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Capitalism, Economics, Housing

Sleeping Pods

As rents soar and swallow up more and more of the earnings of working people, landlords face a problem — how to pack an increasing number of tenants into a given space. A San Francisco developer has the answer.

by Jordan Levi



4 min read

Photo by Alec Favale on Unsplash

San Francisco! The Golden Gate City! Birthplace of food staples like Mission Burritos, It’s-Its, and Ghirardelli Chocolate! Founded in 1776, five days before America’s Declaration of Independence, it was the Viceroyalty of New Spain’s northernmost military outpost prior to the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, becoming part of the Mexican territory of Alta California in 1824, before finally being admitted into the union as part of the 31st state of California in 1850. With the California Gold Rush starting in 1848, droves of prospectors flooded into the area the following year, leading to the moniker “forty-niners.” Brimming with history, Frisco’s arguably best known for being the center of the counterculture movement in the ’60s and, more recently, for being a major hub of the dotcom and social media booms of the ’90s and 2000s. These booms led to a rapid influx of well-paid tech professionals, choking the housing market and, thus, drastically increasing housing prices.

In December 2019, the average rental price of an apartment in SF was $3,688,[1] and the average home sold for $1.58 million,[2] which is 2.5 and 5.64 times higher than the national average, respectively. These outlandish prices beg the question: how do low and even middle-income workers afford to live in such an expensive city? The answer’s usually: roommates. 38.5% of adults in Frisco have roommates,[3] which is equivalent to more than 60.9% of its total renters. It’s worth noting that, even though not everyone with roommates has them due to economic necessity, a steady increase along with housing prices hints that financial constraints may be the cause, especially when taking the rapid rise in homelessness into account.

San Francisco’s biennial point-in-time homeless count conducted in January 2019 reported a homeless population of 8,011 by the federal government’s definition.[4] However, it could be more than double that based on a city database of people who receive health care and other services for the homeless.[5] Using the federal government’s definition, 63% of those polled said they were homeless because they couldn’t afford rent in the city. It’s mostly not new residents either; 55% had been living there for ten or more years, and only 6% had lived there less than a year. Of those counted, 1,794 were living out of their vehicles, which was a 45% increase from 2017.[6] However, it’s also worth noting that another survey found that 25% of people living out of their vehicles were “super-commuters” – people who drive long distances into the city for the workweek, returning to their homes on the weekends where housing’s more affordable.

But even after you account for that, the circumstances are still bleak once you consider the fact that San Francisco had 38,651 empty homes in 2018,[7] almost five times higher than 2019’s homeless count. Some types of reforms are needed pronto, or people might start grabbing the guillotines. Possibly the fairest legislation would be to enact some form of rent control, whether capped at a certain yearly increase percentage or a certain percentage of someone’s income. Another way to ease the pressure could be to increase the minimum wage, or maybe a combination of the two. They could even consider – I don’t know – giving people housing for free?

But Chris Elsey of Elsey Partners in Manhattan, KS isn’t suggesting either of those things. His plans have been in the works for more than four years to turn two parking lots in the city’s Mission District that are catty-corner from each other at 401 S Van Ness Ave and 1500 15th St into new apartment buildings that would each have eight floors with 161 units that would be 200 square feet, including a bathroom and kitchen. But what’s the game-changer? Each building will also have two basement-level floors – space traditionally used for storing bikes – that’ll include 88 “sleeping pods” renting for $1,000 to $1,375 each that would be about 50 square feet, which is just roomier than a king-size bed.[8] The pods would stack on top of each other like bunk beds, with one side opening to a shared living space. A curtain could provide privacy for them, but city building codes won’t allow them to be closed in by a wall and door that shuts. They also wouldn’t have windows but would receive natural light as they circle common living spaces facing an outdoor courtyard in the center of the building. And, to add insult to injury, you also wouldn’t be allowed to come home drunk or have sex in the pods either. They notably made no mention of bathrooms, refrigerators, cabinets, laundry facilities, or other residential amenities.

Now, let’s think about this for a second. Most definitions recommend 100 – 400 square feet per person in an apartment.[9] Laws vary in each state, but 70 – 80 square feet is generally considered the acceptable minimum for a bedroom.[10] These sleeping pods would be just over half that or the size of a standard jail cell[11] or double grave.[12] It’s a genuine possibility that these pods could mostly shelter people working 40 or more hours per week to come home and sleep in an oversized closet they can’t even stand up in, let alone drink or fornicate.

No matter how you cut it, the entire concept of a sleeping pod is wholesale encroachment on basic needs. It’s not radical to want anyone working a full-time job to have an actual home to sleep in and not just a spruced-up box. When I was a kid, I believed that if you graduated college with a decent degree, you’d practically be guaranteed to own a home, but that’s hardly even the case anymore in most cities due to crippling student loan debt.[13] No one should have to forego the right to drink a beer to unwind after work so they can live within a reasonable commuting distance from their job. The proposal itself begs the question: what if those become too expensive, too? If sleeping pods are even remotely normalized and eventually become unaffordable, will the landlords try to sell us bunks? Mats? Tents? How much space will they be willing to deprive us of before they give any leeway if only to keep low-wage workers in the city to hand them coffee in the morning?

This proposal ties back into the power imbalance inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship I mentioned in my last article.[14] If Chris were genuinely interested in providing more housing to combat the crisis, he’d open a rent or income-controlled apartment with adequately sized units that could accommodate bachelor’s and families. But he’s not proposing that, because it wouldn’t be in his financial interest, and that’ll always come first. Chris isn’t planning this to help San Franciscans; they’re proposing it so they can capitalize on the extra space that otherwise wouldn’t amass any profit. If someone can’t afford a pod, he couldn’t care less where they sleep. Capitalists don’t build homes out of the kindness of their hearts; they do it to accumulate more capital. Capital will always tend to lower the lot of the worker for its benefit if given the opportunity. The only way we can guarantee everyone a decent-sized home is by getting rid of capitalism and its incentive for profit over people by building a socialist economy that would finally put people and our environment as our main priority. With our economic system based on common ownership of the means of production and production for use, we could solve every problem caused by capitalism. There wouldn’t be any more empty homes while people sleep in their cars or empty stomachs while grocery stores and restaurants waste food, because there’d be universal free access to everything we need. We could logically utilize our resources via a direct democracy with a conscious plan rather than the fragmented chaos of a market.

[1] https://www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/ca/san-francisco/ 

[2] https://www.bayareamarketreports.com/trend/san-francisco-home-prices-market-trends-news 

[3] https://sf.curbed.com/2017/12/18/16791954/san-francisco-roommates-double-households-rent-data 

[4] https://sf.curbed.com/2019/7/8/20686653/san-francisco-sf-homeless-count-number-population-2019 

[5] https://sf.curbed.com/2019/11/20/20973811/sf-homeless-count-department-public-health-san-francisco 

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/05/california-housing-homeless-rv-cars-bay-area 

[7] https://sf.curbed.com/2019/12/3/20993251/san-francisco-bay-area-vacant-homes-per-homeless-count 

[8] https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/underground-beds-sleeping-pods-San-Francisco-14957185.php#photo-18851991 

[9] https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/number-persons-buildings-d_118.html 

[10] https://www.realtor.com/advice/sell/what-is-a-bedroom-features/ 

[11] https://www.reference.com/world-view/big-prison-cell-2b9267096a79503c 

[12] https://www.reference.com/world-view/size-standard-grave-e5cefdfa02efc04b 

[13] https://www.npr.org/2019/02/01/689660957/heavy-student-loan-debt-forces-many-millennials-to-delay-buying-homes 

[14] https://www.wspus.org/2019/12/fire-on-9th-st/ 

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Impossibilist; "ultra," if you will. Magdalen Berns was right about everything.

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