Down and Out in the Bay Area
California, California Housing, Oakland, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Wes Enzinna
Wes Enzinna, in Harper’s, describes the bizarre fringe existence of a millennial bourgeois Bohemian trying to find living space in ever-so-rich, ever-so-f*cked-up Bay Area California.
[T]he year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. Iâ€™d found the place just as Septemberâ€™s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole Iâ€™d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentinâ€”a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at itâ€”four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.
The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.
After living on the East Coast for eight years, Iâ€™d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, thatâ€™s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, theyâ€™d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the countryâ€™s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalismâ€™s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someoneâ€™s roof.
Down these same streets, tourists scuttered along on Segways and techies surfed the hills on motorized longboards, transformed by their wealth into children, just as the sidewalk kids in cardboard boxes on Haight or in Peopleâ€™s Park aged overnight into decrepit adults, the former racing toward the future, the latter drifting away from it.
To my mother and girlfriend back East, the â€œshack situationâ€ was a problem to be solved. â€œCan we help you find another place?â€ â€œCan you just find roommates and live in a house?â€ But the shack was the solution, not the problem.
As penance for abandoning my girlfriend, I still paid part of our rent in New York, and after covering my portion of our bills, my student loan payment, and car insurance, I had about $1,500 left over each month. That wouldnâ€™t have been so little to live on, except that, according to some estimates, apartments then averaged $3,500 a month in San Francisco, $3,000 in Oakland. That year, 2016, 83,733 low-income San Franciscans would apply for the cityâ€™s affordable housing lottery, fighting for 1,025 slots. There were still cheap rooms available in the Bay, to be sure, mostly in ramshackle Victorians or weathered Maybeck bungalows where artists or activists or punks lived collectively and were protected by rent control, but these rooms were in dwindling supply and astonishingly high demand. On Craigslist or by word of mouth, vacancies were often offered exclusively to â€œQ.T.P.O.C.â€ (queer and trans people of color) or â€œB.A.B.R.â€ (Bay Area born and raised) roommates, a reasonable defensive measure against the ravages of the tech economy, which, block by block, was replacing the weird old counterculture with Stanford M.B.A.s and Google engineers.
For those of us caught in the middle, it meant that to score a bed, you had to have Q.T.P.O.C. friends willing to make an exception for you, or be a member of obscure Facebook groups like (
â€™â€™â€™ ), which served as an underground network for people seeking shared housing. (The page also offered bartered services like massage and childcare and, on at least one occasion, a â€œfree hearse.â€) As in other cities under intense economic pressure, marginalized inhabitants had created an alternate, black-market rental economy: the currency may have been cultural capital, but competition was still fierce.
I spent a few weeks on friendsâ€™ couches before an acquaintance posted on Facebook about a room opening in his eight-bedroom house in Oakland for $475, a steal, and I messaged him immediately. Thirty people had already written, he said, and his roommates had also received scores of inquiries, so the odds werenâ€™t good. He stopped answering my emails after that. The same thing happened with a few vacant rooms I tracked down at illegal warehouses, cavernous lofts where residents scrimped on such things as functioning plumbing or reliable electricity in order to have space to paint and make sculptures and host bands all night, places like the Dildo Factory, or Hecoâ€™s, or Ghost Ship, whose leaseholder posted a roommate-wanted ad on Craigslist that winter seeking
all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the open sun & air.
I didnâ€™t answer the Ghost Ship ad, but I went to a few â€œauditionsâ€ at other lofts. There were so many people vying for the spaces, I rarely got a call back and was never offered a room. Iâ€™d squandered whatever cool I once possessed, it turned out, by building a â€œnormieâ€ career as a writer and editor on the East Coast.