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A series of city high rise buildings with giant price tags on them. Illustration.

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Thanks to rent control, I finally get to live alone

For the first time in 45 years

At the age of 45, which in San Francisco years might as well be 75, I finally got the chance, for the first time in my life, to live alone. It never would have happened without rent control.

After growing up in Southern California, I traveled up the coast for college, where I lived with a series of patchouli-scented students in Santa Cruz. When I moved to San Francisco, I bounced around from the Mission District to the Haight to Duboce Park in a series of subtenant cohabitation disasters, all of which involved living with loud, unkempt, or unsuitable people, something that I understood as an unavoidable consequence of living in SF, especially under the duress of a writer’s paycheck.

Finally, I moved into a Victorian flat in the city’s densely populated South of Market along with a friend who ended up being my roommate for more than a decade.

Most of my adult life has taken place inside these century-old walls: I landed my first full-time writing gig while living here. I saw my first fatal shooting outside these bay windows. I witnessed the neighborhood transform into a tech hub (Twitter’s first HQ was just around the corner). I saw my blue recycling bins lit ablaze after three SF Giants World Series wins. I had my heart broken several times here. And perhaps most importantly, I got sober here.

Over the course of calling the 415 (the numerical nickname given to SF) home, I learned that this city offers me the chance—too rare in the U.S.—to move around without owning a private vehicle. Our widely used and wart-riddled public transit system is what, more than any bells and whistles, makes SF so important to me, and to others who either eschew or cannot afford personal cars.

The fact that San Francisco has historically been a gay metropolis ranks further down the list for me as the years pass by, somewhere between the perma-foggy weather and the architecture of Victorian pageantry. All the better, really. I’ve learned that the city, especially of late, has a “nobody deserves to live here” mentality, an ethos that gets stronger as San Francisco leans into its late-capitalism fate. But I’m not ready to leave. Not yet.

After 15 years inside this spacious and sunny two-bedroom, my roommate married his boyfriend and moved out. Au revoir. The roommate after that moved with his boyfriend to the more affordable SF suburb of Daly City. Godspeed. And I, untethered to such things as a fulfilling relationship, found myself in the enviable position of living alone, the master of my domain.

My rent, a scant $2,000 per month, is a drop in the bucket compared to what most people shell out for monthly rent in this town.

In 2010, a two-bedroom SF apartment comparable to my own averaged $2,893 per month in rent, or $3,396 after inflation. At the end of 2019, similar units sat at a median of $4,300, up 26.6 percent.

Things could always be worse than being bound by these golden handcuffs. Take, for example, renting a bunk bed for $1,200 per month, sleeping in a van for $28 per day, or burning through $2,000 each month to shower in the kitchen.

But were I to fall victim to an owner move-in eviction, one of the loopholes landlords exploit to get rid of tenants living in rent-controlled units, I would most likely have to leave San Francisco, following in the footsteps of many families displaced over the last decade, and quit my job, as my vocation is wrapped up in reporting and writing about this 7-by-7-mile tip of land.

Rent control caps a tenant’s rent at a specific dollar amount and limits the percentage increase a landlord can add to a leaseholder’s rent each year. In San Francisco, most of the city’s rental stock is currently rent controlled, with landlords allowed to raise the rents on existing tenants only a small amount each year.

Arguments for and against this type of price freezing both have merit and passionate defenders. Rent-control laws create a two-tiered housing market. Residents of rent-controlled apartments benefit from lower rents because owners can’t raise prices to meet market rates. This allows renters, who can’t afford to buy housing due to unattainable prices and a dearth of stock, to rent and live in a city or a neighborhood for long stretches at a time. Rent control allows people to make homes. But opponents of rent control argue that state-enforced rent tapping leads landlords to skimp on maintenance in an effort to make up what they lose in rent or as a passive-aggressive attempt to get renters to move out.

Rent control, as UC Berkeley economist and real estate consultant Kenneth Rosen argues, has led to a shortage of housing supply and a rash of vacancies. “Rent control incentivizes property owners to convert rental units to other uses, such as for-sale housing units or non-residential buildings,” he said in his polarizing 2018 study The Case For Preserving Costa Hawkins. “Rent control limits the creation of new rental supply by discouraging development activity, especially without guaranteed exemptions for new properties.”

And researchers at Stanford University concluded that after a 1994 change in the law—which expanded SF rent control to include small multi-unit apartments with four or fewer units, built before 1980—the city saw a 15 percent reduction in for-rent housing. Landlords instead cashed out their rent-controlled units or, in an arguably more insidious move, demolished those buildings and started over with new construction. As Curbed noted in 2018, “this also led to a 25 percent reduction in the number of renters in rent-controlled buildings because there were fewer rent-controlled units.”

Am I part of the problem? Probably. But rent control has also allowed me, by luck of the draw, to stay in a city packed with people—younger people—making more than double what I earn annually. Which is fine. I chose the ego-swelling high of a byline over job security and early retirement, and I stand by that decision. And to live in a city geared toward the gay community, however dwindling that population may be in 2020, still has benefits in terms of safety and relationship possibilities. Rent control keeps me here and allows me to live alone, teetering on the razor-thin line between blissful solitude and perilous isolation—just how I like it.

Brock Keeling is the editor of Curbed San Francisco.