about large systems, it’s kind of hard to believe that economists don’t have some merit or even a lot of merit. But when we’re talking about like politics and organizing and actually asking ourselves what are the social costs of displacement, like that sociologist aren’t a better place to get that information?
So there was a great essay, by the way, I don’t know if you know her name, Japonica Brown-Saracino at, I believe she’s at Boston University. She wrote this fantastic essay about how there are two kinds of gentrification studies. Only two. And the first kind of study is a large scale quantification study that almost by definition is going to find that gentrification is a pretty limited phenomenon and that it’s not like a huge American problem. Because gentrification obviously only happens in a few places and there are by definition not that many rich people in the world and most of them don’t move to neighborhoods that are substantially less rich than they are. Then there’s the second kind of gentrification study, which is when someone goes to like the middle of the Mission District in 1999 or something like that and portrays like a neutron bomb going off, because the parameters of their study are basically block level. And that study is almost necessarily going to find that gentrification is this horribly disruptive thing that displaces communities and destroys commercial businesses and all these sorts of things.
I thought that was so fascinating to me because, I don’t know if she ever actually said this, but I kind of think like both things are true? And so I was trying in this book to kind of, you know, some chapters we do talk about Ed Glaeser and economics and all that stuff, and then other chapters we’re in a building as it’s being cleared out by a landlord. And I just kind of feel like, maybe it sounds like a cop out to people to say both things are true, but it feels like they are, and that was my kind of message. I would say another message I’m quietly trying to telegraph here–this is my little public service announcement–there’s been all this talk lately about capitalism versus socialism and obviously Bernie Sanders and this particular election and the growth of DSA has made this a more mainstream topic than it has been in many decades. And I think that’s ultimately healthy and it’s great. But the conclusion I come to is, and this is not an original conclusion, but it is something I tried to telegraph in the book, is that productive capitalism, when we’re really talking about people taking big risks on big projects or new ideas or really trying to create new things, that’s this very healthy, can even be inspiring process even if it makes people rich, which I don’t begrudge. But then you have this like spreadsheet, what economists call rent-seeking capitalism, where people are really just trying to fiddle around with interest rates or buy an existing apartment building and clear it out of tenants who have a bedrock role in our economy. And that kind of capitalism is, whatever you think of it, it’s not even that inspiring. It’s kind of like, great, you’ve got a bank to lend you this money and you know…
JW: It’s just like not bankers pushing money around. Yeah.
CD: It’s not even interesting. So there are these two chapters right next to each other. One chapter with this developer Rick Holliday, who’s trying to create a modular housing factory to build housing more cheaply and has, you know, risks substantial capital on that. And he comes off, let’s just say relatively well, maybe too well, ah…
JW: (Laughs) He does get beat up a little bit from the unions.
CD: Yeah. Then the flip side is the next chapter is the retenanting and all this sort of stuff. I don’t think it’s an accident that I take one kind of capitalist and say this seems like a good and necessary piece of our economy and a piece that we don’t have to think of it as evil just cause he makes a profit. And then the very next chapter show you a process that I’m clearly not terribly favorable towards but is fundamentally capitalism too, right? And I think sometimes you hear this term developer thrown around and then investor or speculator thrown around and I feel like we sometimes, not always, but put those people in the same bucket as if they’re just like the same people. And I’m trying to kind of telegraph the message through these stories that like they could not be more different. If somebody wants to go build housing on an empty lot or whatever, you know, obviously policy should contemplate all sorts of things about infrastructure and affordable housing and all those things, but generally speaking that’s like a perfectly productive good thing to do. And then somebody going and buying an apartment building and just trying to clear it out, often with very minimal renovations, I should say there is a role for people to upgrade the housing. That was like not what happened in these cases. I mean I went there like 10 days later and there are new people moving in and they’d barely painted it. That is kind of bad, right?
I’m not going to like write some essay about, “Oh we need a more nuanced view of capitalism,” but I, through these two stories, I think people can make their mind up and just sort of ask themselves like, “Is what Rick Holliday’s doing have a role? Can there be something positive from that kind of capitalism, if you will?” My answer is like, yes, but is it easy for people to sour on the whole system when we allow things like that retenanting to persis and even being encouraged like, yes. So I was trying though I would never, like I said, except for with you, state this so plainly, I was sort of trying to show like yeah, these are both, for lack of a better term businessmen, and you can have very different feelings about the two of them.
JW: Well I feel like that’s something in the book does a really good job of, is kind of throwing out all of these nuances, right? So I think people from outside of San Francisco look in San Francisco and they see just blue, right? That’s it. And in the book, you obviously discuss this and obviously we live this, which is, it’s not so, I wouldn’t say black and white (Laughs), but it’s not, you know, Columbia blue versus a dark, you know, navy blue. It’s so nuanced in the way that people think in the city and the progressives versus the “moderates” or the progressives might call them conservatives, but they’re not in any sense of the national phrase. So that’s an interesting kind of dichotomy that comes out in the book that I think explains San Francisco a lot better than a lot of other folks are explaining it now when they come in from the 30,000 foot view and talk about the Bay Area generally, or even just San Francisco as a city.
CD: And this is true everywhere. One of the things I love about housing is there is no coherent red-blue ideology. And if you go looking for it, you’re not going to find it. And if you try to put that frame on it, you will look stupid. And this is not just true in San Francisco. Go to Texas. Texas is a very pro-development place, right? But if you try to build an apartment building next to a single family house, it’s not like they’re so welcoming of that there except for maybe in Houston. But even in Houston, there are rich neighborhoods that use, it’s not quite zoning, but it’s some weird–
JW: Deed restrictions and stuff like that, yeah.
CD: Right. So I mean they have their ways. Even in a city that technically has no zoning, they have their ways to create the same social patterns. So it’s not just blue hypocrisy, it’s red hypocrisy too. By the way, I’m actually curious, let me ask you this question. So you’re from Texas? Or you went to UT? Or what’s the…
JW: Yeah. (Laughs)
CD: Why do you have your Texas basketball outfit framed–
JW: Whoa, whoa, that’s track and cross-country.
CD: Oh, sorry, yeah I guess you look not like a basketball player.
JW: Yeah, so you can see the spikes up higher.
CD: Oh, sorry. You must’ve been an accomplished distant runner.
JW: I did okay.
CD: We have all learned something about your background.
JW: (Laughs) I was born in Houston. My parents are from here, right. So I told you my stories about–
CD: Oh wow. Your origin story is so easy to figure out now. It’s like no zoning, strict zoning and then…
JW: (Laughs) My dad actually worked for Shell Oil Company in the Martinez plant after he graduated with his MBA from Berkeley.
CD: Oh, so your dad and my mom were like competitors cause my mom was at Chevron in the Richmond refinery.
JW: I guess so, um, she probably worked with my aunt who worked for Chevron, but yeah, so he got transferred to New Orleans and Houston and eventually Rotterdam too, in the Netherlands, because that’s where Royal Dutch Petroleum is located. So I grew up in Texas, I was born in Texas. I lived in Bakersfield for about six years, there’s oil down there too (Laughs). And moved back when I was nine to Texas. And I grew up there and went to the University of Texas. And then as soon as I was finished with grad school, I came back here and lived with my grandmother in Lafayette for six months and then moved into this place here in 2006.
CD: So, by the way, now that we’ll just really go off track for a second, but I’ve always, you know, Arcade Fire, that guy’s from Texas, and I always thought “The Suburbs,” I could kind of feel that, I mean you must have thoughts on that album.
JW: Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs of Houston.
CD: Oh yeah, totally. Well what I was going to say is, is that the question I get everywhere, not from people like you, but from more general audiences–I will almost certainly get it tonight when I’m speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco–is “What place does this right? Is there a model we can look at?” So you get some answers like, “Oh, Vienna in 1920,” I mean that’s the like more San Francisco stereotypical…
JW: Right, that’s the “red rose” response.
CD: Some people say Singapore where most people live in public housing, right? I think that’s food for thought. Public housing. I mean I do think it’s important for us to look at places that have totally healthy public housing and say, “that can work here.” It doesn’t have to be a disaster like it is here. But the answer I always give, which freaks people out is well look at like Phoenix, look at like Houston. You know we talk about the middle class in California as if it’s like this, we pay it lip service to some extent where we go like you know, “Oh yeah, we like want a strong middle class.” But then politically what do we do? We build a bunch of like really high end condos and then give a bunch of money for subsidized housing. Like we, we’re not even like attempting to hold onto the middle class, like, at all.
When I go to Phoenix or Houston, I’ve spent more time in Phoenix, I meet people who are genuinely middle class. I meet people who are super excited about their future. I meet people who feel like they have a stake, you know, in America. I go on and have conversations with people at Home Depot when I’m, cause I have to go do errands from my mother-in-law in Phoenix, and you start having conversations with people who work at Home Depot. They totally own their own homes. They’re very conscious of how their own home repairs go. That’s very different than in the Bay Area. And I had the same reservations about Phoenix that a lot of kind of, for lack of a better term, urbanist people have. I think public transit is great, I like density and biking, Minneapolis is kind of my favorite city.
JW: I like it.
CD: So that’s like my frame. But I’m also a journalist and as a journalist I’m asking people what they’re doing, not what they think. When I go in and I meet people in those places and when I see how different a place feels, when it really does have a middle class, it’s hard for me not to ask myself, “Should we be learning from them, maybe? Should we be maybe like not writing off Texas?” I mean I’m, I know I’m probably speaking music to your ears here, but as some conservative backwater where everyone has their guns, I mean I know a lot of people don’t do that. People realize that Texas has these very big cities. But seriously like, I think that the kind of more urbanist-minded type of part of America, of which there are many in Phoenix and places like that I should also note, but maybe we should ask ourselves like, “Who in this country really does do affordable market rate housing and what does that look like?” And okay, so we don’t want sprawl, fine, but how do we do that without sprawl? Scottsdale is not like that sprawly. There’s some beautiful condo developments there that are expensive, but they’re not as expensive as here. Have you seen that one in Scottsdale? It’s won all those design awards with like the hanging gardens.
JW: No, I haven’t seen that.
CD: It’s gorgeous. Anyway, I’m just saying that I do think that when we ask ourselves where is real America, where is America headed–Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, like it or not, those are the places that people are going to. Like it or not, those are the places that are growing. Like it or not, those are the places that are gaining electoral votes while we’re losing them. And I think we have to ask ourselves, why are people moving there? I don’t think it has anything to do with lower tax rates. I think it has to do with lower housing prices.
JW: Mm. I would agree with that. I mean, I go back and visit friends in Austin all the time and Austin’s getting crazy too, you know, locally, but it’s still way cheaper than here. Even if you wanted to live in the suburbs and live that lifestyle, you can, and you can own a 3000 square foot house for $250,000. The math is very stark as opposed to this place that I’m in now, which is 900 square feet. And probably if you were to purchase this unit as a condo, it’d probably be like 1.2, 1.3 million dollar, right? So there’s a huge difference in, in the math that works out for people. So I think that’s part of it, right? Part of the difference. Conor, I feel like I need to have you back at some point to just continue the discussion.
CD: I would be happy to. Well, so since I’m going to leave here and just go check in on my 80 year old dad, which is something I have to do frequently, I’m always happy to come back. But thanks so much for having me.
JW: Yeah, thanks Conor, for being here. We really appreciate it. Oh, where can folks find the book?
CD: So the book, as you have said, is called Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, and you can buy it pretty much wherever books are sold.
JW: But I recommend going to the Folio Books on 24th Street. (Laughs)
CD: Yes! Or I went to my local bookstore. You can always go to your local bookstore. You can get it on any of the large retailers that you’re aware of online. Some people who are very, very principled buy at Powell’s Books because it’s the only unionized bookstore in America. And I will also say, the conversation at bookstores while I’ve been on tour has been so amazing. People with very, very different opinions come and they talk, and it’s very respectful and they disagree, but it’s, it’s not like an angry place. And I was talking to this one sociologist, Ryan Enos, who I talk about it in the book a little bit, and he kind of talks about how the way for people to kinda start to find a better political common cause around things like housing is to find like a different venue of–traditionally a public school has been in this venue–but where they can get to know each other without it being like they’re arguing. You know, they just get to know each other and once they get to know each other they aren’t fighting.
You can’t like convince someone in the middle of a fight. But if, if you become friends with someone they might just kind of passively convince you over time, right? Cause you share an institution, whatever. I’m not going to go so far as to say that the bookstore is that, but I am saying it does feel like there’s a role for these kinds of like more town hall-y type of conversations where you’re not arguing about some policy. Actually, the technical end of the book, before the epilogue, ends with the meeting in someone’s living room that is just that. And that’s not an accident.
JW: (Laughs) You seem like you don’t have many accidents in the book. (Laughs) Thought-out, well thought-out.
CD: I’m in a big outliner.
JW: Awesome. Well Conor, thanks so much.