Capitol One

Michael Theriault headshot

In 1992 I brought my family to Québec City, on the way to visit cousins in New Brunswick and northern Maine. Our first morning there, we followed standard tourist routine and rode a carriage through the Old City, which dates to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As our carriage driver, Annie, guided her horse along narrow streets among steep-roofed stone and brick buildings, I noticed that something besides architecture was very different from San Francisco.

“Annie,” I said, “do you have any homeless people here?”

“Oh yes oh yes,” she said. “Six.”

At that time, before annexing adjacent municipalities, Québec had about 160,000 residents.

Then as now, San Francisco, with about five times Québec’s population, had a homeless population numbering not five times six, but hundreds of times higher.

Annie’s number was probably wrong, but not by much. A 1999 study by Irene Glasser of Connecticut and Louise Fournier and André Costopoulos of Montréal compared homelessness in two cities of comparable size, Québec and Hartford, Connecticut. The cities were similar also in having lost manufacturing jobs, in having seen low-income neighborhoods demolished for freeways and “urban renewal,” in being in countries that had turned out patients from psychiatric institutions into communities, and in being capitals.

Despite these similarities, and even though Hartford was somewhat smaller, Hartford’s homeless population was roughly ten times Québec’s.

The study acknowledged the complexities of comparing cities that – while in neighboring countries in many regards similar – in this case represented different cultures. Was doubling up of families in housing more acceptable in Québec, with its long tradition of large families and crowded homes, than in the United States? Was the Canadian healthcare system, and Québec’s even stronger variation, an advantage? What was the effect of Québec’s more European model of “compact cities with well-developed public transportation and community services, with a small gap in the quality of housing between rich and poor”?

In conclusion, though, the study expressed the belief that Québec’s much lower homelessness rate was “due in large part to the greater amount of financial assistance and social housing [government-funded low-income housing in mixed-income neighborhoods] available in Québec.” Simply put, government did more directly for low-income Québecois and did not rely on market “solutions” to protect them.

My March and July columns addressed issues of modular construction. Since then, the civic debate over modular has intensified.

As I reported in March, developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests has proposed importation of stackable modular housing from China as a “solution” to homelessness. He wants to stack these units on City property and lease them to the City for ten years.

The Building Trades have argued against his proposal. Not only is all work in building these units, from shell to interior finishes, work we would otherwise do here, but they are not subject to our more stringent building codes and cannot be inspected by City inspectors.

A 28 September guest editorial in the Chronicle by David Friedlander, a Brooklyn resident and not a San Franciscan, extolled the proposal and bemoaned opposition from “labor concerns.”

The Chronicle declined to publish an editorial I wrote in response, and then declined to publish the letter to the editors I submitted on their instruction when they declined my editorial.

A self-proclaimed advocate for “market urbanism” and sometime writer for the conservative National Review, Scott Beyer, published a column in the business review Forbes entitled “San Francisco’s Bureaucracy, Unions Stifle Modular Housing for Homeless.” He complained not only of our opposition, but of codes that make construction more environmentally responsible.

Clearly business interests are served by attacks on unions in the name of “solving” homelessness. It is not clear the interests of the homeless are served. The last thing such writers as Mr. Beyer and such publications as Forbes and the National Review would admit is what the Québec-Hartford comparison shows, that the free-market, small-government ethos they espouse has led to an American system that fails low-income residents. Instead, they advocate the for-profit “solution” of stacking substandard housing on scarce City land.

Nor does Mr. Kennedy’s proposal, which offers not permanent housing but somewhat upgraded temporary housing, fit the “housing first” model of addressing homelessness that San Francisco has decided to pursue. City resources should go to genuine homes for the homeless and to prevention of homelessness by protection of the homes of others.

And Mr. Kennedy has never agreed to accept tight restrictions on the use of his below-code modules to homeless transitional housing. He hopes to push his profit-making venture past its homeless “solution” beachhead and spread Chinese-made modular construction widely.

If the City wants to expend its limited resources in experiments with modular housing for the homeless, those experiments should not be first steps in curtailing the opportunities for construction careers for residents of underprivileged neighborhoods we have worked so long with the City to provide. They should instead expand those opportunities. A good job is always one of the strongest preventatives of homelessness.

If the City wants to risk those experiments, it should build the modules here, to its own codes, and inspect them with its own inspectors. We will happily cooperate to ensure that their construction provides entries to new careers for City residents.

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