Mark Simon

We bought our house in the hills of Redwood City in 1980. The smartest financial move I have ever made was not moving.

The house is worth a ridiculous amount of money now — about 20 times what we paid for it. It is probably worth more than the median cost of a house in San Mateo County, just recently reported to be $2 million, the highest in the Bay Area.

If I were to buy the house now? … This hands me a laugh. I could not buy the house now. Just the property taxes would kill the deal.

A house up the street is in escrow, having been on the market a whopping 10 days. If the sale goes through, it probably means the value of my house will go up again.

I tend to be indifferent to money. If not for my late wife, there is a good chance I would be living in my car, convinced that this all was working out just fine. It is less a joke than a wry observation.

And, of course, it is no joke to anyone who cannot afford to buy a house here, has no idea how it would be possible to buy a house here that is remotely affordable and is not lucky, as am I and so many others, to be sitting on a pot of gold.

Yes, all of us worked hard to buy a home. We saved money, we made house payments, we held onto jobs, we sacrificed in other areas until we could manage the monthly costs of the roof over our heads.

But, make no mistake, anyone who owns a home in this county and in this market is lucky. Often, as it is in my case, lucky to have been born at the right time and in the right place. There are any number of “right” things that also had to happen, but that is a topic for another day.

Too many people I know do not understand how much luck of the draw had to do with where they live and the “character” of the neighborhood they prize so highly — and at a price others cannot afford.

They have a house. Hence, no housing crisis.

Preserving a neighborhood’s character is driving up the cost of living in that neighborhood. And, as the latest housing prices show, it is turning San Mateo County into an exclusive enclave.

In San Bruno, where my family moved in 1960, listening to the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series, our neighbors were a foreman at a brewery, a car salesman, a house painter and my dad was a salesman for Zellerbach Paper Company.

Of course, none of them could afford to live here now.

We face a growing ruckus over split lots and second-story units and backyard additions and all the other impending state mandates to build more housing, which includes, of course, rental units. We will hear, always, from those who do not want these things, who do not want this change.

But perhaps it is time for the definition of a neighborhood’s character to include who can live there, not just what they live in.

It is time for us to rethink all of it. The change is not coming — it is here, and we must decide if we want a community that includes more than just the lucky.

It was my privilege to work from the very beginning on what became the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a vision of redoing El Camino Real, transforming it into world-class boulevard.

At the heart of this vision, which, believe it or not, has been endorsed by every city on El Camino, were clusters of small, medium and large retail at key gathering points, served by transit. Between these commercial “nodes” would be high-rise, high-density residences.

They would be set back from the sidewalk. There would be greenbelts and bike paths and parklets. They could be designed to look like classic mansions, but inside there would be multiresidential homes. They would be attractive to the eye.

And yet, virtually every new project on El Camino is limited in height to what can arouse the least opposition, density is constrained and the buildings go right up to the curb.

If you need a model, look at the Foster Square development next to City Hall, the kind of construction that should be in abundance on El Camino, which, of course, does not run through the Foster City. It can be done. It is not a time for the hesitant or the fearful. It is a time for bold imagination and more than luck.

Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at marksimon@smdailyjournal.com.

Recommended for you

(14) comments

Cindy Cornell

Thank you for this admission to luck of the draw - or rather timing. "Yes, all of us worked hard to buy a home. We saved money, we made house payments, we held onto jobs, we sacrificed in other areas until we could manage the monthly costs of the roof over our heads." Renters do this every damned day but are still subject to the nastiest attitudes and comments about how "they just need to work harder and save - just like we did." There are renters working 2 and 3 jobs to keep a roof over their heads - and yet they have absolutely no housing security. No ability to settle down and raise their kids in one community. And then there's the retort - "not everyone can live here - go somewhere else." Yet this is now a cancer throughout the country, anywhere near jobs. Don't even get me started on what it does to seniors who don't own a home. A story of a 97 year old who died within a week of getting an eviction notice after renting a home for 66 years in Burlingame made international news coverage, yet there was absolutely no shame, no concern, no humanity afforded to her or to others who followed in her footsteps. No policy changes, no significant senior housing built, no boldness on the part of elected leaders, and SM County remains mired in a lack of true concern about "others."

Lou

Mr. Simon,

May I assume from what you write that you paid approximately $100,000 for your house in 1980 (if it would sell now for at least $2 million, as you state, which is TWENTY TIMES what you paid) ?

With all do respect, did you perhaps misstate by a few digits here when you say TWENTY TIMES. I know of hundreds of people who bought dwellings here around that same year, and their property is now worth maybe TEN TIMES purchase price, if that. People who bought those same dwellings in 2000, now have a gain of about 2-1/2 times purchase price. Certainly a far cry from 20 times.

Point being, posting information that stretches beyond reality is fodder for those who are prone to be resentful of those who "have," (and worked VERY HARD TO GET what they have now), instead of learning from them as to how they can obtain a home also.

Mark Simon

Yes, that is exactly the calculation I am stating and there is no question as to its accuracy.

Eaadams

Yea I don't question the numbers. My parents first home was $30K and it last sold for well over $6M and today probably closer to $10M. I wish we could have held onto that home.

Tommy Tee

My neighbors paid 24,000 in 1963, and their home is now worth 1.5 million. That's 63x, so Mark's numbers seems accurate to me.

Thomas Morgan

Thanks, for the article I am not sure I agree. Over the past year I noted the numerous Planning Commission Meetings due to no developers wanting to bring projects forward. I also looked at the number of projects with approved planning application two rather large projects Hillsdale Terraces and Essex at Central Park were approved February 16,2017 and August 28, 2018, respectively. Perhaps a future column could be about conversations you had with each asking what is taking so long. I also see plenty of project being built, so the homeowners are not doing a great job if what was described is true.

While there are complaints about projects needing have Union Labor and contracts, I do not see Union Labor demanding housing over office, nor are they refusing to work on office projects to help increase housing production. Perhaps another future column could be with labor to get their perspective and solutions to increase housing production in a meaningful way.

Lastly, I am hearing a large number who benefited much like you have who are house rich and are demanding more housing be built. Can we get a future column with some of them who sold their house, set aside they need, moved into market rate housing, and donated the rest to affordable housing causes?

Thomas Morgan

* cancelled Planning Commission Meetings

aurosharman

Right on, Mark. As a supporter of the Grand Boulevard Initiative, I consider it a goal that the people who work service jobs in the commercial nodes -- each town's "downtown" strip, along ECR or streets that branch off of ECR, like my own town of San Bruno's San Mateo Ave and San Bruno Ave -- should plausibly have the option to live at a walk or bike commute distance from their jobs. There's no way that happens unless we get ambitious. Many cities are complaining about their RHNA numbers, but those numbers are honestly not even that hard to hit. We just have to buckle down and agree on how we're going to do it, producing a wide variety of different housing types, especially the "missing middle" / "gentle density" types, to meet different people's needs.

Obligatory disclaimer: I do not endorse any specific project or plan at this time, and as a Planning Commissioner I will evaluate any such specific project or plan if and when it comes before me, balancing its specific pros and cons. I'm just articulating the general principle that we ought to house our workforce.

I'd really like to see a state law that explicitly recognizes the problem of the jobs/housing imbalance. Like, make it so that we have an analysis of your local J/H ratio, and if it's above some cutoff, then you _cannot_ issue permits for new commercial space, without identifying specific new housing for 120% the number of people expected to be drawn in by the commercial space's new jobs. (You'd want a method where the jobs and housing are both counted in concentric rings, discounted for distance, and similar for the new housing. You can always just do mixed-use projects that cover their own housing need. And if you've already built some housing recently, you can "bank" that for credit towards the next commercial project. You could even allow some horse-trading, where you get a community benefit package from the commercial, and then hand it off to a neighboring town to fund housing there -- but the distance-discounting should ensure it really has to be a _neighbor_. Palo Alto's answer to where housing should be built can't be "Morgan Hill".)

DavidP

Current situation brought to by a handful of greedy home owners who won the lottery, aim to prop up their own property valuation, pay as little in taxes as they can, accumulate intergenerational wealth, claim that everyone wants the same thing they do but don't deserve it because they haven't worked as hard, feel renters have less rights, demand unlimited street parking for themselves but complain about new comers causing congestion.

Developers, in contrast are local businesses that contract with union labor to undertake actual construction work but have to pay whatever jacked up prices property owners demand. As a long time homeowner myself, my community's character would be better off if it embraced change.

Terence Y

So now a handful of homeowners are greedy because they worked hard to buy their home and shape their community? For the rest of homeowners who supposedly aren’t greedy, how many of them will sell their homes at a cut-rate price? I’m betting none of them will and instead will take what money the market will bear. As for the high cost of development, if we didn’t have all these jacked up “woke” requirements, high development fees and costs, the cost of housing would be reduced. Builders aren’t going to build at a loss. BTW, if people feel their property taxes are too low, they can always donate to their local school districts to help pay teachers unions. Their neighbors would be appreciative.

wlydecker

Thank WWII for living the good life. America was on the top of the world. People born during the Depression were so few they could pick their job because the Boomers were so many. The huge number born after the war needed tending by this silent generation. One thing I hope Simon looks into is the cost paid for the environmental movement on housing cost. i think Foster City was the last in line for "if you build it, they will come." True that we'd probably have homes replacing salmon but maybe the great unwashed wouldn't care. A house is not a home.

AllAreWelcome

Really great piece. 2 quotes that resonated with me:

"Too many people I know do not understand how much luck of the draw had to do with where they live and the “character” of the neighborhood they prize so highly — and at a price others cannot afford."

This is very true. Philosophy is no longer a required subject in many schools/universities but the concept of "moral luck" is something that everyone should look into and see if it resonates with them.

"perhaps it is time for the definition of a neighborhood’s character to include who can live there, not just what they live in."

Absolutely true. People shaped the communities we live in, and continue to do so. If we, the local residents, decide we want it to change, we absolutely can change it and still feel like it's our community. Resisting and forcing the state or federal government to intervene is just going to make everyone unhappy.

Jeff Regan

This column brought to you by Bohannon Development Co.

Mark Simon

What do you mean? I don’t work for Bohannon.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for visiting the Daily Journal.

Please purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading. To continue, please log in, or sign up for a new account.

We offer one free story view per month. If you register for an account, you will get two additional story views. After those three total views, we ask that you support us with a subscription.

A subscription to our digital content is so much more than just access to our valuable content. It means you’re helping to support a local community institution that has, from its very start, supported the betterment of our society. Thank you very much!