Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Man Who Helped Save the Bay by Trying to Destroy It

The Man Who Helped Save the Bay by Trying to Destroy It

A critical appreciation by Charles Wollenberg.
Boom California on April 14, 2015

Editor's Note Is @Scott_Wiener a modern day John Reber with a fixation to "Save the Bay Area" by destroying it with SB827? In the 40s and 50s Reber proposed to filling the bay to reclaim land/build water storage. He was taken seriously too.

by Charles Wollenberg


A critical appreciation

In 1961 three remarkable women—Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Ester Gulick— started Save the Bay, a grassroots citizens’ movement to preserve and protect San Francisco Bay. It turned out to be one of the most successful efforts at environmental activism in American history. As University of California, Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker has observed, the movement transformed the popular vision of the bay from a “place of production and circulation of goods and people… of no more aesthetic or spiritual import than today’s freeways” to a “vast scenic, recreational, and ecological open space.” New public policies ended bay fill, promoted the restoration of marshes and wetlands, and opened hundreds of miles of bay shoreline to the public. The bay became “the visual centerpiece of the metropolis, a watery commons for the region, and a source of pride to Bay Area residents.”1

Yet the dramatic achievements of the Save the Bay movement in the 1960s would not have been possible without the defeat of the Reber Plan in the 1950s. John Reber’s proposal to build two giant dams to transform most of the San Francisco Bay into two freshwater lakes would have destroyed the estuary as we know it. Had Reber’s dream come true, there would have been no bay to save. The Reber Plan also became a crucial and lasting symbolic inspiration for the movement to save the bay. Although the history of the Save the Bay movement is well documented, the rise and fall of the Reber Plan is less well known today. Almost entirely forgotten is the personal story of John Reber, a remarkable figure in Bay Area history who seemed to combine the ambition of Robert Moses, New York’s larger-than-life master planner, with the personality and personal frustrations of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.2


Via Flickr user Anika Erdmann.

When twenty-year-old John Reber came to California from his native Ohio in 1907, he planned to become a teacher. But he couldn’t resist the siren call of show business and instead became an actor, director, and writer. He wrote screenplays for Mack Sennet comedies. (Reber said his method was to write tragedies and then “throw in a couple of custard pies” for laughs.) For two decades, he made a good living writing and directing plays and pageants in communities up and down California. Local service clubs such as the Elks usually sponsored the productions, which featured townspeople in the cast. Reber estimated he staged more than 300 performances in sixty towns and cities with local casts of 100 to 5,000 people. This put him in contact with “all the best people,” influential men and women who might later support his bay plan. Senator and former Governor Hiram Johnson said Reber knew more people than anyone else in California. Reber believed his show business experience prepared him to create his grand plan. “What is master planning but stage managing an area?” he asked. According to Reber, the implementation of the plan would be “the greatest pageant on earth.”3

Reber argued the bay was “a geographic mistake,” interfering with the efficient operation of the surrounding metropolis. Because of the bay, the transcontinental railroad ended in Oakland instead of its natural destination, San Francisco. Reber initially favored an earthen causeway to bring the rails directly into the city. But as he traveled around California and learned of the extraordinary value of freshwater to the state’s development, his plan became far more ambitious. By 1929 his proposal included two large earth-filled dams, one located just south of the current Bay Bridge and the other at the approximate location of today’s Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. While the tops of the structures would serve as transportation corridors for rail and auto traffic, the dams would also block saltwater intrusion into both the north and south bays, creating two massive freshwater lakes. Under the Reber Plan, only about 15 percent of the present bay would have remained subject to ocean tides. Reber estimated the lakes would store about 10 million acre-feet of water, more than twice the capacity of Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir. The water would have been available for residential and industrial use around the bay and for irrigation in regional agricultural areas such as the Santa Clara Valley.4

The Reber Plan also proposed massive amounts of new bay fill, creating about 20,000 acres of additional dry land on what was once wetlands and open water. The largest fill would have been off the Richmond, Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville shoreline. The plan envisioned a twelve-mile freshwater channel through these new lands, linking the two lakes and allowing runoff from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to circulate in both the north and south waterways. The plan included locks to allow shipping to pass from salt water to freshwater. Reber added features as time went on: additional port facilities, an aqueduct to transport water to the San Joaquin Valley, an airport, a regional transportation terminal, and a high-speed military freeway connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles. As World War II approached, Reber planned new military elements, including naval bases on filled land along the Marin County shoreline and secure hangars and fuel storage facilities in caves created by the excavation of fill for construction of the earthen dams. Later Reber promoted the proposed transportation corridors as evacuation routes in the event of atomic attack.5 During its nearly thirty years of design and debate, the Reber Plan was an organic document, changing to reflect new circumstances and political realities. But the transportation links and the freshwater lakes remained the key elements of John Reber’s grand vision.


The Reber Plan, via Flickr user Eric Fischer.

Reber belonged to a generation of Americans who had great faith in massive public works. Beginning with the construction of the transcontinental railroad, an enterprise heavily subsidized by the federal government, such projects dramatically affected California’s economic and social development. As early as the 1880s, state engineers studied the concept of saltwater barriers on San Francisco Bay, and in the early twentieth century, a barrier at Carquinez Strait was championed by Contra Costa County business interests concerned about high saltwater content that interfered with industrial processes. Contra Costa industrialists eventually formed the Salt Water Barrier Association to lobby state officials. But by the early 1930s, state engineers had convinced Contra Costa County that the solution to its problem was not a saltwater barrier, but a vast state water project that included high upstream dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, combined with freshwater pumped from the delta.6 In 1933, California voters approved a bond issue to support the proposal. When the Depression made it difficult for the state to sell the bonds, Washington, D.C. took control of what became the federal Central Valley Project.

Reber initially proposed his plan in the inauspicious year of 1929. Not only was 1929 the beginning of the Great Depression, it coincided with the state engineers’ decision to reject barriers as a solution for Bay Area water problems. In addition, Reber’s plan surfaced as both San Francisco and the East Bay were building public aqueducts to bring Sierra Nevada water to Bay Area cities. Reber’s transportation proposals were upstaged by construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Yet in an age of great public works projects that routinely transformed natural systems, Reber’s plan continued to attract attention and support. In 1933, a prominent member of the Elks Club arranged a meeting between Reber and former president Herbert Hoover, who had returned to Stanford University after being defeated for reelection by Franklin Roosevelt. A world-class engineer before going into politics, Hoover proclaimed the Reber Plan “the most complete proposal for the bay.” Hoover’s endorsement gave the project significant credibility and publicity. In 1935, Reber retired from show business to promote the plan full-time. In 1940, he put a model of the proposal on display at the world’s fair on Treasure Island, giving his grand scheme unparalleled public exposure. By 1940, then, the Reber Plan was well launched. For the next two decades it was a matter of intense discussion and debate in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and even Washington, D.C.7

Reber devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to promoting his dream. He had little interest in personal wealth. Supported by savings and contributions from his entourage of “Reberites,” he and his wife lived frugally in a modest San Francisco home. He had almost no staff support, turning out a vast amount of correspondence and other paperwork on his home typewriter. Reber was an unusually friendly man, almost always on a first-name basis with supporters and opponents alike. He loved public attention and was willing to talk to any audience, from local garden clubs, service groups, church gatherings, and chambers of commerce, to statewide meetings of business, labor, and farm organizations. Over the course of more than two decades, he claimed to have given more than a thousand speeches on behalf of the plan. He’d arrive at such events with an impressive array of maps and charts and would lace his presentations with homespun humor. His appearances before legislative committees were often tours de force, with Reber the performer dominating the session.8

But for all his public relations skills, John Reber desperately needed technical credibility. Although he studied the dozens of scholarly papers and reports that seemed to fill every available tabletop in his home, Reber was a high school graduate with no formal engineering training. His ability to gain the support of professional engineers was crucial to his success. Herbert Hoover was the first but not the last of such supporters. Philip G. Bruton, a retired general from the Army Corps of Engineers, became one of Reber’s strongest advocates. Probably the most important of Reber’s supporting engineers was Leon H. Nishkian. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Nishkian headed a distinguished San Francisco engineering firm that participated in many of the state’s most important construction projects. Beginning in 1940, he worked diligently and without compensation on behalf of the Reber Plan. He prepared engineering schematics and illustrations and came up with a highly favorable cost/benefit analysis. Nishkian submitted written testimony to government agencies and lent his considerable professional reputation to the cause. Due at least in part to Nishkian’s influence, The California Engineer, a respected professional journal, concluded that “competent engineers have examined the project closely and feel that it is entirely feasible.” According to Reber, Nishkian’s untimely death in 1947 was “the blow of blows.”9

San Francisco business and political forces were among the powerful interests that rallied behind the plan, believing it would have provided increased regional transportation access to the city’s downtown and, in theory at least, an unlimited supply of freshwater. The central waterfront, the heart of the city’s commercial port, would have remained open to salt water with easy access to the Golden Gate, the only Bay Area port facility with this advantage under the Reber Plan. In 1942, the city’s board of supervisors formally supported the plan, a position enthusiastically backed by Mayor Angelo Rossi. San Francisco’s legislative representatives, including influential assemblyman Thomas Maloney, lobbied for the proposal in Sacramento. Much of the city’s press, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, also supported the Reber Plan.10

But Oakland and most of the East Bay took a very different position. The Port of Oakland had grown steadily in the 1920s and 1930s, but under the Reber Plan, Oakland’s harbor would have been isolated behind a dam. Oceangoing vessels would have had access only through locks located on the filled land off the Berkeley waterfront. (Much the same was true for the ports of Richmond, Stockton, and Sacramento located behind the northern dam.) Irving Kahn, a prominent Oakland retailer and president of the city’s Downtown Property Association, condemned the Reber Plan as “Hitler Tactics,” a plot by San Francisco to keep Oakland in an inferior competitive position “just because you are bigger than we are.” Both the Oakland City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors opposed the plan. James McElroy, president of the Oakland port commission, argued the plan would destroy maritime activity in the East Bay. “There is no reason,” he said, “for taking the bay and chopping it into a pond.”11

California farmers were among the Reber Plan’s strongest supporters. The state’s Farm Bureau Federation backed the proposal, and its Bay Area affiliates, such as the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, were especially enthusiastic. Santa Clara Valley fruit and vegetable growers, like many Bay Area and Central Valley farmers, expected to gain access to cheap irrigation water pumped from the new lakes. One of Reber’s most enthusiastic backers was John E. Pickett, editor of The California Farmer and The Pacific Rural Press, two San Francisco–based publications with substantial agribusiness readership. The California Farmer became “a rabid oracle of Reberism,” while the Rural Press referred to the plan as “the greatest project ever conceived.” Pickett eventually became president of the San Francisco Bay Project, a nonprofit corporation established to provide John Reber with financial and organizational support. However, agricultural backing was not unanimous. Many delta farmers feared that during intense winter storms the water backed up behind the northern dam would overwhelm delta levies and flood the region’s fields.12

Reber hoped that World War II would increase support for his proposal. He added significant military infrastructure to the plan and argued that the new lakes would provide a secure water supply in case of attack. But Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade, commandant of the Twelfth Naval District, pointed out that the plan would put most of the Bay Area’s naval installations, including the Alameda Naval Air Station and the Mare Island and Hunters Point Naval Shipyards, in freshwater lakes behind the dams. Ships would have to pass through locks, causing “delay and risk to every vessel including danger of a complete blockade.” Admiral Greenslade concluded the Reber Plan “has no merit.”

Reber simply dismissed this, as he did virtually every other criticism. “We are not interested in people unable to grasp what we are driving at,” he said. “We don’t argue with people who are against us, because we know they will be with us eventually.” With Greenslade, at least, that turned out to be the case. After the admiral retired at the end of the war, he had an extraordinary change of heart and became one of Reber’s most prestigious supporters. However, this changed neither the Navy’s nor the Army’s official opposition to the.plan.13

The establishment of a “Joint Army-Navy Board on Additional Crossing of San Francisco Bay” in 1946 gave the Reberites another chance to gain military support. Only a decade old, the Bay Bridge already was experiencing traffic jams. Any new bridge or other trans-bay link required military approval. Reber offered his proposed south bay dam as an obvious answer. Designed to be 2,000 feet wide, it could accommodate thirty-two lanes of auto traffic, in addition to both transcontinental and interurban rail lines. Reber and Nishkian called for the board to approve at least the southern portion of the Reber Plan as part of the solution to the region’s transportation problems.

But after the war, the state of California turned against the Reber Plan, as momentum turned toward a major water project in the Central Valley. State Engineer Edward Hyatt and chairman A.M. Barton of the State Board of Reclamation both testified against the Reber/Nishkian proposal. Carl Schedler, a distinguished consulting engineer who had once been the president of the Contra Costa County Salt Water Barrier Association, also emerged as a formidable opponent. He challenged Nishkian’s optimistic financial projections and argued the plan posed a threat to delta agriculture. While the Army-Navy Board finally concluded that additional bay crossings were needed, it went out of its way to reject the Reber Plan. According to the board, Reber’s proposal “would result in a dislocation of industry, is considered economically unfeasible, and further is untenable from the standpoint of navigation and national interests.”14

If opponents thought that this strong language would deter Reber and his supporters, they were mistaken. In 1949 California Senator Sheridan Downey brought a subcommittee of the US Senate Committee on Public Works to San Francisco to hold public hearings on Reber’s proposal. Downey was sympathetic to the plan, and supporters outnumbered opponents five-to-one on the list of witnesses. John Reber was the first to testify, entertaining the room for more than two hours in response to Downey’s friendly questions. Emphasizing the importance of hydraulic planning, Reber claimed “there was only one man who could live without water and that was W.C. Fields.” When a senator corrected one of Reber’s many biblical quotations, Reber replied, “I do the work and Mrs. Reber does the praying.” After making his usual strong pitch for the transportation and water elements of the plan, Reber discussed the recreational aspects, promising shoreline parks and “the greatest fishing hole in the world.” He admitted the plan might threaten the bay’s sturgeon fishery, but said “if we can get on friendly terms with Stalin…we can get a few eggs from the Volga River and replenish our supply.”15

After Reber’s testimony, San Francisco Bay Project president John Pickett orchestrated the appearance of dozens of additional supporting witnesses, including San Francisco Recreation Department director Josephine Randall, who strongly commended the plan’s recreational components.16 But opponents, though seriously outnumbered, also had their say. Glen Woodruff, an engineer representing Oakland, said the plan would put his city “at a very decided disadvantage competitively.” State Engineer Hyatt repeated his agency’s opposition, and for the first time was joined by representatives of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Both state and federal witnesses argued that proper management and expansion of the Central Valley Project would secure California’s water future far better than the Reber Plan. Carl Schedler listed a number of technical difficulties, among them the possibility that there would not be enough freshwater to keep the lakes full during the dry summer months. If lake level fell substantially below that of the remaining bay, operation of the locks would dump salt water back into the lakes. The Bureau of Reclamation feared that that the Central Valley Project would be required to divert water from farms and cities to keep the lakes above the saltwater level of the bay. In effect, the opponents argued the plan would create rather than alleviate a water shortage. Nevertheless, the subcommittee concluded that the proposal had promise and deserved further research. In 1950, Congress appropriated $2.5 million to support a comprehensive Army Corps of Engineers study of the Reber Plan.17




The Bay Model, via Flickr user Wayne Hsieh.

The Corps took thirteen years to complete the study, due in part to delays caused by the Korean War and other priorities. But the congressional appropriation was a victory for Reber and his supporters, and it attracted national attention. In November 1950, The Saturday Evening Post, the nation’s most popular weekly magazine, featured an article on the plan, comparing it in scope to Hoover Dam. The author, Frank J. Taylor, said that because of Reber’s advocacy, the proposal had gone from “a harebrained idea to a project backed by an impressive array of engineering brains.” Taylor described “Old Reber,” then sixty-two-years-old, as a compact, blue-eyed man in perpetual motion. He was “spry as a cricket,” “nimble as a goat,” “bouncing from office to office, to meetings, to public hearings,” always selling his plan. The article closed with Reber’s prediction: “We could be pumping freshwater out of the bay in two years.”18

In many respects, the Saturday Evening Post article was the high-water mark for the Reber Plan. Over the next five years, various agencies and branches of state government issued studies that were uniformly critical of the proposal. In 1949, the Assembly Committee on Tidelands Reclamation and Development commissioned John Savage, a well-regarded Denver engineer, to carry out the first independent professional study of the plan. Savage’s findings, released in 1951, were devastating. He confirmed that there was not enough water to keep the lakes full in the summer and too much water to avoid delta flooding in the winter. He also found that the lakes would become seriously polluted, particularly in the dry summer months. Savage pointed out that the Reber Plan would destroy several bay industries, including salt production and commercial fishing. He concluded that the plan was physically possible but “neither functionally nor economically feasible.” Savage’s conclusions were supported by the report of Cornelius Biemond, the water director of metropolitan Amsterdam, who was commissioned by the state legislature to study California’s hydraulic problems in 1953. Biemond estimated the true cost of the Reber Plan was $1.4 billion, not the $250 million figure used by Reber. In 1955, a state board of consultants, composed of five experienced engineers, said that while the Reber Plan “intended to foster industrial expansion, it would actually be most disruptive…. It would transform a great natural harbor into an artificial bottleneck.”19

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that John Reber took these setbacks “with a smile.” He replied at length to the critical reports in the newspaper’s This World weekly magazine. But instead of directly countering most of the technical points contained in the reports, Reber simply repeated the familiar arguments that he had been making for more than two decades. In effect, he claimed that the technical criticisms could not be valid because the plan was endorsed by distinguished engineers such as the late Leon Nishkian. Reber concluded that his plan was “a must” if the Bay Area was to increase its regional population from the current three million to a projected twenty-one million in the twenty-first century. A Chronicle editorial argued that the state reports should not be accepted as the last word, but the newspaper’s editors admitted the documents had an “impressive air of finality.”20

In fact, the plan never recovered from the combined impact of the state studies. By the mid-1950s, Reber was in poor health, suffering from severe asthma. But he gamely carried on, maintaining his public optimism. After one hospital visit, he told reporters, “I had a talk with the Lord. He told me I have five more years. And I’ m going to see the start of construction on the Reber Plan.” But it was not to be. On 16 October 1960, John Reber died at the age of 73. The Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner covered his death as a front page story. Even the New York Times printed a substantial obituary.21

During the last years of his life, Reber and his supporters pinned their remaining hopes on the much-delayed Army Corps of Engineers study. If it found the Reber Plan desirable and viable, they thought, the study would more than offset the damaging conclusions of the previous state reports. In 1957, the Corps built a giant hydraulic bay model on the Sausalito waterfront to study the proposal. It covered an acre and a half and was located in a large building that had once been the warehouse of Marinship, a World War II era shipyard. In 1960, researchers began running simulations of the Reber Plan on the model. The results confirmed some of the most discouraging findings of the state studies. The Corps of Engineers research report, published in 1963, concluded that the plan was “infeasible by any frame of reference.”22 This was the final nail in the coffin. The Reber Plan was dead, laid to rest three years after the passing of John Reber himself.

The Reber Plan was not killed by environmental opposition. It was defeated by the powerful interests it threatened and experts who believed it wouldn’t work. Neither the San Francisco–based Sierra Club nor any other mainline conservation organization took a position on Reber’s proposal. When the Save the Bay campaign began in 1961, Sierra Club executive director David Brower said his organization had other priorities. Preservation of pristine wilderness was more important than saving a gritty waterway surrounded by a heavily populated metropolitan region. The established conservation groups became actively involved only after Save the Bay generated considerable popular support. In 1965, just two years after the final defeat of the Reber Plan, the California legislature passed the McAteer Petris Act, establishing the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). The new agency had authority to regulate land use along the bayshore and establish a plan to guide future bay conservation and development policy. Four years later, Governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving BCDC’s permanent Bay Plan, a document that included powerful environmental protections for the estuary.23


Close up of the Bay Model via Flickr user Erik Ogan.

The establishment of BCDC and the approval of its ambitious plan were major victories for the Save the Bay movement. That movement was in turn a reflection of the new environmental consciousness that was part of the larger process of social and cultural change in the sixties. Save the Bay, initially an effort to protect the estuary from further land fill, evolved into a broad campaign to preserve and restore San Francisco Bay as a natural ecosystem. By contrast, the effort to defeat the Reber Plan was part of an argument over how best to use and exploit San Francisco Bay as a natural resource. If the Reber Plan had succeeded, there would have been no bay to preserve. The engineers, business leaders, military officers, bureaucrats, and politicians who opposed the Reber Plan made the subsequent Save the Bay movement possible. Without realizing it, they were Act I in the play to save the bay, an act that paved the way for a cultural re-envisioning of the bay that was as dramatic in its own terms as the physical transformation proposed by John Reber. While Reber’s dream is long dead, and the Reber Plan only resurfaces from time to time as a symbol of what might have been, the dreams and aspirations of the Save the Bay activists thrived and remain powerful today.

Rep. DeSaulnier questions Sec. Chao at hearing on the President's Infrastructure Plan

Rep. DeSaulnier questions Sec. Chao at hearing on the President's Infrastructure Plan

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Wiener "Dog and Pony Show" on SB827

Counter Argument to SB827 that will radically change zoning for millions of homes and businesses.


Counter-Argument

I received a very polite call from a gentleman about my arguments herein. I will try to do justice to his argument by summarizing it as follows:
In his view, it is unfair of those who have lived in a neighborhood for a long time to take away from others the opportunity to move there.
Here is my counter to that argument.
  • I certainly don’t believe anyone should be prevented from choosing to live wherever they want!
  • On the contrary: My argument is about long-term planning for major game-changing construction and who gets to do it.
  • I don’t know what a just — in the sense of being fair — solution is if everyone wants to live in the same place. We’ve selected basic capitalism as our guideline for the last few hundred years – you rent or buy where you can afford to – but maybe there’s a better answer. My personal preference is to pay more to the people who make our community work, so they can live here if they want; and raise taxes (including mine) to do it. But let’s have that discussion.
  • If we have that discussion and decide that there should be no zoning, and that citizens don’t get to express a preference about what types of construction goes on in their neighborhood, then fine – we can go full Houston on this, and let anyone build anything anywhere. That’s a perfectly valid position to take, it’s just not one we’ve taken before, nor one that should be taken lightly. By contrast, if we do want to have some form of zoning, I think height and density are reasonable things to zone on as they directly impact the character of where you live.
  • If the goal is to help people who are already here but priced out – as I think it should be: that, to me, is the real problem we are trying to solve – then we should ask ourselves how much market-rate housing it would take to solve that problem. Real estate prices doubled in some locations in the last twenty years. Is the answer to double the housing stock in those neighborhoods? The math may seem like it would work, but it doesn’t. Instead, three things happen:
1. The people who buy the new homes aren’t the ones who got priced out.
2. You forever change the neighborhood.
3. The more housing stock you build, the more people come from other cities, states, and countries. That’s great! We love new neighbors, we have them all the time. But the prices go right back up. That’s because the land in the areas where people are willing to pay the most to live is constrained by the water (we are, after all, California). There isn’t any more land near the water. But there are a lot more people who have money.
If you define the problem as pushing current residents out, then we aren’t going to fix the problem just by building higher. It doesn’t get you to a stable equilibrium.
My view is we haven’t thought this through. If the sponsors of this bill have, they haven’t made that case effectively.
That’s my point.
I hope that helps and I appreciate hearing from the caller.

Who

My name is Carey White and I live in the Richmond district of San Francisco. I took the time to write this, and to promote it with links, because I want to do something to speak out and I don’t know any other way. I can’t afford a full-page ad in the Chronicle, so I’m left with Google AdWords. I have not taken any money from anyone on this issue. I’m a homeowner here for 15 years and plan to live out the rest of my days here. The future of the state matters to me. I hope it does to you, too.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Marin, California gear for transit hub zoning fight

Please read the below Marin IJ article about Senate Bill 827.  Then, please sign our petition that opposes the bill by clicking here and spread the news.

http://www.marinij.com/government-and-politics/20180305/marin-california-gear-for-transit-hub-zoning-fight
Marin, California gear for transit hub zoning fight
By Katy Murphy and Erin Baldassari, Bay Area News Group
POSTED: 03/05/18


The train stop near San Marin Drive in Novato is one of four SMART stops in Marin, with more planned. Senate Bill 827 would allow housing of up to 10 stories near transit stations. (Robert Tong/Marin Independent Journal) 

Taking aim at climate change, highway gridlock and soaring housing costs, a California lawmaker has ignited a red-hot debate with a proposal that would force cities to allow more apartments and condominiums to be built a short walk from train stations and bus stops.

Arguably the most radical in a series of legislative fixes for California’s crippling housing crisis, Senate Bill 827 has the potential to reshape neighborhoods up and down the state, from Berkeley to Los Angeles, by overriding single-family zoning and superceding limits on new housing near public transportation.

BAY AREA MAP > TALLER BUILDINGS NEAR TRANSIT?

In Marin, several cities have sent off letters of opposition, saying that usurping local control over development is not the way to build a community. Among the Marin cities in opposition are Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael and Novato.

“This legislation overrides local zoning and design considerations,” said Mill Valley Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters. “This is a problem.”

The Mill Valley City Council was among the first in Marin to take on the issue, saying that for the past two years, city officials have been working toward affordable housing efforts, including an affordable housing fund and committee. The council argued that the bill would undermine that work.

Likewise, the Marin County Board of Supervisors has taken a stance of opposition.

“We’ve consistently taken positions against measures that seek to establish a one-size-fits-all solution,” Supervisor Damon Connolly said. “You have to take local zoning and design standards into account while meeting housing objectives. ... We believe it’s an overreach.”

SB 827 is the latest attempt by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, to attack a severe housing shortage widely blamed for runaway rents, astronomical home prices, and the rise of climate-warming “super commutes” from far-flung suburbs.

“This bill goes right to the heart of what has prevented more building near transit in California,” said Ethan Elkind, who directs the climate program at Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. “It would be really transformative. Over the coming decade or so we could have millions of new homes with access to transit.”

The bill has electrified supporters — including the pro-development YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) coalition sponsoring it — who believe California’s attachment to single-family neighborhoods is strangling the state. And it has inflamed opponents, panicked by the prospect of stripping local government of some of its long-held authority and failure to ensure adequate affordable housing.

HIGHER BUILDINGS

The measure would allow housing developments of four to eight stories within a half-mile radius of every BART station, SMART station, Caltrain stop or other rail hub, and a quarter-mile from bus stops with frequent service. The limit would be higher for main streets and developments near bus stops or immediately surrounding the rail stations.

The bill would also allow developers to apply an existing density bonus state law that encourages more housing near transit, adding roughly two stories to the total. That works out to six to 10 stories, depending on the location.

A map from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission with nearly identical parameters as the bill shows large swaths of Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose shaded where the legislation would apply, as well as around SMART stations in Marin.

In San Francisco alone, the planning department estimates height limits would increase in 96 percent of the city if the bill is ultimately approved.

Denise Pinkston, a developer who supports the bill, said in an interview that she expects some owners in affected areas would divide their sprawling homes into smaller apartments, or add two granny units to the backyard, or sell their house to a developer seeking to build a triplex or four-story walk-up on the lot.

“This is not Shanghai on the BART system,” she said, referring to the lofty skyline of the world’s largest city. “What you’re going to get is infill that’s going to feel more like Boston.”

That’s just what Wiener envisions. California has the capacity to add 1 million to 3 million homes within a half-mile of transit hubs, according to a 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report. But that won’t happen, he argues, as long as local elected officials stand in the way.

“Traditionally in California, we have viewed housing as purely a local issue with little or no role for the state,” he said in a recent interview. “That approach doesn’t work anymore. That approach of allowing this race to the bottom among local communities has helped to drive the car into a ditch, and we have to recalibrate.”

WIGGLE ROOM

The proposal would not fundamentally change how cities evaluate and approve such projects. They could still reject a development if they deemed it would destroy a historical landmark or violate local demolition rules. But officials could no longer subject a proposed housing development to local height or density limits that are lower than those in the bill, or require developers to build off-street parking.

Wiener made his first revisions to SB 827 last week, adding anti-demolition provisions and other protections for tenants whose buildings could be redeveloped under the bill. But strong political headwinds will almost certainly require more compromises.

The idea quickly won the support of prominent tech leaders as well as trade associations representing landlords and developers. But the League of California Cities is opposed, and Wiener has yet to win over labor, a dominant force in Democratic state politics.

Cesar Diaz, a lobbyist for the powerful California Building and Trades Council, called the bill “incomplete” and lacking provisions such as those that require contractors to pay the prevailing wage — changes that could weaken the proposal’s impact.

Some housing advocates have yet to take a stance on the bill, disappointed it does not include affordable-housing requirements beyond what cities currently require.

Dave Coury of Corte Madera, a landlord and affordable housing advocate, said he believes SB 827 and the recent amendments are a “positive step in the right direction.”

“But it falls short in providing for incentives for affordable housing and protecting both areas that already provide housing for diversity as well as potentially disrupting areas that are not equipped to handle the density that the law allows,” he said, referring to targeted areas at the transit hub in Fairfax, bus stops in San Anselmo and the ferries in Sausalito and Tiburon. “The bill should be improved further.”

San Rafael activist Richard Hall called SB 827 “an extreme solution” that would “upzone large parts of Marin,” including Miller Avenue and East Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from Larkspur through San Anselmo.

“These are some of the most acutely congested areas in our county,” he said. “Marin needs more affordable housing, but housing that is locally planned and not a dictate from the state.”

Marin Independent Journal reporter Adrian Rodriguez contributed to this report.

SB 827 DETAILS
• What is it? A closely watched state zoning bill that would force cities to allow taller buildings near transit. It would apply to the half mile surrounding every SMART station, Caltrain stop or other rail hub, and a quarter of a mile around bus stops with frequent bus service. Cities could not use lower height or density limits to reject projects proposed within those areas or require off-street parking.

• How high? Up to roughly four stories on side streets or five stories on main streets. Those limits get even higher within a block of a rail station or a quarter mile of a stop with frequent bus service: five stories on side streets and eight stories on main streets. The bill would also allow developers to apply an existing state law that encourages more housing near transit, adding roughly two stories to the total. That works out to six to 10 stories, depending on the location.

• Who is for it? Tech CEOs and associations representing landlords, developers and realtors, SPUR, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council. California YIMBY, a coalition of pro-housing groups, is the bill’s sponsor.

• Who’s against it? The League of California Cities, Sierra Club California, the Marin County Board of Supervisors and several cities, including Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael and Novato.

• New amendments: Sen. Scott Wiener announced changes to the bill last week to protect tenants from being evicted or displaced as a result of the legislation. The changes would require developers to give tenants, even in cities without rent control, a “Right to Remain Guarantee.” That includes moving expenses and assistance to cover higher rent in a comparable temporary apartment for up to 42 months during construction, and the right to live in the newly built apartment building with the same rent.

This happens in Marinwood and the County, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Health benefits of cycling could save taxpayers millions of dollars

Health benefits of cycling could save taxpayers millions of dollars

  • null
    By HUB Cycling
    Let’s face it: finding time to squeeze a gym session into one’s already packed schedule is a pain. Which is why Vancouver family physician Dr. Rita McCracken—a.k.a. Twitter’s #FamilyDocOnABike—encourages her patients to find more efficient ways of incorporating exercise into their daily routine.
    Cycling for transportation is one such “three-in-one” solution, where time spent travelling from A to B is also conveniently spent getting physical activity, as well as reducing stress levels.
    “If we could get everybody on their bikes, we could see improvements in physical and mental health,” she explains. “And the conversation around personal stress management would be more practical and less intimidating.”
    It has become a bit of a cliché in urban planning circles, but that doesn’t make it any less true: if hopping on a bicycle were a new drug unveiled by the pharmaceutical industry, it would command international headlines, considered by many to be “too good to be true”.
    For example, the British Medical Journal studied the commuting patterns of workers over a five-year period, and in 2017, published some truly staggering results: regularly cycling to work reduced their overall risk of death by 41 percent, while reducing their risk of heart disease by 46 percent, and cancer by 45 percent.
    Dr. McCracken is quick to point out the specific benefits are varied for each person, and the research is still improving, but there is one overwhelming body of evidence she can point to, without any doubt: being sedentary is bad for our health. Decades of engineering physical activity out of our lives, especially in the way we move, has had a devastating impact on our fitness.
    A shocking 93 percent of Canadian children do not get the recommended amount of daily exercise, and one in three are overweight or obese. By 2040, almost three-quarters of Canadian adults will be overweight, significantly increasing their risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and costing over $100 billion per year in health care.
    Sadly, this generation may be the first in the history of western civilization to live shorter lives than their parents.
    On that front, Dr. McCracken is quick to praise the investment in infrastructure development in Vancouver. Thanks to political leadership we now have a network of cycle tracks throughout the city.
    “Vancouver has been an amazing experiment in the introduction of infrastructure to increase access to safe cycling,” she says. “The separated bike lanes, for my family and especially my six-year-old daughter, have been absolutely transformational.”
    With a 10 percent increase in national rates of physical activity estimated to translate to over $150-million in direct health-care savings per year, Dr. McCracken touts cycling as one of the biggest bangs for the infrastructure buck.
    “The bike lanes aren’t free, but they’re not a huge ongoing expense either. It’s not like the creation of a massive new recreation centre, which needs constant maintenance and programming,” she states. “These bike lanes are a great way to protect an important mode of transportation, and encourage people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved.”
    But Dr. McCracken doesn’t just talk the talk. She most definitely walks the walk, pedalling upward of 150 kilometres per week on her electric-assisted Haul-a-Day, bouncing effortlessly between appointments, meetings, and consultations.
    “I am pretty lucky to live and work in Vancouver, and I try to practise what I preach,” she declares. “I am a professional who works in multiple locations, and has a kid to drop off at school every day, and I ride my bike to do it!”

    Illegal Parking on Marinwood Open Space is Ignored

    This RV has been parked on Marinwood CSD open space for years without consequence.  The Marinwood CSD frets over the violation but has not contacted the Marin Sheriff for removal. It is located next to Miller Creek at Las Gallinas.
    Periodically,  residents bordering Marinwood Open Space trespass on our property. Sometimes they build structures, driveways and decks.  The Marinwood CSD manager is charged with the responsibility for contacting violators and seek cooperation but sometimes the resident refuses.  We witnessed one yesterday on Las Gallinas at Miller Creek

    Strangely, this violation has happened for years yet the CSD has done nothing. For the last two CSD meeting this violations has been fretted about. No one seems to know what to do. The CSD manager , Eric Driekosen has contacted Marin County Code enforcement and written a letter but he is ignored.  I pointed out that the CSD could have it towed by the Sheriffs department without notice. 

    Still no action.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2018

    Monday, March 5, 2018

    Steve Hughes Why do we work Everything's Built

    My 10-Year Odyssey Through America’s Housing Crisis (The Downside of Homeownership YIMBYs never see)

    My 10-Year Odyssey Through America’s Housing Crisis

    Misery over real estate hasn’t ended—2.5 million homes are still worth less than their mortgages. Here’s the story of one Wall Street Journal reporter’s upside-down American dream.When the housing crisis hit, a charming cottage in a coastal Alabama subdivision became an albatross for Wall Street Journal reporter Ryan Dezember. MEGGAN HALLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


    By
    Ryan DezemberJan. 26, 2018 10:48 a.m. ET


    After looking at several houses along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, we decided the sunny cottage on Audubon Drive in Foley was the one—so long as the seller came down a little on the price.

    It had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an attached garage, a tidy shed that was painted picnic-table red and a pair of towering longleaf pines. It sat in an oval subdivision of cookie-cutter homes on a lot roughly the size of a basketball court. There was just enough room for the dog to run in the backyard without trampling the vegetable garden we envisioned.


    It was convenient to my newspaper office in Foley and to the school in Gulf Shores where my wife taught kindergarten. The beaches along the Gulf of Mexico were a short drive away, but far enough to pardon us from flood insurance. The Realtor walked us over to see the neighborhood playground.

    The house in Foley, Ala., was purchased in November 2005 for $137,500. The value dropped below the mortgage debt when the housing crisis hit in 2007, putting Mr. Dezember underwater for a decade, at one point by nearly $70,000. PHOTO: MEGGAN HALLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    A week before Thanksgiving in 2005, we signed the papers to buy the house for $137,500. We painted the walls and hung blinds in time to have friends over for the holiday.


    Twelve years later, little about my life remained the same. I’d left Alabama to take a job at The Wall Street Journal. I was no longer married. Pierre, the dog, had died of old age. But I was still sending mortgage payments each month to a bank in Alabama.

    I would have sold the house long ago, and in fact I tried. But when the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2007, the property’s value fell far below the amount I borrowed to buy it.

    Walking away was never an option. I’d signed papers promising to pay the money back and I intended to do so one way or another. In case my moral compass ever needed a shake, laws in Alabama, as in many states, allow lenders to pursue the difference between the mortgage debt on a property and what it fetches in a foreclosure sale.

    For much of the past decade that number kept growing. At one point, it would have been nearly $70,000.
    Housing collapse

    When I bought the house, I was a newlywed three years out of college, believing I had achieved a signature goal of most young Americans. Instead, I set myself up to pursue an inverted version of the American dream. Most young people aspire to buy their first home. I spent a decade trying to get rid of mine.

    Block Buster
    Foreclosures (in pink) struck about 30% of the homes in Audubon Place, a coastal Alabama subdivision.


    Ten years ago, the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression roared to life. The collapse of the U.S. housing market wiped out some $11 trillion in household wealth.


    Almost eight million people would lose their homes to foreclosure. At its depths, more than 12 million Americans were “underwater,” meaning their homes were worth less than the balances remaining on their mortgages.

    The collapse was particularly brutal on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, which was in the midst of an anything-goes building boom when prices crashed. The region fell into a deep funk prolonged by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the opioid epidemic. In Audubon Place, my subdivision of starter homes, close to a third of its 109 houses were foreclosed. One of them twice.

    Among underwater homeowners, I was fortunate. The house, and the mortgage, were modest. I was in the early stages of my career, with greater earnings potential ahead. And I was single again, not yet 30 and had no children to support.

    Millions of homeowners moored to underwater properties had it worse, suffering in ways more subtle than those who lost houses. Many of these homeowners couldn’t relocate for better jobs, move growing families into bigger houses or enroll their children in better schools—or at least do so without draining savings. They probably couldn’t refinance their homes to take advantage of interest rates that were kept historically low in response to the collapse.

    Then, early last year, my situation began to brighten. For years I had been renting the house at a loss to help cover expenses while waiting for the market to rebound. Every so often I’d scan local listings and sales data to see how far I had to climb. Performing this routine one day last February, I saw a rental ad for a nearly identical house down the street listed for much less than what I was charging.

    Hurricane Ivan in 2004 cleared land along the Gulf of Mexico shore, including in Orange Beach, Ala., above, that was snapped up in a building boom. PHOTO: JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS

    My tenants saw the ad, too. They asked the company that managed both rentals if they could break their lease with me to move to the cheaper place.

    To most landlords this would have been a bad break. But in my upside-down situation, it was great news.

    Home prices in the subdivision had not fully recovered from the crash, but they had crept higher. Meanwhile, years of mortgage payments had worn down the balance of my debt.


    Now that it was empty, a Realtor in Alabama with whom I had been consulting for several months said that if I fixed up the house and listed it in the spring, when buyers were out and the yard was in bloom, I might be able to get $115,000 for it. That was $22,500 less than I’d paid, but it would be enough to wipe out the mortgage debt and cover most of the sale expenses.

    In late March I took a week off work, packed a rental car with tools and a sleeping bag and headed south.
    Speculation

    When I was looking for my first home, many Americans were thinking about houses in a new way—less as shelter and more as investments.

    This prompted huge price increases, speculation and harried construction. Few places embraced the frenzy as enthusiastically as the Gulf Coast, a region known both derisively and romantically as the Redneck Riviera.

    Hurricane Ivan’s direct hit in 2004 had cleared land along the shore for new development. Insurance money poured in and zoning laws were rewritten. The next year, Hurricane Katrina kicked up demand for housing when it wiped out entire towns in neighboring Mississippi and Louisiana.


    Oceanfront condominium projects that were little more than watercolor renderings and building permits sold out in minutes. Investors got their hands on paper condos for as little as a letter of credit from their bank, and flipped the units to others while the glassy towers went up. A local real-estate agency ran late-night commercials touting riches to be made flipping.

    Everyone made money in the condo game—the developer, the lenders, the brokers and as many as a half-dozen flippers on a single unit, who could trade with almost no money down before the building was finished and the sale had to be closed. The only requirement was the existence of someone else willing to pay a higher price.

    One group of developers proposed a residential building overlooking a swim-with-the-dolphins attraction that would be the centerpiece of a giant go-kart facility. Another group hired a band and set up a dance floor in a furniture store parking lot to pitch $450,000 lots in the woods along a man-made shipping channel.

    Construction created plenty of overtime for anyone with a strong back. Clerks quit jobs at the outlet mall to become real-estate agents and mortgage brokers. Monthly house payments were suddenly within reach for many low-wage workers.

    My job at the Mobile Register, where I covered the boom, could not have been going better. My 1,000-square-foot cottage was shaping up nicely, too. I installed French doors that swung open to a backyard planted with azaleas and several saplings. I spruced up the front with oleander and ferns in a bed lined with decorative stones.


    The marriage was another story. After two years, in the summer of 2007, my college sweetheart and I split up and agreed to sell the house as part of our divorce.

    Unfortunately, the market had unraveled before our marriage.
    New worries

    Housing had turned from a source of profits and jubilation on Wall Street to one of worry.

    That June in New York, as home prices began to fall and mortgage delinquencies rose, about a dozen anxious creditors gathered at a Park Avenue office tower to meet with executives from Bear Stearns. Of particular concern was the faltering performance of two of the bank’s hedge funds, which had bet more than $20 billion on mortgages granted to home buyers with poor credit.

    Coming Up for Air


    Foreclosures have returned to precrisis levels, and rebounding property values have reduced the number of homes worth less than their mortgage debt.

    For decades, the steady growth of U.S. home prices had attracted investors from all over the world to securities known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, which pooled large numbers of individual mortgages into single securities. If borrowers paid their bills, investors made money.

    As demand surged during the housing boom of the 2000s, mortgage underwriters began to cut corners. Borrowers with sketchy, or subprime, credit were lured with low teaser rates that ballooned over time. Some were approved without anyone verifying their income. These loans were folded into securities that were given ratings on par with those assigned to U.S. government bonds.

    Investment firms also sold credit default swaps, which were essentially insurance against losses in CDOs, as well as synthetic CDOs used to bet on the performance of actual CDOs. As a result, a single ill-advised mortgage might play a role in the performance of dozens of securities. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner once said sorting it out was as tough as untangling “cooked spaghetti.”

    In all, the trillions of dollars invested in securities backed by subprime mortgages represented a bet on U.S. housing that was considerably higher than the value of the actual property involved.

    A timeline of the crisis prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis points to Feb. 27, 2007, as an early sign of the brewing calamity, when the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. announced it would no longer buy the riskiest type of subprime mortgages.

    For me, the first hint was the smell of hot garbage wafting over the hedge. It was coming from the house next door. The young couple who owned it were gone. They paid $153,000 for their house around the same time we’d bought ours, setting a new high-water mark in Audubon Place. Now it was as if they had vanished. There was no note, no for-sale sign. They hadn’t even bothered to take out the trash. Inside, a half-eaten pizza festered on a countertop.

    As the abandoned pool in their backyard filled with roof shingles and palm fronds, I prepared to sell our house. To cover sales commissions and other expenses, we’d have to sell it for more than we’d paid for it.

    The Realtor who had sold it to us didn’t think it was even worth the trouble to try. Instead, I turned to a co-worker’s wife who had just become a real-estate agent and was eager for a listing. On Nov. 19, 2007, we listed the house for $149,000 with the understanding we’d accept much less.

    She hosted open houses, pounded arrows into the subdivision’s entrance to point the way and tied balloons to the yard sign. She baked cookies and wrote her mother’s name in a guest book so that it would not be empty for the first arrival.

    Her foray into real estate was as ill-timed as ours. Not even the cookies got a nibble. After a few fruitless months she moved on. I stuck a for-sale-by-owner sign in the yard, hoping for a quick rebound.
    ‘Perfect storm’

    As 2008 began, a full-blown crisis was unfolding in New York. Big banks rang in the New Year by reporting tens of billions of dollars in mortgage-related losses.

    Bear Stearns, near bankruptcy, fell into the arms of JPMorgan Chase & Co. in March. Five months later, the U.S. Treasury took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the more than $5 trillion in mortgages they held or had guaranteed. Lehman Brothers Holdings, the country’s oldest investment bank, filed for bankruptcy protection a week later, and Merrill Lynch was forced to sell itself toBank of America Corp.

    PHOTO: PEP MONTSERRAT

    House Poor
    The county's appraised value of the writer’s property plunged as foreclosures mounted in the neighborhood.

    The U.S. government bailed outAmerican International Group ,which had sold about $79 billion of protection against losses from mortgage-related securities without putting nearly enough cash aside to cover the obligations. Citigroup Inc.had to be bailed out later.

    The Federal Reserve chopped interest rates to try to slow the bleeding, but it was no use. Foreclosures swelled as droves of underwater homeowners walked away.

    In April 2009, early in his first term, President Barack Obama said a “perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street” had brought a “day of reckoning.”

    On the Gulf Coast, condo buyers balked and home prices plummeted. Subdivision developers disappeared and cranes idled at surfside towers. Jobs vanished. It was a bonanza for bankruptcy lawyers.

    A pivot from go-karts to water park couldn’t save the swim-with-the-dolphins condo project, and the men who wanted to build a town center along the Intracoastal Waterway were bankrupted by their own misadventures in condo flipping. The woman who promised flipping riches on TV was convicted of fraud in federal court and sent to prison.

    Developers of Bama Bayou in Orange Beach, which was to include a residential building overlooking a swim-with-the-dolphins attraction, defaulted in 2009. PHOTO: JEFF AND MEGGAN HALLER/KEYHOLE P FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    In my neighborhood, luxury cars were repossessed, foreclosures piled up and opioids moved in.

    To save money, my newspaper, the Mobile Register, shuttered the small office I’d been assigned to and told me to work from home. The front bedroom of my house, where I set up shop, offered a prime view of the neighborhood going to seed.

    Some mornings when I fetched the newspaper from the driveway, I was greeted by neighbors who were already drinking beer. A young woman who was renting next door lost custody of her children and began shuffling in her pajamas to a party house down the street. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for days. I tossed wadded-up slices of bread over the fence for the dog she left tied up in a dusty corner of the yard.

    She came home once when I was spraying a hose over the fence to fill the dog’s empty bowl. She said nothing and walked inside.

    Another neighbor died from a drug overdose. Her corpse was wheeled out of the house as the afternoon school bus pulled up. On another occasion, the police arrived at a suspected drug den down the street to investigate the death of an 11-month-old boy.

    One afternoon, I had to interrupt a phone interview that I was conducting to chase two fighting men from my front yard. They were flinging decorative stones from the flower bed at each other while they argued over a soured sale of pain pills.

    After I shooed them away, one of the combatants slunk back and rang my doorbell to beg for a ride home. His buddy had peeled away after an old woman who lived at the house where the fracas began shot out the truck’s windshield.

    On a Friday morning in early June 2010, I walked outside to grab the newspaper and noticed an acrid smell. I looked over the hedge, hoping to find someone tarring the roof on the abandoned house next door. Nobody was there.

    The odor, I soon learned, was emanating from the Gulf of Mexico, 6 miles to the south, where huge rafts of toxic goop from BP PLC’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill weeks earlier had begun to splash ashore.

    By July, all 32 miles of beach between Mobile Bay and the Florida Panhandle had been fouled, and tourism ground to a halt.


    Waiters, hotel clerks and beach attendants lost their jobs. The for-hire fishing crews who normally chased cobia and red snapper resorted to scouting for crude as part of the cleanup effort. Shrimp boats dragged oil-absorbent boom through the water instead of nets.

    The Register, already battling competition from online advertising, suffered, too. As it laid off co-workers and slashed salaries, I started looking for a new job. Home prices continued to fall.
    Distressed sales

    Selling the house wasn’t an option.

    Though Washington policy makers had bailed out banks to keep them lending, pushed interest rates to historic lows and initiated programs for borrowers in danger of losing their homes, there weren’t many options for someone in my situation, which was getting worse with each new foreclosure on Audubon Drive.

    By the summer of 2010, there had been 17, including the one that had been abandoned next door. A unit of Citigroup held the mortgage when it soured, and the New York bank bought the property from itself on the courthouse steps in February for $80,100. By October, the home had become the possession of Freddie Mac, which unloaded it to an Indiana woman for $44,900.

    Distressed sales, such as courthouse auctions, don’t factor into appraisals. I wish they did. Instead, it was the second, even lower sales, that set the value of my home.

    A September appraisal of my house came back at $76,000, down about a third from two years earlier.

    When I landed a job with the Journal in Houston, my only option was to rent the house until the market improved.

    Determined to lower the payments, I drove to the bank where I had taken out the mortgage five years earlier and asked for the banker who had made my loan. I was told he no longer worked there and was handed a 1-800 number. I spoke to one call-center worker after another, spending hours on hold, restarting the conversation with each transfer or disconnection. There was a comical amount of faxed correspondence.

    An aerial view of the oval Audubon Place neighborhood in Foley. PHOTO: PICTOMETRY

    The lawyers, real-estate agents and mortgage brokers I consulted shook their heads. A few bank employees told me, candidly, to skip a payment or two and feign distress to draw the bank to the negotiating table. I tried that once. Almost immediately, I was inundated with threatening calls.

    Renting the house presented another obstacle. Though my ex-wife hadn’t been involved with the property for years, her name remained on the deed. To enroll it in a rental program with a local property manager, I needed her signature, which she declined to give, for a variety of reasons.

    In order to move on with my life, I had to do something absurd. To rent out my house, I had to buy it from us, repaying the existing mortgage to sever her ties to the property.

    I drained my recession-battered 401(k) to pay closing costs and make up the difference between what I owed and the $122,500 that the bank was willing to lend me anew. Because the new price was still higher than the property’s appraised value, part of the loan was at 10.05%, closer to a credit-card rate. That made the prospect of breaking even more unlikely, but I had no choice if I wanted to move on in my career. Plus, I’d already moved to Texas.

    So began my turn as a reluctant and wildly unprofitable landlord.
    Problem renters

    My first tenant was a single mother with a young son. She paid $650 a month, which covered about half my monthly expenses. She agreed to keep up the yard with the mower I left behind.

    Before long, the rent checks stopped coming. She invited relatives to move in, and they refused to leave. I hesitated to evict them around the holidays, hoping that her ability—or perhaps willingness—to pay rent might change in the New Year. It did not.

    On a lark, I checked the county jail’s booking website. There I saw my tenant, in a fresh mug shot. She and her family left only after I filed eviction paperwork and they learned that sheriff’s deputies would be by to see them out.

    Another renter asked permission to break her lease to take a better job out of state. Knowing what it was like to be trapped, I agreed to let her go. When she moved out, she took the microwave, washer and dryer and just about everything else that wasn’t nailed down. She even swiped the smoke detectors, which were hard-wired to the house and out-of-reach without the ladder. She took that, too.

    But I was able to nudge the rent higher with each new tenant. Over time, a respite from major hurricanes reduced my insurance premium, and the property tax bill dwindled with the value of the property, which county assessor’s appraised in 2011 at less than $60,000. In good months, my losses could be less than $300. When rent went unpaid or costly repairs popped up, my losses could have a comma.

    From afar I could only imagine what was going on in Alabama. The few clues I received painted a grim picture.

    There was the jail mug shot. A curious line item on a repair invoice following that first tenant’s particularly destructive tenure read: “pressure washed garage floor due to fish odor.” Citations from the neighborhood homeowners association alerted me to mysterious piles of vegetation piled out front and a big boat that had been parked in the driveway.

    In one letter to homeowners, the association threatened to close the communal playground because of the used condoms, lighters and graffiti turning up. Another called for volunteers to help repair a breach in the perimeter fence that residents of a nearby trailer park were using as a shortcut to the dollar store.

    “What trailer park?” I wondered. “What dollar store?”
    Investors pounce

    The housing collapse wasn’t bad for everyone. Several of my friends bought their first homes on the cheap.

    In 2011, when the national inventory of foreclosures swelled to nearly 1.6 million, Wall Street investors pounced, snapping up tens of thousands of homes at rock-bottom prices. Some paid banks a pittance to acquire batches of nonperforming loans.

    The roughly $40 billion that institutional investors spent on foreclosed homes was concentrated in a few of the country’s hardest hit areas, including Atlanta, Miami and Phoenix, supporting prices in those markets. Unfortunately for me, these investors weren’t buying in south Alabama.

    Vacationers have returned to Orange Beach, shown in June. PHOTO: TY WRIGHT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

    Toward the end of 2011, the Journal moved me to New York to write about Wall Street financiers. In that role I spoke in late 2013 with Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and chief executive of Blackstone Group LP, about his firm’s huge bet on rental houses. Following the foreclosure crisis, Blackstone spent some $10 billion buying and renovating about 50,000 properties.

    At a private dinner the firm hosted with reporters at Manhattan’s Smith & Wollensky steakhouse, I joked with Mr. Schwarzman about being a tiny competitor of his. He made the bull case for owning rental homes.

    Then he leaned over, pointed at the ceiling and said, “Don’t sell your house.”

    “Steve,” I thought, “that won’t be a problem.”

    A few months later, I opened a letter and learned that county tax assessors had valued my property at $52,200, less than half what I owed the bank, and less than half what my insurance company deemed the house to be worth.

    Seven years after the U.S. housing market collapsed, at a time when millions of others had put the economic calamity behind them, I was still stuck. The house I owned would be twice as valuable on fire than on the market.
    Fresh paint

    I pulled up to the house in the early morning hours of April 1, 2017, for the first time since 2010. I was spent from the 20-hour drive from New York, but pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

    The house was in better shape than I had expected, though it had changed enough that it no longer felt entirely mine. The front door was painted the same slate blue, but the first room beyond it was a new yellowy white. Small trees and shrubs I’d planted, which couldn’t have walked off by themselves, had gone, roots and all.

    On the bright side, two cypress saplings the size of pencils when I planted them a decade earlier had grown some 30 feet.

    For three days and nights I painted, planted bushes and repaired leaky faucets. I made so many trips to Lowe’s for mulch and electrical outlets that one of the cashiers expressed interest in renting the place if I couldn’t sell it. I rattled the windows with music as I worked and slept a few hours each night in sleeping bag on the floor of my old bedroom.

    Audubon Place had perked up since 2010. Older couples seeking bargain retirement homes near the beach had moved in and tidied up several of the neighborhood’s problem properties. The trash-filled pool next door had been filled in and sodded over.

    Hints of seedy days remained. As I dragged my tenants’ abandoned possessions to the curb, a neighbor came by and asked if my renters had left anything good behind. There were Halloween decorations, art supplies, a couple of baby photos, trade school brochures, a Nintendo and a few dirty movies, I told him.

    “Any pills?” my neighbor asked.

    In the conversation that followed I learned that my house had been a place to score painkillers.

    Before I’d finished working, my Realtor called to say he’d received an offer. It was a lowball bid from an out-of-towner. I turned it down, but the quick interest bode well.

    As I packed up my tools and prepared for the drive home to New York, I walked around back and took in the yard as the sun set. Despite all the trouble the house had caused, there were things I would miss about the place.

    The backyard of Mr. Dezember’s former home last spring. PHOTO: RYAN DEZEMBER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    I spent much of the ride back making calculations in my head. What is the lowest offer I could accept? How long could I afford to leave it vacant and on the market? If it didn’t sell soon, I’d have to rent it again, postponing escape for at least another year.
    The deal closes

    Within a week, a retired couple from Minnesota agreed to pay $112,000. They waived an inspection and my Realtor volunteered to cut his commission to help make the deal happen.

    The appraisal hit the mark, no termites turned up and the deal closed in May.

    From the original purchase in 2005 to last year’s sale, I lost $25,500. My losses as a landlord? At least $35,000. Whatever the sum, it no longer mattered. I was free.

    At a staff meeting last summer, my editors at the Journal put out a call for stories to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the housing crash. One colleague pitched a story about young Wall Street types who viewed the crisis as a historical event. Such a story would have never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, the housing crisis had ended just a few weeks earlier.

    About 2.5 million American homes are still worth less than their mortgage debt, according to estimates by CoreLogic . That is about double what it should be in an otherwise healthy market, said Frank Nothaft, CoreLogic’s chief economist.

    Those of us who have emerged from underwater missed the chance to buy low. Home prices in many markets now exceed their 2006 peaks.

    Investors such as Mr. Schwarzman who amassed thousands of houses to rent have bet more than $40 billion wagering that the crisis was so traumatic for people like me, and so destructive to our finances, that we’ll be renters forever. They may be right.

    At a wedding I attended recently, I met a real-estate broker who touted the riches to be made by buying units in the glassy residential towers popping up along the waterfront in Brooklyn, where I live. No matter how slapdash the construction, she said, prices have only one direction to go.

    I had sunglasses on. She didn’t see me rolling my eyes.