Gas station without pumps

2018 October 22

Rent control and Costa-Hawkins Act

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:19
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In Santa Cruz, the most contentious thing on the ballot this November is rent control.  There are two relevant initiatives:

  • Proposition 10, which would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act and put in its place a rule that cities and counties can pass whatever rent-control rules they want.
  • Measure M, which would affect only the City of Santa Cruz and institute the strongest rent-control and eviction rules in California.

I’m neither a tenant nor a landlord, and not likely to become either in the next 20 years, so the changes to the rules don’t directly affect me.  That means that I’ll be basing my votes on what I think will be best for the community as a whole, rather than for any personal benefit.

I don’t particularly like the Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibits any limitation on rent increases between tenants, prohibits rent control on anything built after 1995, and prohibits rent control on single-family housing.  Those are all a bit too strong, and I think that Costa-Hawkins needs to be weakened.  Here are some ways that it could be improved:

  • The “built-after-1995” rule was intended to give developers an incentive to build new rental units, by letting them get market rate for new construction.  We do need some such incentives, because housing construction has not kept up with demand—the incentives for building rental housing are too weak.  But I don’t see that the incentive needs to last forever.  It would be better to say that rent control can’t be imposed for the first 20 years after construction—that would give builders all the incentive they need (since the return on investment is generally calculated based on 20-year amortization), without preventing rent control on units that have gotten old.
  • Single-family houses are often rented out by people who only have the one house, but need to live elsewhere for a while.  Allowing homeowners to rent out their residence at market rate while they are away seems fair.  But large landlords and speculators who have bought up many houses (particularly during the foreclosure crisis) shouldn’t be getting such a sweetheart deal.  Perhaps Costa-Hawkins could be rewritten to distinguish between small landlords (owning say 1–5 units) and large landlords, restricting rent control on small landlords but allowing it for large landlords.
  • One of the best ideas I’ve heard came up at an election-discussion party I went to last Saturday (I forget whose idea it was): any landlord could make an arbitrary increase in rent by having the property reassessed for property taxes at its current market value.  If a landlord wants to increase rents faster than 2% a year, they should be willing to let their property taxes go up also.  This would be a win for the cities also, as they would get a substantial increase in property tax (many of the older properties are paying essentially no tax). Of course, this requires some tweaking of the rules of Proposition 13—but I don’t think that there is anything there that would prohibit voluntary reassessment of property.

Unfortunately, if Proposition 10 passes, these reasonable measures could not be enacted by the legislature, because the proposition doesn’t just repeal Costa-Hawkins, but puts in place restrictions on what the legislature can do in the future.  So I’m voting against Proposition 10, even though I think that Costa-Hawkins does need to be fixed—the initiative process is just a horrible way to write legislation.

Measure M, which would institute a rather draconian form of rent control in Santa Cruz, is one I’m definitely voting against.  It will benefit a few long-time renters in Santa Cruz, but it will be disastrous for the rental housing market. The eviction rules, which make it very expensive for landlords to get rid of tenants at the end of a lease make it difficult for people to rent out their own homes if they have to be somewhere else for over a year.

Many of the rental units will be taken off the market if Measure M passes (and even more if both Prop 10 and Measure M pass). Already one of the long-term rental units on our street (a rental for at least the last 25 years) has been sold this fall, in order to take it off the rental market.

Right now the price/rent ratio in Santa Cruz is high (26.4 based on the Zillow estimates for the value of my house for sale and Zillow estimate of a year’s rent) and limiting rents will make it higher, so that there will be substantial incentive for owners to sell rather than rent out property that they are not living in. The result (if Measure M passes) will be a substantial reduction in the rental housing market in Santa Cruz.  Many of the students will have to move outside the city, resulting in much higher traffic also.

Once again, I think that reasonable rent control could be enacted, but Measure M was created to move all the power into the hands of the tenants, rather than striking a balance.  I again think that it would be valuable to distinguish between people who own a house and want to rent it out while they have to live elsewhere, or who have an accessory dwelling unit in their yard, or who live in one unit of a triplex and those landlords or corporations that own apartment complexes or large numbers of houses.  The tiny landlords can’t set the market rates—that is done by the large landlords, and it is the large landlords who need to have controls put on their greed.

I was a little surprised at the election party that all the attendees, who are some of the most progressive people in Santa Cruz (the Leftmost City) were going to vote against Measure M. Almost everyone supported some form of rent control, but felt that Measure M was going to be bad for most of the renters in Santa Cruz, as well as for all the landlords.

Actually, the only large group people who will benefit from Measure M are the gentrifiers who come in and buy up the rental property to convert to owner-occupied homes.  A few long-term renters whose landlords decide not to sell will have some guarantees that they will see only tiny rent increases.




2018 October 19

Fast passport renewal

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:01
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Both my California ID and my passport expire simultaneously at the end of November, which would leave me without a legal ID.  I went to the California DMV site to see what the procedure is now for renewing the California ID, and found that I needed a current ID.  OK, if I go before the end of November, everything is cool, right?

But when I tried at the beginning of October to get an appointment to renew the ID, the earliest appointment they could give me was the middle of December (about 80 days)—after all my legal IDs expired!

So I looked up how quickly I could get a new passport, to see if I could have that before the December deadline.  The usual renewal process looked a little iffy, but expedited passport processing and express mail in both directions looked like it should be more than fast enough, even with the worst-case projected times.

So I had my wife take a picture of me with a white background, cleaned up the background and adjusted the exposure with Photoshop Elements, and took the picture to Bay Photo for printing on 2×2 photo paper.  They couldn’t do that on the spot, but they mailed it to me at no extra cost (given that the print cost only 65¢, they probably lost money on the deal).  The photo printing and mail took about 2 days.

On October 12 at 2pm, I used Express Mail from the Post Office to send in the form, the photo, my about-to-expire passport, and a check.

On October 19, just after noon, I got the new passport in the mail (separate delivery from the usual mail).  So the passport delay was less than 7 days (10 days if you count the slow process I used for getting a passport photo).  Only the passport book came by express mail—I’m still waiting for the passport card.

The total cost was $241.20, including the photo, the express mail each way, and the expedited passport processing.

I now will have legal ID to take with me for my mid-December California ID renewal.  In ten years time, when I need to renew both again, I’ll probably try to do the passport 6 months ahead of time, so that I don’t need to worry about expediting it.

2018 October 6

Cabrillo grant for Hispanics in CS

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:49
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The Santa Cruz Tech Beat article ETR awarded ‘CS For All’ NSF Grant – Cabrillo College, Digital NEST, Pajaro Valley Unified School District to Receive Funding reports on a new grant of almost a million dollars “to establish computer science and computational thinking pathways for K-14 students in south Santa Cruz County”. That is a good thing to support, and the south part of hte county certainly needs more money for education, so I’m all in favor of the grant and its goals.

But there was one quote from the article that I thought was a bit misleading:

“Research from Lopez & Fry demonstrates that while Latinos make up 19% of all U.S. college students ages 18- 24, they earn only 6% of Computer Science bachelor’s degrees,” said Gerlinde Brady, Dean of Career Technical Education at Cabrillo College. “Offering CS and CIS pathways to dual-enrolled high school students who earn college credit while in high school will increase their likelihood of enrolling in college and becoming CS and CIS majors.”

Those figures may be accurate on a national basis, but are they accurate locally?  I checked the UCSC major head counts for Fall 2017 (the 2018 ones aren’t available yet).  UCSC had an overall Hispanic undergrad enrollment of 27.6% (substantially higher than the 19% quoted), and CS had only 12.9% Hispanics, so there is definitely a gap.  Computer Engineering, however, had 24.9% Hispanics, and Computational Media (the department for the Game Design major) had 14.8% Hispanics.  Combining all three departments, we see 15.8%.  The ratio of Hispanics in CS+CE+CM to Hispanics at the University is 0.57—much better than the nationwide 0.33, but still under-representation in computing fields relative to the overall student population.

Of all the divisions at UCSC, engineering has the lowest representation of Hispanics (17.8%) and the highest of Asians (39.8%). Computer Science is 46.6% Asian undergraduate students, the highest of any department on campus, but the fraction of white students (24.9%) is lower than the campus as a whole (31.4%).

Interestingly, the whitest department on campus is Music at 55.8%.  In engineering, the whitest is Computational Media at 34%, in humanities—Literature at 47.4%, in physical and biological sciences—Earth and Planetary Science at 48.1%, and in social science—Environmental Studies at 48.2%.  The least-white department is Latin American and Latino Studies (3.6% white, 91.9% Hispanic).

Division International Asian-American Hispanic White
Arts 6.5% 19.3% 26.2% 37.4%
Engineering 8.4% 39.8% 17.8% 27.3%
Humanities 1.3% 14.0% 35.0% 40.8%
Physical+Biological Sciences 3.1% 29.0% 29.1% 32.3%
Social Sciences 5.7% 23.8% 33.5% 30.1%
Total 6.2% 27.7% 27.6% 31.4%

Totals aren’t 100%, because I left out four smaller categories of students.

A large part of the differences between divisions comes from the fraction of Asian-American and international (largely Chinese) students in each major, but even ignoring that and looking at just the Hispanic/White ratio, Engineering is low on Hispanic students, and computer science even lower.

Those were all head-count figures.  What if we look at graduation figures, which are what  the quote referred to. (These are for 2016–17, so are more an indication of what the campus was like 3–4 years ago—I would expect a somewhat different mix: probably a little whiter than the current mix.)

Division International Asian-American Hispanic White
Arts 0.7% 16.0% 33.8% 42.9%
Engineering 3.0% 36.6% 17.8% 33.3%
Humanities 1.0% 11.3% 37.3% 42.9%
Physical+Biological Sciences 1.6% 28.5% 25.9% 38.5%
Social Sciences 2.4% 22.8% 37.7% 30.9%
Total 2.0% 24.1% 31.9% 35.3%

The graduation figures are indeed a little whiter, but also more Hispanic (except in the STEM fields).   I suspect that the campus has gotten more Asian largely because admissions has gotten more selective as the number of applicants has grown faster than the number of students the campus admits (which in turn has grown far faster than the facilities for teaching or housing them).

2018 October 2

PayPal has terrible customer service

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:27
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I had to contact PayPal’s customer service for the first time today, and I was appalled at how bad it was.

The task was a simple one: I wanted to remove the Wells Fargo account I had just closed from the PayPal account.  PayPal provides a simple web service for doing this (go to your wallet, click on the bank listing, then click on delete).

Unfortunately, the web interface didn’t work, claiming that I could not delete the bank, because of a pending transaction.  But I had no pending transactions.  I tried a few times, but always got the same error message.

One of their help systems is a FAQ system, which pointed me to the procedure I had already used and that had already failed. I tried it again anyway, making sure I followed the instructions exactly.

The next system I tried was their live chat interface.  I reported the problem there, and “Derrick” confirmed that I had no pending transactions, but he did not have the ability to remove the bank from my account and directed me to their phone system: “I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused however if you give us a call at 888-221-1161 a phone agent can have the bank removed for you since the website is giving you a hard time.”

So I called the phone system, which has a very sophisticated voice-response system designed to prevent you from talking to a human being.  After several minutes of it reading to me the instructions for using the web interface that had already failed for me, I finally managed to get back to the main menu and ask for a customer representative.

I was put on a loud hold, then offered the opportunity of getting a callback without losing my place in line.  The estimated time for the callback was 2.5 to 3.5 hours, and I certainly wasn’t going to wait on obnoxious hold for that long, so I accepted the callback offer.

As it turned out, the callback was 4 hours later, well past their estimate.  When they called me back, they immediately put me on a loud hold again (not a very polite thing to do on a callback!).  The hold was only a couple of minutes, but this gave me plenty of time to login to PayPal again and confirm that deleting the bank account was still not possible with their web interface.

When the customer service representative finally came on the line and understood what I wanted, she needed to confirm my identity (a reasonable precaution).  Unfortunately, the only method she knew was to send me a text, and I had to explain three times that I did not have a cellphone and so could not receive text messages.

I know, it is very hard for a young person to believe that there are people without cellphones, when 95% of Americans have cellphones and 77% have smart phones.  For people with my characteristics (gender, age, education, income) the fraction is more like 98% with cell phones. []  I’m not exactly a Luddite, but I am a late adopter of many forms of technology.  (I was an early adopter of pocket calculators and personal computers, but most other electronic gadgets have not attracted me.)

Since the customer service representative had never dealt with someone who had no cellphone, she had to talk with her manager—at least this time the hold was mercifully silent.  When she came back on the line, she asked me the same sort of security questions that the website usually uses.

After confirming my identity, she had no trouble deleting the Wells Fargo account from my PayPal account, though there is still no explanation why the delete button kept giving me the bogus “pending transaction” error.

Dumped Wells Fargo

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:48
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As I mentioned five months ago in Thinking of dumping Wells Fargo, Wells Fargo has done so much wrong lately that I’m feeling I can’t really let them have access to my money any more.  I finally closed my Wells Fargo account today, after 32 years of doing business with them.  I have no beef with the local branch, but the corporate management seems to have turned evil in the past decade—if enough people and businesses stop working with them, maybe they’ll toss out the crooks at the top and return to being a responsible business.  I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

To close the account, I first needed to set up a new checking account elsewhere, connect it to my various other financial accounts (paycheck direct deposit, Paypal, investment accounts, household checking account, … ) and make sure everything was working.  Because I already have my household account in the better of the two local credit unions (Bay Federal), I looked at local banks and on-line banks and credit unions.  The two local banks (Lighthouse and Santa Cruz County Bank) looked OK, but not great, so I decided to try the online Alliant Credit Union, which at least gives a little interest on checking and savings accounts.

Setting up the account was fairly easy, and it only took me a week to find all the accounts that  were linked with my Wells Fargo account and switch them over to using the Alliant Credit Union Account.  The final confirmation came yesterday, when my October 1 paycheck was correctly deposited in the new account.

So this morning I went to the Wells Fargo office to close my account.  They were not very surprised at my reasons for closing the account (I suspect that a lot of Santa Cruzans have been dissociating themselves from Wells Fargo).  It took a little while to get a cashier’s check for the balance of my account, but the process was fairly smooth.

I did run into a little problem with the check, though.  It turned out to be too large an amount to deposit into my Alliant Credit Union account via ATM machine!  I tried depositing into the Bay Federal Credit Union account via ATM, but the check was rejected from that also.  I ended up having to go to the BFCU office and hand the check over to a teller (who had to get a supervisor signature in order to accept the check).

It will be 2 days before the money is accessible in the BFCU account, and I’ll transfer it from there to my investment accounts.


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