Thursday, March 29, 2012

High- and low-income campuses in SoMa

We have a funny couple of semi-walled gardens forming around each other in western South of Market, San Francisco. One is for high-paid tech workers; the other is for poor people. Neither one is as completely isolated as a company town, but in both cases the effect could be halfway similar. In both cases there's this sense of keeping people who are beholden to large institutions out of the sorts of trouble they could get into in a more traditionally jumbled urban environment. But these two respectively isolating worlds do have to deal with each other, and that could get interesting.

What I mean is, it happens that the rules of a major housing subsidy program encourage nonprofit developers to build housing that clumps poor people together in certain South of Market census tracts. At the same time, we all know that the fortunes of high-tech design have brought Twitter, Zynga and other large high-paying employers to this very same neighborhood. South of Market is being touted as the next big thing in high-end residential real estate development, primarily because of expected demand from high-tech workers (see here and here).

Low-income downtown tenants who qualify for subsidy programs, and young high-paid tech workers might seem very different in a lot of ways, but I'm going to guess they're each likely to be people who left home, who for better or worse don't live in the bosoms of conventional extended families, who are maybe a little vulnerable to having institutions fill in for the traditionally familial types of blended support and control.

So we're building a poverty campus and a high-tech campus on the very same streets.

About the subsidized housing thing:

Developers in the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program get extra tax credits for clumping subsidized properties in census tracts with specially low incomes and high housing costs. Two of these are side by side South of Market.

These past ten-fifteen years we've been watching rows of nonprofit-run subsidized housing properties extend along Howard and Folsom Streets in western SoMa. It tends to produce a campus-like effect: lots of small rental units, interior community rooms, not much liveliness on the street.

The extra credits for LIHTC subsidized developers are available in areas called Qualified Census Tracts (QCTs) or Difficult Development Areas. This HUD widget will tell you if you're in a QCT as recently defined. If you want the relevant census tract map for San Francisco here it is. I'm pretty sure those chunks marked 176.01, 178.01, and 178.02 are the QCTs.

Last year some scholars looked at the subject on a national level and said that, yes, the incentive to build in QCTs does encourage concentration of subsidized housing properties, which in turn can encourage racial segregation as well as the economic kind. Interesting study on the subject here by Keren M. Horn and Katherine M. O'Regan of NYU. (I was surprised to see claims in this HUD research dept. report that San Francisco isn't even extreme when it comes to clumping: at least seven other cities are supposedly worse.)

So how are these two groups going to look -- the poor people and the techies?

Likely similar in some ways:

In the poor people's demographic, Food Runners and other surplus-food programs come around to unload produce and baked goods and catering leftovers in the community rooms. Meanwhile the high cost of having a car, and the disabilities many people live with, mean that almost everyone is dependent on public transit. And the restrictions on choice that come with poverty mean that most people stick to relatively limited, predictable routines day by day. And people's housing subsidies and incomes are all likely to depend intimately and instantly on their continued good behavior.

In the high-pay/overwork demographic, I'm gonna guess offices will be providing meals and massages at work a la Google, and the walk-to-work factor will be treated as an amenity, and not having a car will be a matter for boasting, and everyone will be working far too many hours to have much of a life outside of work. And the tech workers, too, will enjoy their amenities subject to the institution's approval of their daily good behavior.

Either way, we'll be talking about people who live in large modern buildings without a lot of pleasant street presence, entering and leaving their homes by passing front desks where the staff perform the intertwined functions of protection and surveillance. They won't fully keep house for themselves in the sense that people keep house in a rural or traditional extended-family household. They'll depend in significant ways on large institutions. They'll mainly spend all day, every day, in the same general area of town among neighbors who are more or less like themselves. The tech workers and the subsidized-housing residents will have a lot in common with each other when it comes to having choices conveniently narrowed for them whether they like it or not. They'll have less in common with, for example, the owner of a small business like one of the restaurants that might (separately) send out meals to them both. Or a rural farm family. Or an independent old coot camping on an urban edge.

Now, what happens when the members of these separate but adjacent populations, each living their own separate enclave-lives, under their own separate kinds of tutelage, happen to encounter each other?

Will they recognize each other as fellow inmates?

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