California is in fact losing population, but for many people, the calculation is more about social networks than economics.
SAN FRANCISCO — Many San Francisco renters I met while reporting an article on affordable housing lotteries had responded to the region’s housing crisis by putting up with great discomfort: They crammed in with family; they split apartments with strangers. Some even lived out of their cars.
Why, lots of readers wanted to know, didn’t they simply move away instead?
Many have. High-cost California has long been losing population to migration, particularly poorer residents (who head to cheaper places like Arizona, Nevada and Texas).
But for the poorest renters — making less than 30 percent of a region’s median income — there is a shortage of affordable housing virtually everywhere in America. Moving, itself expensive, isn’t guaranteed to solve their problem. A cheaper housing market may indicate that a region has fewer jobs. And low-skilled jobs in a city like San Francisco pay some of the highest wages in the country; the minimum wage here is twice what it is in much of America, a real benefit that weighs against the high housing costs.
For many, however, the calculation about whether to leave is not primarily about economics.
Before readers raised the issue, I posed the same question to Mya Mack, whom I first met at the public lottery last fall for Natalie Gubb Commons, a new 95-unit affordable housing development in San Francisco that drew 6,580 applicants.
She had been looking for housing since the summer, when she left an affordable apartment for a relationship that didn’t work out. She and her 7-year-old daughter, Jaiya, then moved in with her mother, a niece and two nephews — back into the now-crowded house where she was raised.
Ms. Mack, who works as a phlebotomist, applied to every housing opportunity she could find. She checked the city’s online affordable housing site on her phone as reflexively as she looked at Facebook. She questioned construction workers when she saw what looked like new apartments rising around town. But when I asked if she had ever considered moving somewhere much cheaper, that solution was off the table.
“It would be foolish for me to do that, because I would be struggling,” she said. “Not financially. But I would be struggling with my daughter. Who’s going to babysit? And I’m a single mom.”
She envisioned the situation from Jaiya’s perspective. “My daughter would hate it,” she said.
Ms. Mack grew up the youngest in a close-knit family of five sisters in the Ingleside neighborhood on the southern edge of San Francisco. Family members still live near one another and see each other almost daily. Jaiya goes to school with her cousins. Ms. Mack takes her to the same park where she played as a child.
For Ms. Mack, her mother’s home was overcrowded but happy. She did not have a bedroom door to close for privacy, but she had enough that she and her daughter could afford to keep waiting for their own home.
“A lot of people don’t have family they can call and say, ‘Excuse me, can I live there for a year?’” Ms. Mack said. “I count my blessings all the time because I do have somewhere to go.”
Emily Badger writes about cities and urban policy for The Upshot from the San Francisco bureau. She’s particularly interested in housing, transportation and inequality — and how they’re all connected. She joined the Times in 2016 from The Washington Post.@emilymbadger
Amazon’s search for a second headquarters has been a pageant of finalist cities doing everything they can to woo the company and the good jobs and huge construction projects it would bring. The most controversial part of the process has been the big tax incentives that some state and local governments have offered Amazon, seen by critics as ineffective corporate giveaways.
Amazon wrapped up its visits in mid-April to all 20 finalist locations for its HQ2, as Amazon calls its second headquarters. The company is now following up with the cities, from Los Angeles to Indianapolis to Toronto, seeking further information as it narrows its search.
The company has a long wish list, including plentiful flights at local airports, a stable, business-friendly government and nearby recreational opportunities for employees.
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But local officials did not anticipate Amazon’s interest in how to tackle some of the troubles that have turned it into a polarizing symbol of Seattle’s booming economy. The e-commerce giant is celebrated by many in Seattle for being the city’s biggest employer and adding tremendous wealth to the area. But it is villainized by others for bringing too much change, too quickly.
In Denver, Amazon and local officials talked at length about public transit options and the creation of bike lanes, said Mr. Bailey. They even discussed the possibility of Amazon financing a new light-rail station for its system, though no commitments were made, he said.
In Atlanta, the company spoke to a representative of the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit working to prevent displacement in an area being redeveloped. The fund will pay for the increases in property taxes for residents who have lived in the area since at least 2016 so that they’re not priced out of their homes.
In Amazon’s visit to Toronto, the company discussed its potential impact on the labor market and the affordability of housing, said Ed Clark, the business adviser to Kathleen Wynne, the premier of the province of Ontario.
“We’re all concerned about what could be gentrification or displacement, how do we deal with that,” said Aisha Glover, president and chief executive of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, which is involved in the New Jersey city’s bid.
Adam Sedo, a spokesman for Amazon, confirmed that public transport and housing affordability were important topics in conversations with the finalist locations but declined to elaborate further.
The company employs about 45,000 people in Seattle, spread out among more than 30 buildings near the downtown area. Despite a construction frenzy, building of new homes hasn’t kept up with demand, leading to soaring housing costs in Seattle, where rents are now close to those in Boston and New York and home prices are growing faster than those in any other large city.
While Amazon is not the only reason for all the change, it has become the most convenient target for groups worried about home prices and paralyzing traffic.
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“There was clearly a sensitivity both to the real and to the perceived impact when they come in to a place,” Mr. Clark said, referring to Amazon’s discussions in Toronto.
The company says it has given $40 million for affordable housing projects in Seattle. In a new office building it is constructing, Amazon has agreed to give a rent-free space to a homeless shelter for families. The company says its employees are big users of public transportation, with 17 percent of its local employees living in the same ZIP code in which they work.
“The pace of change has been so fast and housing supply has not kept up and the transit system has not kept up,” said Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline Institute, a nonprofit research group in Seattle focused on sustainability. “There’s a visceral public reaction to the whole rapid pace of change in the city symbolized by, and perhaps blamed too much on, Amazon.”
In May, Seattle’s City Council plans to vote on a tax — dubbed the “Amazon Tax” by locals — on the city’s largest employers. The tax is expected to raise $75 million annually, with most of the money being funneled into building affordable housing. The remainder will go to support services for the homeless.
This month, supporters of the plan staged a rally in front of Amazon’s glass spheres in Seattle holding signs that read “Tax Amazon” and “Tax Bezos,” referring to the company’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos. Asked why Amazon was discussing affordable housing with officials of the finalist cities for its second headquarters, Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of the Seattle City Council, said it was because of what’s happening in the company’s hometown.
“It’s because they’re getting massive pushback from ordinary people in Seattle,” said Ms. Sawant.
Growing cities with thriving local tech scenes are already grappling with affordable housing challenges, even without Amazon. Mr. Clark, the adviser involved in Toronto’s bid, said it helps that Amazon isn’t ducking the problem.
“To have someone coming in and worried about this issue and wanting to work with you to solve the issue is a big plus,” he said.
Later, a long line of opponents portrayed the bill as a threat to neighborhoods and low-income residents and at one point began chanting: “827, what do we say? Kill the bill, kill the bill.”
Despite the disagreement, there was a broad consensus — among senators on the raised dais, among the constituents and lobbyists in the room — that housing costs remain a central issue.
“This issue isn’t going away,” Mr. Wiener said.
The public reaction to the bill seemed to underscore that. Ever since Mr. Wiener introduced S.B. 827 on Jan. 3 — the first day of the legislative session — it has dominated the state’s conversation about housing. The bill came up in political debates and candidate interviews, and cities across the state had votes on whether or not they supported it.
Mr. Wiener added amendments to reduce the bill’s height limits and strengthen protections for lower-income residents who might be displaced by demolition of older, more affordable buildings. But that did little to move the most entrenched opponents, and introducing it in an election year made it tough for lawmakers to support something so polarizing.
Some of the fiercest opposition came from local governments arguing that the bill would strip them of land-use decisions. The bill was also opposed by groups concerned about gentrification in neighborhoods already pummeled by rising rents.
“This bill will exacerbate an already perilous situation for tenants throughout the state,” said Damien Goodmon, director of Housing Is a Human Right, a division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles.
More than anything else, the bill showed the political challenges of building housing in places where people already live — something California will almost certainly will have to do to make progress on this problem.
But there seems to be little consensus on how to go about that. Mr. Wiener’s bill split a number of constituencies.
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Mr. Wiener pitched his bill as a way to combat climate change by fostering neighborhoods that allow more people to commute to work without car — a goal that almost every conservation group supports. But the California chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the bill, while other groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, stood in favor of it.
Even with the committee action, the idea of state intervention in what has historically been a local problem is unlikely to go away. Mr. Wiener vowed to bring back the bill. So this may be remembered as the start of a long negotiation over how to make cities less hostile to new construction.
In an interview earlier this year, Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor now running for governor, said that California was in “code red” for housing affordability and that he liked the “spirit” of Mr. Wiener’s bill, but he would not support it as written. “I told him point blank, ‘I would not sign this bill, but I love what you are doing. How can I help?’”
Until recently, rent control was mostly limited to a few urban areas in New York, California and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia. About half of states prohibit cities from even considering the idea, according to the National Apartment Association. But as cities have become magnets for high-paying jobs, producing higher rents and fights over gentrification, tenants’ movements have spread.
Last year Portland, Ore., passed a law requiring landlords to pay relocation costs for renters evicted without cause, while legislators in Washington State considered but ultimately killed a law that would have lifted a prohibition on rent control and paved the way for cities like Seattle to pass rent regulations. In Denver, Minneapolis and Nashville, tenants are fighting displacement, pushing for expanded protections and organizing into tenants’ unions.
“Towns and cities everywhere are seeing new organizing to build tenants’ unions, fight for renters’ rights and change these laws,” said Ryan Acuff, an organizer based in Rochester, N.Y., for the Homes for All Campaign, a national coalition of tenant activists.
In California, where one in five people lives in poverty once rent is figured in, lawmakers have offered a flurry of bills to streamline building regulations, expand tenant protections and put more money toward subsidized housing. For many tenants, those efforts are not nearly enough. Up and down the state, activists and renters’ groups are using California’s tradition of citizen government to put voter initiatives on the ballot.
There was a similar movement two years ago, when activists in a handful of cities in Silicon Valley and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area promoted rent-control initiatives. They met with middling success, but as rents have risen further and rising homelessness has become an issue statewide, tenants’ groups are betting that voters will be much more receptive this time.
As a result, this year’s rent-control drives are more ambitious, in county seats like Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Santa Ana; big Los Angeles suburbs like Pasadena, Glendale, Inglewood and Long Beach; and the San Diego suburb of National City.
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Some organizers are so confident that they are willing to try do-overs. The Santa Rosa City Council passed a rent-control measure in 2016, prompting a landlord-backed proposal that repealed the measure in a special election last year. Now, after the fires that destroyed thousands of homes across Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County last year, organizers are getting ready to collect signatures for an initiative to put rent control back in place.
“People are already supportive of rent control, and even more so after the fire,” said Davin Cardenas, a director at the North Bay Organizing Project. “The need has not gone away, so we feel like we have a very good chance of winning.”
A Costly Proposition
Running in parallel to the various local rent-control drives is a statewide initiative that would repeal a longstanding state law limiting local rent regulations. That measure is backed by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, whose director, Michael Weinstein, has put tens of millions behind ballot measures on health care and housing issues. That effort, should it end up on the ballot, is likely to escalate into a war of radio, billboard and television ads that could surpass $100 million in combined spending, according to political consultants who have run statewide campaigns.
For a long time, the answer was high above Hong Kong’s bustling city streets. Laundry hung out to dry on poles sticking out from the sides of buildings was so ubiquitous that it was jokingly called Hong Kong’s “national flag.”
That began to change in the 1980s, when washing machines and dryers became affordable as Hong Kong got wealthier, buoyed by the opening up of China’s economy and the city’s establishment as a major financial center.
Walk around Hong Kong’s public housing blocks and old tenement buildings today, and it quickly becomes clear that many residents still hang their clothes outside to dry. But rising incomes have allowed much of Hong Kong’s population to move into sleek, glass apartment towers, without all the visible hanging laundry.
Now, as housing prices grow ever more expensive per square foot, the challenge is no longer affording the washing and drying machines themselves, but finding the space to put them.
One result was a surge in demand for drop-off service at commercial laundries, which have long been common in Hong Kong. That led to such a backlog at some laundries that some customers faced days-long waits just to get their clothes back.
Enter self-service laundromats.
On a recent evening after work, Michael Bolger, 27, sat reading a dog-eared book while waiting for his clothes at Coffee & Laundry.
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Mr. Bolger, a native of Ireland who works at a bitcoin exchange, said that when he first moved to Hong Kong in 2016, his flat was too small to fit a dryer, and the humidity prevented his clothes from drying properly on a line. For a while he used a drop-off laundry, but his clothes would sometimes come back with tears and stains.
“It’s nice to just sit and read in a place that’s not your apartment,” he said of Coffee & Laundry. “It’s kind of therapeutic, sitting here and watching the washing machines.”
Not far from Coffee & Laundry is a branch of LaundrYup, a local chain of self-service laundromats. The shop, steps away from a street full of antique stores, is tiny and strictly functional, with shiny white floor tiles, bright fluorescent lights and a single red bench. Instead of a cafe, there are lockers rented out to SF Express, a logistics company sometimes referred to as China’s FedEx.
Patten Mak, the chain’s operations manager, said the combination of high demand and low maintenance and labor costs made it possible for even a tiny laundromat to earn the equivalent of thousands of dollars per month, enough to entice new chains to enter the market.
Across the harbor, in the working-class neighborhood of Tai Kok Tsui, a woman tapped away at a game of mah-jongg on her phone while waiting for her sheets to dry at a branch of Water Laundry, another local chain. Nearly every inch of the wall in the small laundromat was covered with machines.
“Us working class, we don’t have the money to buy a washing machine, and there’s no space to dry clothes at home,” said the 40-year-old housewife, who gave her name as Ms. Lo. She said she lived in a cramped 90-square-foot subdivided flat with her husband.
“This is an economic problem,” she said. “You wouldn’t use this kind of laundromat if you have money.”
The spread of laundromats has begun to alter the social fabric of the city as laundry, which was once conducted in private, has been forced into the public realm, said Jianxiang Huang, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the University of Hong Kong.
“This is essentially changing the way people socialize, the way people live their lives, changing their mind-sets,” Mr. Huang said.
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That is exactly the goal of Mr. Lo, the co-founder of Coffee & Laundry, who said he wanted his shop to be as much a neighborhood hangout as a place to wash clothes. To this end, he has put tables on the sidewalk and scheduled events like an exhibition of a local comic book artist.
On a recent evening, there was a steady trickle of customers going in and out of Coffee & Laundry. Some milled around in slippers and pajama pants, counting down the last few minutes of the dryer cycle. Others said they had come for the coffee and ambience.
“Now in Hong Kong, people aren’t always very neighborly,” Mr. Lo said. Since opening Coffee & Laundry, however, “I’ve gotten to know my neighbors and the owners of dried seafood shops nearby,” he said.
The investigations, known as “secretary-initiated cases” to indicate their importance, had been used in the past to set precedent and to put other localities and developers on notice.
One of the delayed investigations looked at an ordinance in Hesperia, Calif., that prevented the siting of neighborhood group homes for parolees and former offenders throughout the city’s neighborhoods. HUD investigators saw the case as an important test of the federal resolve to rehabilitate low-level offenders, who often face housing and job discrimination when they are released, leaving them in need of government assistance.
Other cases that were held up involved questions about the accessibility to the disabled of new dwellings built by a pair of large residential construction companies, Toll Brothers and Epcon Communities, in New York City and Ohio, according to a department official.
One high-profile case never made it to that stage.
HUD had opened a case in late 2016 in response to a ProPublica article that said Facebook gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “ethnic affinities” from seeing their ads when their social media habits identified them as black, Hispanic or Asian-American.
But even before Ms. Farías was appointed, Mr. Carson’s aides ordered fair housing division officials to cancel a planned negotiating session with Facebook executives, leaving HUD to take Facebook at its word that the company’s “policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate.”
Then, after taking office, Ms. Farías sent a one-page letter to Facebook ordering, without explanation, the termination of a preliminary investigation into the company’s advertising practices.
Fair housing groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan saying that Facebook continues to discriminate against certain groups — including women, veterans with disabilities and single mothers — in the way that it allows advertisers to target audiences for their ads.
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Ms. Farías, an official at HUD in the George W. Bush administration, has not initiated any high-priority cases of her own, according to agency officials. And she has made it clear that she does not intend to aggressively pursue cases that are not instituted “by my secretary,” meaning Mr. Carson, according to an official who spoke with her last year.
“For all intents and purposes, this administration is stopping the enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws at the worst possible time,” said Gustavo Velasquez, who served as assistant secretary for fair housing during the last three years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“It’s not just the lack of an agenda, which is what I thought we were dealing with for the first year or so, but an attempt to reverse all the advances we made through regulations and enforcement actions,” said Mr. Velasquez, who now works for the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan progressive think tank in Washington.
This is not the first time critics have accused Mr. Carson, the only African-American man in President Trump’s cabinet, of trying to stymie civil rights enforcement. Shortly after he was confirmed last year, Mr. Carson tried to reverse an Obama-era program that would make it easier for recipients of housing vouchers to use them in affluent neighborhoods.
The move was struck down by the courts, and Mr. Carson abandoned the effort.
Last week, Mr. Carson told members of the Senate Banking Committee that he planned to delay another Obama-era rule that would have required local governments to create detailed plans to integrate racially divided neighborhoods. And a provision barring localities from using federal funding to undertake such programs was stealthily inserted into the 2018 spending plan passed last week by Congress.
Despite these moves, Mr. Brown, the HUD spokesman, said the department was merely “looking to streamline” its enforcement efforts and to focus on new, neglected areas of discrimination.
“There is no mission shift. We are, in fact, putting more emphasis in sexual harassment” complaints, Mr. Brown wrote in an email. “In addition, 60 percent of the fair housing complaints we receive are disability related, and the majority of those have to do with service animals.”
The most significant fight over fair housing under Mr. Trump is taking place in Houston, a sprawling metropolis ranked in numerous studies as one of the United States’ most segregated cities, where overt opposition to a housing development based on race and income has drawn the attention of career HUD investigators.
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In January 2017, before Mr. Obama left office, HUD lawyers accused Houston officials of violating fair housing requirements cited in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, had killed a 233-unit mixed-income, mixed-race housing development slated for an affluent white area known for its high-end shopping and excellent schools.
HUD told the city to undertake specific remedies as a condition of continued funding, including the approval of the development, known as the Fountain View Project, and the adoption of tough new zoning laws.
In a scathing letter, HUD officials accused Mr. Turner, who is African-American, of succumbing to “racially motivated local opposition,” claiming that he caved to protests by white business owners and residents.
Mr. Turner has denied the accusation, arguing that he opposed the development because only 23 apartments were set aside for low-income families. He also objected to the idea of forced integration, putting him in agreement with Mr. Carson.
“I have chosen to stay in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I will not tell children in similar communities they must live somewhere else,” said Mr. Turner, who grew up in an all-black development.
But he might have had other reasons for opposing the project. In one meeting, Mr. Turner privately admitted that he hoped his position on the project would coax white Republican state legislators to support a bill needed to restructure Houston’s ailing pension system, according to a former federal official who attended the meeting.
The mayor denied that account.
“He never told anyone he opposed the Fountain View Project to win votes for his pension overhaul,” said Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for Mr. Turner.
Still, few Democrats have done quite so well in negotiating with the Trump administration as Mr. Turner, who began pressing Mr. Carson to release the city from the order shortly after Mr. Carson was confirmed.
Ms. Farías, with Mr. Carson’s blessing, began negotiating directly with Mr. Turner and other city officials. She largely excluded the career lawyers who had already begun drafting a tougher order — one that required the city to pay the Houston Housing Authority, Fountain View’s developer, as much as $14 million if it insisted on blocking the deal, according to an official in Houston.
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But Mr. Turner, who believes the case to be a distraction from his city’s rebuilding effort, prevailed.
This month, Ms. Farías signed a new, less stringent agreement that other Houston officials eager to get federal money flowing into hard-hit neighborhoods — including Representative Al Green, a Democrat and harsh Carson critic — hailed as a victory. But a coalition of local advocacy groups and national organizations are suing to block the disbursement of $5 billion in HUD recovery money unless the city abides by civil rights-era fair housing laws.
“If this isn’t a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then damn it, I don’t know what is,” said John Henneberger, a director of Texas Housers, an advocacy group that filed a lawsuit last week in Federal District Court to enforce the original HUD letter.
“Fountain View was kind of the last stand,” he said. “We spent eight or nine years documenting systematic and pervasive racial discrimination in Houston — it is an open-and-shut case.”
Mr. Brown, the HUD spokesman, said the agreement required the city to “put in place new procedures for the building of affordable housing” and a study on how to increase affordable housing in the city’s Galleria district, where Fountain View was to be built.
There are other signs of change within HUD that could make it far less likely that similar cases would ever be pursued.
Ms. Farías, according to six current department officials, has told HUD managers that she intends to replace her top subordinate, Timothy Smyth, who played a central role in the Houston case. Bryan Greene, another senior manager, will be reassigned as part of the shake-up, the officials said.
Mr. Brown, in an email, said no one had been reassigned yet — but he added that it was “well within the assistant secretary’s authority after 120 days to reassign senior-level personnel.”
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Morale at the division is sinking. At a meeting this month of HUD regional housing directors in Atlanta, Ms. Farías — a former vice chairwoman of the Bexar County, Tex., Republicans and a Trump campaign supporter — told one of the directors that she preferred older HUD employees because they were more likely to have had experience working for Republican administrations.
Earlier, according to two aides who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, she had told her staff that it was her intention to root out people she viewed as “Obama plants.”
Ms. Farías, through a spokesman, denied making those statements.