The Mystery Housebuyer

Novel housing ideas

In Peter Schneider’s 2000 novel Eduard’s Homecoming, a German scientist living in the United States returns to Germany when he learns that he has inherited an apartment building in what used to be East Berlin. In the post-reunification era, Berlin became the nation’s capital once more, and many of the counterculture and left-wing activists who lived there were feeling displaced by the arrival of big companies and government offices, as well as an influx of immigrants from elsewhere. 

Some of them were literally being displaced, as newly involved landlords tried to get them out of the buildings where they had been squatting. During the Cold War, Berlin was not an attractive place to be. But post-Cold War, it became a magnet for artists and techies from across Europe, arguably becoming one of the most exciting cities on the continent.

Eduard, the protagonist of Schneider’s book, did not desire to be a landlord, but he quickly found himself stymied by trying to get his head around local regulations and dealing with the squatters in his building. What would he do? What could he do?

What he ends up doing is realizing he wasn’t going to win it all, and he wasn’t going to lose it all. He eventually came to an arrangement with the squatters in which they transitioned into being legal tenants of his building.

That is something of the approach San Francisco is taking toward the legalization of “granny units” (see Real Estate Roundup, page 26). Landlords who had illegal units that were being rented out could in some circumstances make them legal, as long as they put them under city regulation. Some critics (see interview at left) worry that the restrictions placed on the units will be problematic and could reduce the numbers of landlords who therefore go through the legalization process. Others wonder whether it really matters to the rental market if those units are legal or not — if they’re already occupied, then making them legal won’t add any units to the city’s rental inventory. Thus the importance of the push by Supervisor Scott Wiener to allow the creation of new granny units in the Castro.

Why not allow them in Noe Valley or Bernal Heights or the Marina? If it’s a good idea in one district, it is a good one for the rest of this expensive, housing-strapped city.

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