Great Moments in a Broken City

I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I’m not in the market to move. I’m not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It’s a time-killer more than anything.

This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I’m somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.

I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:

That’s about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It’s San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place — an 800 square foot one bedroom — is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That’s pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you’re familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it’s par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.

​Normally at this point I’d click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at from early 2015. In relevant part:

1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.

. . . According to a representative from the Housing Rights Committee, it’s not uncommon for construction post-fire to be delayed. The longer landlords hold out on rebuilding units, the more insurance money they can claim, and the more likely it is that displaced tenants won’t return, allowing them to rent their units out at market rate . . .

​. . . in a bizarre coincidence, it appears that Flynn’s company visited the building at 1500 McAllister Street the day before last month’s fire — and may have in fact visited one of the units from which the fire is believed to have originated.

I don’t know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, ​still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.

I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?

I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.

If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.

After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward “home,” but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.

And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.