I ran into a big cheese from the Chamber of Commerce at a civic lunch last week. “How come you are always writing sour stuff about tech people and how buses full of techies are clogging up the streets?” he said. “You know every tech job San Francisco gets creates five other jobs. Tech is good. You seem to think it’s bad.”
“You got it wrong,” I said with a winning smile. “I love high-tech people. They made us all millionaires.
“Yep,” I said. “If you own a halfway decent house in a halfway decent San Francisco neighborhood, it is worth a million dollars. And the techies did it.”
Think about it: all those geeks with white pants and wrinkled shirts want to live in San Francisco. They love Noe Valley, and Potrero Hill, and NoPa and SoMa, and MidMa and Dogpatch. They have tons of money, and they drove the prices up. The median price for a San Francisco home is a cool million.
It is a childhood dream come true. I remember when we were all kids on the wrong side of Potrero Hill, talking about the fuzzy future.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” we’d say.
“A policeman,” one kid said.
“A fireman,” my brother said.
“Yeah? Well, I wanna be a millionaire,” another kid said.
“Get outta here!” we all yelled. “You’re crazy.”
That was around 25th and De Haro. Some of the neighbors kept rabbits in their backyards back then. There were billy goats on the other side of the hill. De Haro Street wasn’t even paved. The housing projects, full of desperately poor people, were on the next block. Potrero Hill was affordable, to say the least. My parents paid $2,250 for an old house on 25th Street just before the war. They sold it later and moved to the suburbs.
I looked up our old house last week on Zillow, the real estate website. It’s valued at $923,000. Right near where us kids were talking about the future is a corner house on 25th Street, 107 years old, slightly bigger than our old place, valued these days at $1.35 million.
I talked to a guy who works for the Muni Railway. His grandfather built a house near Cortland Avenue, in Bernal Heights. The neighborhood got too rough so they sold it in 1970 for $20,000. Now Zillow says it’s worth $1.2 million.
We live in Bernal, too. Our street is too narrow for two cars to pass. There used to be a family down the block. The kids in the family played football in the street – you know, run up to the Chevy by the telephone pole and I’ll throw you a pass. It’s an old city game. But it got harder and harder to play: too many cars and no place to park. The house was kind of run down; it needed a lot of expensive work.
So they sold it for $465,000 10 years ago and moved away. The neighbors were amazed: four hundred thousand dollars for that place!
Somebody bought it, fixed it up. Now the Trulia website says it’s worth $1.1 million.
It is a kind of sweet revenge. Every San Franciscan I know can tell you about the guy they went to school with and the girl they almost married, and how these folks got tired of the city.
You know the story: “It’s not the city I grew up in. It’s dirty, and the weather is lousy all summer, and I can’t find a place to park, and who are all these new people, anyway? And the schools? Jeez. See ya, San Francisco.”
All those nice, pretty towns in Marin, Contra Costa, down the Peninsula, up in Sonoma and in Santa Clara County are full of expatriate San Franciscans enjoying their big yards and summer cookouts. The biggest diaspora since the Irish potato famine. Not just white people, either. Thousands of African American San Franciscans bailed out.
Can’t come back
But if you bought a house in San Francisco, and stuck with the city, it’s paying off big time.
There is a catch. There is always a catch. If you are a renter, like most San Franciscans, you are out of luck. If you are poor, you are out of luck.
And if you move out of San Francisco, you can never return. The prices are too high. You will be like a sailor aboard the Flying Dutchman, the legendary ship that could never go back to its home port.
Carl Nolte is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His column appears every Sunday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org