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Monday, September 23, 2002

From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn




Sex, Politics, and Gold

Or, No Hope for HOPE

The moral of this story is to never forget the gold.

When gold was found in Alaska, the Treasury Department decided to open an assay office in the state of Washington. Three cities applied to host the office – Port Angeles, Tacoma, and Seattle. Port Angeles’ bid pointed out that it was the closest city to Alaska and thus it could ensure that the gold would be safely sold to the Treasury Department before it was spent on the miners’ long journey home. Tacoma’s bid touted its reputation as the “City of Churches.” The miners could find quiet repose in the many churches that dotted Tacoma’s hillsides.

Even though Seattle was the same size as Tacoma at the time, Seattle decided to boost its businesses in its bid. It bragged that it could help the miners prepare for the journey back to their loved ones.

After some thought, the Treasury Department choose Tacoma as the city that would get the assay office. They were impressed with Tacoma’s willingness to meet the spiritual needs of the miners.

The city fathers of Seattle were extremely disappointed. They got together to commiserate. After some discussion, they agreed that most miners, after spending months or even years in the cold Yukon, would probably not be yearning to pray at religious services. As they panned for gold in the mighty rivers of Alaska and the cold water cut through to the core of their being, the miners were probably not dreaming of the seclusion of a church.

Rather, they probably wanted to slake their thirst with a cold beer and a good steak. They probably fantasized about hearing loud and brassy music. But they probably also thought about spending some time with a warm and soft companion.

So Seattle’s city officials had a meeting with all of the bar owners. The proprietors agreed to open the saloons for longer periods of time and take gold in lieu of hard currency. A local company agreed to gather the gold from the various saloons and businesses and take it 60 miles south to Tacoma, to change it into hard currency at the assay office.

But Seattle’s founding fathers did one more thing to ensure that miners would come to their fair city. The City of Seattle decided to advertise for seamtresses. Lots and lots of seamstresses, to mend the “clothes” of the miners when they returned from the cold camps of the Yukon. To create a welcome for these seamstresses, the city created rows and rows of shacks called “cribs.” These shacks had large front windows where the seamstresses could sit and show off their fine handiwork by wearing lingerie and other dainty clothing. Because these cribs were on city land and the city fathers were also concerned about their tenants' health, they required each seamstress to have a monthly doctor’s checkup and charged them each a license fee of $5 per month.

Hundreds of seamstresses came to Seattle. Some settled in the shacks. Others built large homes where many seamstresses worked in one location.

The miners heard about Seattle’s willingness to provide these valuable services to its visitors. They heard about Seattle’s generosity in taking gold for payment, so they wouldn’t have to go all the way to Tacoma. And it appeared that the miners were interested in a different, more intimate type of prayer than the one that Tacoma offered. (Hey, you pray your way and I’ll pray mine.)

So just as the city fathers of Seattle predicted, the miners came to Seattle – not Tacoma.

Tacoma got the assay office.

But Seattle got the gold.

Our city’s politicians haven’t figure this lesson out. A case in point is one of the measures on the November ballot – Proposition R, commonly known as HOPE.

HOPE's supporters boast that the measure will alleviate the city's housing problem by taking units out of the rental market and allowing apartment owners to sell their units as condos. The HOPE supporters miss the obvious– the number of people who can afford to rent an apartment is much larger than those who can afford to own their own unit.

HOPE advocates also claim that these units will be affordable to the average homeowner. With all due respect to the authors of this bill, they must have been sleeping during their Introduction to Economics class. The law of supply and demand says that if there is a real or perceived shortage of a product or service, the price for that product or services goes up. Since the entire premise of their argument is that there isn’t enough housing stock for new homeowners to purchase, there must be a real shortage of housing stock. Thus, the price of that housing stock will go up.

So taking a page from Seattle’s book, why are we not building affordable housing? Why isn’t the city encouraging investors to buy midsize homes and convert them into buildings with two or three units? The buildings don’t have to change in size – but you are doubling the number of units available for occupancy. Or they could convert underutilitized commercial space into housing. SOMA appears to have lots of empty buildings that could be easily converted into housing units. There are also hotels along Lombard Street that appear to be struggling.

There are all sorts of solutions to solving the housing problem in San Francisco. Taking units out of the rental market isn’t one of them.

The goal should be to get the gold – not to get the assay office.