I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
The drive between New Albany and Granville, Ohio used to take you down a two-lane country road, but traffic eventually got heavy enough to where they needed to make it a freeway. They did that about six or seven years ago. As far as freeways go it's fine. It cuts through the country and, though it'll likely change the area sometime in the near future, there hasn't been too much in the way of development along the route just yet. It's still a nice country drive. The barn where my wife keeps her horse is out that way so we're on that freeway a lot.
There is one thing on the road that sticks out, though:
This house sits just east of the exit for Route 310, right up against the freeway. It's looked like that since about the time the freeway went through. "O.D.O.T.," stands for Ohio Department of Transportation.
I've always assumed it had to do with some dispute arising out of the condemnation of property to build the freeway, but I've wondered what the specific story was for years. Today I did a little searching and found this, written by a man who says that he spoke to the owner a few years back:
The owner's side of the story was that ODOT used eminent domain compelling him to sell the portion of the property they needed for the freeway, but that they refused to purchase the entire property, including the part on which the house sat. His problem, though, wasn't that he was stuck with a house right next to a freeway. That would be bad enough, but at least understandable. Rather his problem was that the portion of the property they compelled him to sell included the leach field for the house's septic system and the remaining parcel that the house sat on was too small to install a new leach field that would meet local code. So he wasn't just left with a house next to a freeway, he was left with an uninhabitable house next to a freeway.
It's been a while since I practiced law, but the foggy parts of my memory related to these kinds of cases suggest that there is likely a bit more to this story. Local juries determine land value when there is dispute, and they almost always tend to overpay landowners who challenge state valuation in condemnation cases. In light of that, the state usually comes in with high offers to begin with. Maybe he was screwed on the parcel with the house, but I suspect he came out fine overall after they bought the parcel they needed for the freeway. There's plenty of injustice in this country, but rural landowners tend to do OK financially speaking when the bulldozers come to plow places like Licking County into the 21st century, even if they are inconvenienced or displaced.
Regardless of the specifics, I've always been struck by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house. While I suppose most people who see it think of it as nothing but an eyesore, I'm amused by it. Both at its existence and by the fact that it's lasted in the state it's in for so long.
Some quick searching shows that the deed was redone in 2007, with the current owner conveying the house to himself, likely in connection with whatever it was ODOT did with respect to their other land. For tax purposes, the house is only worth $800, with annual taxes on it running around $13, which the owner has faithfully paid. While the house is uninhabited, a quick search of property records shows that the owner of the house lives in similar but slightly larger home two miles away. It's neat, tidy and inviting. It's also close enough to the old house that it's no inconvenience at all for him to go put a fresh coat of paint on his "O.D.O.T. Sucks" sign whenever necessary. Which he clearly has, by the way. The house faces south and the sun would've bleached those orange letters pretty badly by now if he had let it be. Today, however, they're as vibrant as the day they first went up. My wife took that photo when we drove past yesterday afternoon.
I wonder who will blink first. The owner could, if he wanted to, simply abandon the basically worthless property. If O.D.O.T. grows weary of the sign, it could restart negotiations with the owner to see how much it would take to get him to either give up the land or, at the very least, bulldoze the house or cover the sign. The county could maybe get involved too, perhaps creatively reassessing the value of the property -- it's right next to an exit, so might it be rezoned for a gas station? -- raising the owner's tax rates to the point where he's no longer able to cheaply maintain his sign. Given that an influential new neighbor is moving in just a couple of miles up the freeway soon, maybe someone else will come to the table too.
In the meantime, I'll continue to drive by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house a few times a week, acknowledging that, yes, it's an eyesore, but smiling that it's still there. Not because I take the landowner's side, necessarily. I don't know him and I don't know the specifics of his beef. No, I smile because we live in a world where powerful forces always seem to win, conformity always seems to reign and anything old, small, unique or just plain weird seems to get plowed over, literally or figuratively.
The fact that someone on the wrong end of the plow's blade has basically held his middle finger up like this for close to a decade gives me hope that the powerful forces' victory, even if inevitable, won't always be easy.
August 15, 2019 UPDATE: Someone has bought the house from the owner and is renovating the property. The kicker: he may keep the sign!
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
UPDATE: I had an e-book about all of this but I eventually put the whole thing up for free here!
In the past several years many have made a point -- a good point -- to gently remind people that Memorial Day is not the same thing as Veterans Day. To remind us that this day is not set aside to thank living military members or veterans for their service and it's certainly not a day for patriotic platitudes or displays to eclipse our commemoration of those who died in service to our country.
But while the "it's Memorial Day, not Veterans Day" correctives are worth acknowledging, I think there is something similar to how we tend to approach both holidays that is equally worth acknowledging.
Memorial Day is a holiday commemorating those who died in war. Indeed, it is rooted in literal visits to the graves of the fallen. Veterans Day, originally anyway, was a holiday intended to celebrate the ending of a war. While the former has informally morphed into something else and the latter was officially changed to encompass a different purpose, the fact remains that our nation, for whatever reason, has moved away from the notion that war is bad, that its byproducts are tragic and that its ending should be celebrated. It has, instead, filled those spaces with patriotism and, in some cases nationalism and militarism.
It says a lot about where we are as a country right now that we have pushed the bad parts of war out of our national consciousness and have wholly disposed with celebrating the endings of wars. Maybe it's because, these days, our wars do not end.
Whatever the case, I do not think that focusing and reflecting upon the tragedy of war and celebrating the ending of wars are bad things nor do they do a disservice to those who have fought and who have died. To the contrary, I can think of nothing that would honor and aid those men and women more.