How Green Was My Weinerhaus

I was contemplating this week S.B. 50, the legislative sausage of Scott Weiner (D-SF) which would grant the State of California supremacy in local zoning decisions.  If enacted,  single-family homes could be razed in favor of 4-5 story apartment buildings anywhere within a half mile of a transportation corridor.   Much of Los Angeles would qualify under its jurisdiction. Van Nuys, but for a few pockets, definitely would.   Weinerhausing would be like a reverse Prop 13 in its abrogation of property rights, only more significant in its political fallout.

Weiner is the first apostle of the YIMBY movement. As a Gen Xer, when I contemplate the gross inequality between my parent’s housing price point and my own I’m sympathetic, broadly speaking, to YIMBYism.

My parents obtained 80 acres of rolling pasture land and mixed forest in Mendocino County in the 1970s for $18,000.  Only they didn’t pay that. That would have cost them about $100 a month, which would have meant taking a day job.  In the Era of Boomer Land Abundance, this would not do.  No, no, no.  Much too much.  In lieu of labor, they recruited a relative to join them in their endeavor and an in-law to underwrite them as a silent majority partner thereby obtaining a Homestead Act portion of Hippie Splendor for …$25/month, and this is no embellishment, I assure you.

Need I mention they were living in a sprawling Victorian at the time, three blocks from Cal Poly while existing on public assistance?   That their property hunt consisted of a drive north in which they stopped on the 101 to use the bathroom, smoked a fateful joint, pointed at a random hillside and said that’s so pretty. I wonder if anything is for sale there?  There was little which wasn’t, as the timber companies and aging ranchers were unloading their inventory as fast as bandido real estate agents could subdivide it, frequently without road easements.

Many years later they would be obliged to buy out the silent partner, the dreaded $100 payment waiting for them like an appointment in Samarra,  and oh, oh, the wailing.  My mother would circle the room flailing her hands over her head in despair, as though wolves were nipping at her heels. A hundred dollars! The land payment! Lillian Gish lashed to the ice floes! I would come home from college and point out I was paying four times that sum for a cubicle in a dingy student rental and they would look at me like I was speaking Swahili. You need to get your money trip together they would reply before resuming their sorrows with renewed vigor.

Mr. and Mrs. UpintheValley…once they got their money trip together…paid more in a down payment for churro-eating Van Nuys than the entire purchase price of my parent’s extensive wine country holdings. Our monthly nut, the non-negotiables only, is greater than their annual income for much of my childhood.

And yet, how advantaged we are to own anything in California.  Our house has tripled in value in 15 years.   I could applaud myself for all the renovations I’ve done…a  super-ant amidst the grasshoppers…but sadly, this has only nudged the equity needle.  Move our house to Cleveland and it would lose value annually, no matter the effort we put in. A Zillow surveillance of Rust Belt cities shows just how little a Pinterest-worthy 1920’s two-story colonial commands in a market with inverted demography.

California home values are predicating on zoning, and for this reason we would not be able to repurchase ours today. No one we know can afford the house they are living in, which brings us to a unique inflection point in history.  Who will come after us?   What provision have we made for them to buy in?

The boomer plan was no plan but to withdraw as much land as possible from development. Protect it all! Especially the meadow right down the street from me… Then open the gates to the world…and reap the unearned generational advantage of zoning.   Theirs was a different California, white, entitled and lazy.  Grilled cheese sandwiches, Der Wienerschnitzel and Sambo’s, and the graft of other people’s labor. Wine country for me, Van Nuys 2.0 for my kids, alternative housing for the millennials: trailers, pods, tree houses, bunk beds, shipping containers…

S.B. 50. would indirectly address generational inequality. That would be the seduction, though not the intent.   In practice, it would look like this.

What would be exempt from upzoning? Marin County, home of the silent partner.  Two miles from SF and to this day mostly rural.  Santa Cruz, where I went to college, where the $400 student rental is now $1200.   All the coastal counties …but LA, SF, Orange, and Ventura.  Cities with a population less than 50,000, exempt.  Historic Preservation Zones.  Neighborhoods with low-frequency transit.

See where this is going? The most privileged precincts would extend their zoning advantages, and their monoculture, by manipulating transit routes and schedules, subdividing, creating protections for favored neighborhoods.  They would down-zone themselves out of the very societal obligation S.B. 50 was intended to enact.  The regulatory burden would fall, as it always does, on those regions divided by language, class, and culture.

It’s not really about housing. It’s about making the little people ride the bus.

California is nothing if not an experiment the wealthy perform on everyone else. And I was so ready to buy Scott a beer…

*Bart Housing illustration by Alfred Twu

15 thoughts on “How Green Was My Weinerhaus”

  1. You are a very funny man, Mr UITV. A deadly serious topic, of course, but presented with a light heart.

    I had heard of the Marin exemption. Was unaware of the other carve-outs, but not surprised, I guess.

    “See where this is going?”, it is asked rhetorically. I agree with your assessment, and I dunno if I want to stick around and find out. I look around and every day the social structure, the stratification in this state, become more and more stark. I grew up in a small city in Ventura County just off 101 that begins with the letter “O”. I never knew any wealthy people. The “rich” were the doctors and dentists who lived in a three-block area in the north end of town. That said, pretty much everyone else had at least enough for baseball gloves and Sting Rays for the kids. A ham-n-egger town if there every was one. To be honest, not a bad place to grow up. It’s not now.

    As to that cover photo: the architectural inspiration. LOL

    1. That’s exactly what the opening rendering looks like! And, of course, it’s also visual evidence of the intentional, conniving destruction of public transportation all over this country decades ago.

      1. EZ there, Paddy. I’ve heard this meme for years……you make it sound like we had a cabal of evil Snidely Whiplashes rubbing their hands together, all led by Montgomery Burns. It’s not so simple. After the War, people wanted cars. Streetcars were yesterday’s news. NO ONE wanted dumpy, slow streetcars. Not the passengers, and not the cities.

        We look back and say we should have at least saved the ROW (and we did, to a degree) but the decision was a rational one in 1950.

        Of course, who knew 70 years ago that any effort to recreate simple streetcar lines would cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars PER MILE (they would have called us insane, and they would have been right.) And it’s on us we allowed city buses to become rolling vagrant shelters.

        Right now the idiots at the OCTA are fixin’ to spend close to HALF A BILLION DOLLARS on a 4.1 mile streetcar line from Garden Grove to Santa Ana. A 4.1 miles stretch already well-served by OCTA transit buses.

        I can think of far better ways to waste half a billion.

        1. Yeah, probably an urban legend but I always understood that it was an agreement between oil companies, tire companies and the big-three car companies to eliminate streetcars and replace them with buses in the ‘50s. My home town of Boston held out to a degree and we still have pre-WW II trains running on one line and lots of modern trains on other lines. Oh well, another conspiracy theory shattered. Great photo anyway!

          1. The way I heard it is there was SOME collusion between those entities, but it hardly reached OSS/CIA/MI5 level stuff. And most cities were more than happy to oblige.

            Besides, what we took as normal in 1945 wouldn’t have passed muster these days. E.G…..”Safety Zones”. ???? As most rail lines were in the middle of the street, it was accepted to have passengers stand IN THE STREET while waiting for the next car. What was your “safety zone”? In some cases just lines painted on the asphalt. Others were slightly raised platforms, like a sidewalk.

            Automobile speeds were lower, of course, but….you can imagine how well this worked out.

            (Here’s folks exiting a LARY streetcar in Huntington Park. “Safety Zone” is that little strip between the streetcar and that awesome-looking turquoise sedan. Obviously Christmas. Late 50s, maybe 1960 (I think that’s a ’60 blue Chevy parked below the “Organs – Pianos – Something – TV” sign at far right.) Plus cars are sporting “Black-on-Yellow” license plates (1956-1962)


        2. Replying to your reply: that great picture of the pastel blue street car was EXACTLY the situation where I grew up in Oak Square, Brighton, Massachusetts, except that our streetcars were painted orange. And some were wooden cars, much older than the art deco PCC car in your photo. Neither of my parents drove, so growing up in the fifties I road the “T” everywhere. And believe it or not, at least one line I can think of, near Northeastern University (haven’t been back to Beantown in years, living in God’s waiting room of central Florida currently) still runs a portion of its route right down the middle of Huntington Avenue! BTW, I’m not sure how I stumbled on this blog, possibly through Jack Baruth’s “Riverside Green,” but I love it. I’ve only been to LA and San Francisco twice each in my life, all four times after cross-country drives, but I’m fascinated with California. And I love Mr. UITV’s thought process and writing.

          1. Great vintage Huntington Park gif. The Warner Theater building is still there, as is the Fox, though no longer as theaters. HP is one of the few inner rings suburbs where a return of the streetcar might actually work. There’s a lot of Uber/Lyft between there and downtown LA.

      1. Also, the steetcar lines that survived in greater Boston work very well (although certainly subsidized and not profitable). The several MBTA Green Line branches that wend their way through the Boston University campus out to Boston College in Newton are an institution. And of course, these lines all go underground to the oldest subway in the country when they approach downtown Boston. Plus, commuter rail service to the suburbs was restored twenty years ago after having been dormant since the late ’50s. So go figure.

  2. Replying to Bill (not sure why I can sometimes respond directly and other times no go): correct on the Pontiac, not sure about the red car. I see a Corvair and an early ’50s Caddy behind it but I’m thinking more Oldsmobile, just like the one my pediatrician drove when he made house calls (house calls!). Dr. Turtle also had a local TV show in Boston, in the 1950s!

  3. To Orca and Patrick:

    Infrastructure drives real estate development. The streetcar system (everywhere, not just in LA) was built by land speculators to add value to otherwise low value property. Railroad companies were formed not to sell train or trolley tickets, but to open up new territory to development. A walnut or orange grove out in the sticks wasn’t as appealing as that same parcel with a streetcar line that could carry people to and from civilization. See also: municipal water, Mulholland et al.

    Once the land was subdivided and the building lots were sold off at great profit the street car system had done its job. The owners (real estate developers in the guise of rail tycoons) had no incentive to maintain trains and trolley since transit is always a money loser – everywhere, always. The agreement to dismantle what was left of the streetcars between the tire companies, auto manufacturers, and oil suppliers was the icing on the cake.

    Here’s something to chew on. What if our freeways and private cars are about to go the way of the streetcars? Before there were streetcars there were barge canals that opened Upstate New York and the Ohio Valley to development. When the full cost of maintaining both public infrastructure and private vehicles exceeds our willingness or ability to pay we’ll have a new transition to some other set of arrangements.

    1. I was going to chime in and say this but luckily you already said it very well. I’d add that the alternative to buses wasn’t the continuation of streetcars, but nothing at all. The streetcars had already fallen into disrepair and were decades past the point where they needed replacing — their lifespan was extended by WWII when there was no choice but to keep using them. Pacific Electric wasn’t going to pay to replace them since transit=money loser when not subsidized by the government or real estate. Big Auto/Oil/Tire stepped in because there was money to be made selling buses/gas/tires but if they hadn’t the streetcar would have likely just folded with no replacement. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Streetcars rolling down the middle of busy streets were considered a nuisance by drivers and were likely just as subject to the whims of traffic as buses. No one was thinking about pollution or fossil fuel (and the streetcar electricity all came from fossil fuel anyway). Buses would be easier to run and more versatile in their routes. Why wouldn’t people have wanted them over rotting wooden streetcars?

  4. Brilliant analysis Johnny, right on point. In Boston, a streetcar line was built in 1897 to the then-remote, rural suburb of Newton, for the express and sole purpose of driving people to the Norumbega Park “pleasure resort.” It still existed for a few years when I was a kid before being demolished and replaced with a Marriott. Today, the streetcar line is long gone and Newton, Massachusetts is one of the weathiest communities in the country. As to cars and freeways going the way of streetcars? Just around the corner I’m thinking.

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