Monday, June 17, 2024

PRESSURE BUILDS FOR MORE OFFICE BUILDING CONVERSIONS

 

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2024 OR THEREAFTER

 

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS

 

   BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “PRESSURE BUILDS FOR MORE OFFICE BUILDING CONVERSIONS”

 

        Almost no one wants office buildings these days, either to build them or buy them.

 

        In downtown San Francisco, the April sale of an empty 16-story office structure on lower Market Street brought just $6.5 million, less than the price paid for hundreds of California single family homes last year. That was 90 percent below the $65 million price the same building brought in 2016, the last time it changed owners.

 

        In the Arts District of Los Angeles, a fast-developing trendy area just east of downtown, plans to build a 10-story office structure containing many “creative spaces” were cancelled a month later by New York real estate developer Tishman Speyer.

 

        It’s the same all over the country, from Memphis to Maryland, from Manhattan to Market Street, where the commercial real estate firm CBRE the other day issued a preliminary report showing office vacancies in San Francisco at 36.6 percent, up about 1 percent from the proportion of empty office space at the end of last year.

 

        The vacancy rates are not quite so high in cities like Fresno and San Diego. Yet. But empty or mostly vacant properties nevertheless abound all over California and the nation.

 

        Not even real estate investment trusts (REITs) want to buy office towers anymore, with many trying to unload their current stock.

 

        It’s all because of the stay-home orders issued at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which sent millions of white collar workers to new work spaces in their homes and allowed hundreds of thousands to move to less expensive quarters far from city centers where they formerly had to pay high rents because their presence was required in offices.

 

        When some employers early this year began requiring that workers return to offices at least part time, a wave of resignations ensued. It turns out workers enjoy being at home, away from the prying eyes and frequent demands of their bosses. This has also spurred new fluidity in the job market.

 

That all creates huge financial pressure for converting a major share of current office space into residential units. If REITs can’t collect rents on their properties, but still must make payments for them to banks and other lenders, they need to find another way to profit from buildings they are stuck with.

 

So an office building conversion movement – originally predicted in early 2020 by this column – is getting underway. But it’s not yet going fast enough.

 

        Billions of square feet of office space now lie fallow and could be converted to apartments and condominiums of many sizes and shapes. There can be low-priced units on the lower floors where street noises are common and high-priced penthouses far above them, free of most city noise pollution and enjoying sweeping views.

 

        But so far, only hundreds of thousands of square feet have been converted, leaving the vast majority of vacant space unused while housing construction lags far behind the millions of square feet state authorities say is needed.

 

        After dragging their feet on this for several years, Gov. Gavin Newsom and California legislators last year passed a measure easing the path toward building permits to convert office towers. The same for abandoned big box stores and their large parking lots.

 

        Still, only about 5,200 dwelling units were created via conversions last year in Los Angeles, and one-eighth as many in San Francisco. The numbers were even smaller in places like Sacramento and Oakland.

 

        But this is a movement that is both morally and financially necessary. Market-rate apartments in a converted office building ought to sell for far less than units in a newly-constructed tower. That’s because building and land acquisition costs are far lower for conversions than new structures. Plus, there are fewer legal challenges for conversions, which do not much change the profile and environmental effects of existing buildings.

 

        So expect a boom in conversions soon, with numbers multiplying by at least ten over the next five years. It’s what California needs and whatever this state needs, its people have generally created over more than 170 years of statehood.

 


-30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit 
www.californiafocus.net

KEY PROPOSITION AIMS TO PROTECT SAME SEX MARRIAGE

 

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JULY 2, 2024, OR THEREAFTER

 


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS

     “KEY PROPOSITION AIMS TO PROTECT SAME SEX MARRIAGE”

 

 

        Almost 16 years ago, California passed a short constitutional amendment via a ballot proposition that included no reason for its adoption. This was pure emotionalism.

 

 

        “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” the amendment, known in the 2008 election as Proposition 8, said very simply.

 

 

        This was the reaction to an action four years earlier by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to have the city/county government he headed start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

 

 

        Newsom’s move was a first. It prompted an emotional response by opponents terrified that the fabric of America would be destroyed by letting gay people marry one another and begin to enjoy the tax, insurance and other benefits of legal unions.

 

 

        Prop. 8 did not last long in the courts. Yes, it was ratified by the state Supreme Court soon after it passed on a 52-48 percent vote, the state justices ruling it created only a small exception in the California Constitution’s equal rights clause.

 

 

        This ruling was quickly overturned by a federal judge in San Francisco, with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually refusing to take up the case, thus allowing gay marriages, but also letting the language forbidding them to remain in the state Constitution.

 

 

        The ruling okaying same-sex unions said Prop. 8’s ban violated both the equal protection and due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That decision and its reasoning have stood for more than 14 years. 

 

 

        But forbiddance of those unions remains enshrined in the state Constitution, and supporters now fear that a Republican takeover of both houses of Congress this fall, combined with election of Donald Trump as President, could resuscitate it and lead to ending gay unions.

 

 

        They know the emotions behind Prop. 8 still exist, as one recent statement from the California Family Council shows. It claimed the new proposition might “dismantle the traditional family structure.”

 

 

     All this makes the move to strike Prop. 8’s currently moribund language potentially the most important measure on a ballot that will also feature major initiatives on crime, housing, health and taxation.

 

 

        It’s why both houses of the state Legislature voted by margins topping two-thirds last spring to place an antidote on the November ballot. No one is sure today whether their measure striking Prop. 8’s language from the state’s chief governing document could withstand a potential new federal law with those or similar words at a national level.

 

 

        More than 200,000 Californians now live in same-sex marriages, so reactivating the old Prop. 8 just might lead to the very sort of upheaval the measure’s supporters originally feared from gay marriage.

 

 

        Insurance policies could be cancelled in an era when new ones can be hard to get. Same-sex spouses could lose health coverage under their partners’ policies. Longstanding adoptions could be threatened. And much more.

 

 

        How serious is any threat to same-sex unions? One clue came in the concurring opinion issued by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he voted to end the Roe v. Wade protection of abortion rights.

 

 

        Thomas opined the court should also reconsider rulings on things like same-sex marriage and contraception, a formerly very private subject that’s become a major issue in Congress.

 

 

        California and other states have since passed ballot measures to enshrine abortion rights in their own, more local constitutions, which are permitted to grant more rights, but never less, than the U.S. Constitution.

 

 

        That principle, for just one example, allows California’s tough fair housing laws to persist in the face of periodic opposition from real estate interests.

 

 

        Newsom, now the governor, is already campaigning for the measure to strike the old Proposition 8, which does not yet bear a number. “Here we are in 2024,” he observed the other day, “and we’re…experiencing a rights regression.”

 

 

        All this explains why, even though there is no explicit threat today to same-sex marriage (other than the musings of Thomas), top political figures like Newsom and former state Senate President Toni Atkins (who has a same-sex marriage), urgently seek elimination of Prop. 8’s language.

 

 

        Doing that could prevent future confusion and disruption in thousands of lives.

       

 

    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Monday, June 10, 2024

HIGH TIME FOR ACTION ON GAS GOUGING

CALIFORNIA FOCUS

FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JUNE 28, 2024, OR THEREAFTER

 

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS

    “HIGH TIME FOR ACTION ON GAS GOUGING”

 

        The gasoline price gouging that has plagued California periodically for decades appears no longer to be merely sporadic. It’s now a steady phenomenon.

 

        There was shock and indignation about 18 months ago, when California’s Big 5 gasoline refiners raised prices by more than $2 per gallon over a mere two days in February 2023, and kept them near $7 for weeks, before letting them slide into the $5-plus range where they mostly sit today.

 

        That resulted in windfall profits for those companies: Chevron, Marathon, PBF, Phillips 66 and Valero all set records for profits over the next two quarters. It also produced a special legislative session that created a new wing of the state Energy Commission to assess financial penalties when companies are found to be gouging their millions of customers.

 

        The new Division of Petroleum Market Oversight has so far not penalized anyone, even though prices and refinery profit margins remain near the record levels set during and just after the big price spike of early last year.

 

        Now comes the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, which over the last 35 years has saved California drivers more than $13 billion in car insurance premiums via the rules set in the 1988 Proposition 103, authored primarily by the group’s founder, lawyer Harvey Rosenfield.

 

        The industry, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the current state insurance commissioner, Ricardo Lara, are feverishly trying now to decimate Prop. 103, and Consumer Watchdog is contesting that attempt.

 

        But the group has also been agitating for action from the new Petroleum Oversight divison. In comments filed the other day, Consumer Watchdog used state data showing that refining profits reached record levels in both 2022 and 2023, years when Big Oil claimed refinery maintenance and accidents caused shortages that led to price increases.

 

        The price hikes plainly produced those record profits. For the rest of the last decade, Consumer Watchdog noted, gasoline refining profits averaged 64 cents per gallon. But in 2023, the average annual margin was $1.01. That was a 57 percent increase in profits. Put another way, it was a strongly inflationary additional cost of 37 cents per gallon for Californians already beset with higher food and utility prices.

 

        Said Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog’s president, “Every price spike during the last decade has seen a corresponding margin/profit spike.” In short, the higher gasoline prices go, the more profit reaped by oil companies that own the big refineries.

 

        This must end if there’s ever to be a lid on the inflation plaguing all but the wealthiest in this state.

 

        Amazingly, the price spikes and the current prices are almost identical among all the big refineries. This, of course, suggests illegal collusion.

 

        Court told the Energy Commission that “Companies often defend against accusations of illegal parallel actions by (citing) business reasons. Sustaining higher prices and profits all year long (without) such reasons (like claims of supply disruptions) would create great legal peril for the companies.” He added that failing to impose a profit ceiling on the refiners, which the commission now has the authority to do, would be “equivalent to giving in to terrorists when we have laws that penalize terrorism.”

 

        And yet, the Energy Commission has not restrained prices, now nearly $2 per gallon higher here than the $3.76 that has recently prevailed in the rest of the continental United States.

 

        Republican politicians often claim this price differential comes because of California’s gas taxes. But nearly one-third of the difference can be ascribed to gas gouging revealed in the industry’s own monthly reports to the Energy Commission, a new requirement of the same law that grants its Petroleum Oversight division authority to limit profits.

 

        So it’s high time to put that now year-old law into use and limit refinery profits to reasonable levels. Consumer Watchdog suggests a cap of 70 cents per gallon, more than the industry averaged in the eight years before the 2023 spike.

 

        By itself, that action could cut the price differential between California and other states by about one-third. Which would be an enormous benefit to millions of California drivers.      

 

    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

TODAY'S MOSTLY FEMALE FIELD FOR GOVERNOR? THE MAKEUP WILL CHANGE SOON

 

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY,
JUNE 25, 2024, OR THEREAFTER

 

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “TODAY'S MOSTLY FEMALE FIELD FOR GOVERNOR? THE MAKEUP WILL CHANGE SOON”

 

        There was rejoicing among California feminists earlier this year as they examined the list of candidates to succeed Gavin Newsom as California governor in 2026.

 

        That was because the early batch of candidates for months has been an almost all-female group, with Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis the first to declare, three years before the vote. Then Toni Atkins of San Diego, the former longtime president of the state Senate got in early this year. A couple of months later, they were joined by Betty Yee, the former state controller. Through this time, the only announced male candidate has been Tony Thurmond, a former Democratic assemblyman from Richmond and current state schools superintendent.

 

        But that female-dominated list won't stay intact for long. The closer the June 2, 2026 primary election gets (it’s now less than two years off), the more male prospects seem to appear.

 

        Thurmond, however, still remains the sole male making his ambitions official.

 

        But with an open seat at stake, the fieldwill not long lack a significant corps of men.

 

        One strong possibility is Rob Bonta, a former longtime Democratic legislator from Fremont first appointed state attorney general by Newsom in 2021. Bonta won election on his own the next year. Unlike other possibilities, he faces a key question: Should he risk entering a very crowded race where he’s not a lead-pipe cinch to even make the November 2026 runoff ballot or do the safe thing and easily win reelection to his current job?

 

        If Bonta runs and wins, he would become the first governor married to a member of the Legislature, as Bonta’s wife Mia was elected to his seat after he moved up, now representing Oakland and Emeryville in the Assembly.

 

     Bonta would continue Newsom’s emphasis on trying to solve the state’s housing shortage, the exact level of which is uncertain as Newsom has employed multiple, widely varied, numbers. But Bonta, who has sued many cities to force housing quotas upon them, would probably be tougher in this area than any other current gubernatorial prospect.

 

        Another possible male candidate is Xavier Becerra, the current U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Becerra, who preceded Bonta as attorney general, has been quietly efficient in the cabinet, but would be out of a job if President Biden loses this fall.

 

        Becerra spent 25 years in Congress from East Los Angeles before ex-Gov. Jerry Brown tapped him as California attorney general in 2017, when current Vice President Kamala Harris stepped up to the U.S. Senate. He won election on his own the next year. Becerra, a tough voting rights advocate while attorney general, might have problems in a big Democratic field, but also might attract most Latino votes in a group that otherwise may not include significant Hispanic candidates.

 

        A wild card, and perhaps the best bet among today’s possible candidates to make the runoff is Chad Bianco, the ultra-vocal conservative sheriff of Riverside County.

 

        Bianco, the only Republican currently known to be considering a run, might be able to duplicate the achievement of current Senate nominee Steve Garvey and consolidate Republican and right-leaning voters with no party preference into a bloc large enough to match the followings of major Democrats seeking a runoff slot.

 

        Bianco became a hero to some conservatives as one of several “scofflaw sheriffs” refusing to enforce Newsom’s 2020 pandemic-induced stay-at-home orders or any masking mandates.

 

        Currently he’s among the leading law enforcement figures backing an initiative that aims to roll back some of the criminal justice changes wrought by the 2014 Proposition 47, blamed by many police for increased shoplifting and other property crime because it reduced felony prosecutions. 

 

        Of all these figures, Kounalakis, Yee, Becerra and Bonta have previously appeared on statewide ballots, usually an advantage when running for governor or the Senate. And Kounalakis, daughter of wealthy Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, will have virtually unlimited funds, as she did when running for her current office.

 

        So it’s anybody’s guess who might emerge as the leader in this race, but for sure the campaign no longer shapes up as an all-but guaranteed win for one of the woman candidates.

       
-30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

Saturday, June 1, 2024

POT LOUNGES? WHY EXPAND A DESTRUCTIVE BUSINESS?

 

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2024 OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
        “POT LOUNGES? WHY EXPAND A DESTRUCTIVE BUSINESS?”

 

        Since California voters legalized cannabis via a 2016 ballot initiative, the weed has evolved into something like a normal business. It’s complete with webcasts on how to operate efficiently, disputes over where to place stores and gripes about black marketeers siphoning off too much of the multi-billion-dollar take.

 

        Now the state Assembly has decided the marijuana trade, with retail outlets in almost every corner of the state, is not yet big enough. The lower legislative house voted by a huge margin (49-4, with almost half its members not voting) to expand the business even farther by allowing Amsterdam-style lounges that could serve food and drinks along with varieties of the weed.

 

        The large number of non-voters (more than one-third of Assembly members) was a clear sign that many did not wish to make an enemy of the powerful pot lobby, but also did not want to go on the record favoring expanded cannabis use.

 

        Perhaps that was because polls taken as recently as last year indicate about one third of voters here believe the pot industry has grown too large and ubiquitous.

 

        The Assembly majority, however, wasn’t worried about that, nor is it likely the state Senate will pause very long, either. An almost identical bill passed both houses last year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who cited state laws requiring smoke-free workplaces.

 

        But there are stronger reasons than that for questioning expanded pot use in California.

 

        For one thing, while laws control the purity of alcoholic beverages, nothing ensures the quality of marijuana. The ill effects of cannabis use have been well known for generations: spaced-out behavior, impaired judgment, both clouded and heightened senses depending on your personal biology, a distorted sense of time, slower reactions, lower motor skills, reduced inhibitions, less mental focus and memory. On the positive side, there’s pain reduction and better tolerance for some prescription medications and their side effects, especially among anti-cancer drugs.

 

        But just last year, a peer-reviewed report in a journal of the American Psychiatric Association made it definite that if you want to be mentally sharp in middle age and beyond, don’t smoke pot regularly.

 

        Concluded the report: “At age 45, people who (said they used) cannabis weekly or more frequently over the past year showed greater cognitive decline than those who never used cannabis.”

 

        In short, if you want to avoid dementia as you age, forget the weed.

 

        Now there’s even more bad news for frequent cannabis users, also tied to advancing age.

 

        This time, it’s the Journal of the American Medical Assn. publishing a peer-reviewed Canadian study showing  use of dried marijuana flowers and edible pot products by those aged 65 and up could lead to acute cannabis toxicity, causing coordination problems, muscle weakness and unsteady hands, lethargy, decreased concentration, slowed reaction time and slurred speech. Large doses of cannabis extracts often produced confusion, amnesia, delusions, hallucinations, anxiety and agitation.

 

The good news is that most episodes reported by the Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto were short. But long-term pot users also experienced paranoia, panic disorder and generalized fear.

 

That’s what you’d risk by going to a newly-legalized pot lounge if they were authorized in California, as the majority of legislators appears to want.

 

        Which leads to a logical question: What are those so-called state leaders on?

 

        The same for union leaders who moved the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Western States Council (UFCW) to back this legislation, known as AB 1775, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Matthew Haney of San Francisco.

 

        Said John Frahm, president of UFCW’s Hayward-based Local 5, which covers most of Northern California, “We need to be doing all we can to strengthen California’s legal cannabis industry while it battles high taxation, restrictive regulations and competition from the illicit cannabis market.”

 

        He did now explain why that’s needed, but it’s safe to say he’d like to unionize any new pot lounges legalized by AB 1775.

 

        That might be good for the UFCW, but plainly not for the mental or physical health of pot users.

 

-30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

PLANNED INSURANCE RULE MAKES CONSUMER REVIEWS MEANINGLESS

 

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2024 OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS

      “PLANNED INSURANCE RULE MAKES CONSUMER REVIEWS MEANINGLESS”

 

 

        In the insurance business, there are different kinds of black boxes. One is literally a small black box usually inserted in a car’s cigarette lighter socket that records exactly how a driver behaves and handles the car and then sets insurance prices based on that information. Only the insurance company sees what the box contains.

 

 

        Then there’s the other kind of black box, this one figurative, where computer models of possible future catastrophes are hidden away from public sight, but also used to set insurance rates – in this case based not on facts, but rather on estimates of future weather and other variables.

 

 

        One kind of black box contains definite, solid information; the other pure speculation based guesswork by climate scientists and insurance actuaries.

 

 

 

        It is this second type of black box that California Insurance Commissioner Richard Lara seeks now to impose on all California property owners. The computer modeling in this kind of black box amounts to sheer theory, and almost certainly would force millions of California homeowners and businesses to pay billions more dollars to insurers. Yes, there would still be public comment on the process, but it would be meaningless so long as the black box models and the data that is their supposed basis are secret.

 

 

        Lara calls this a compromise. Others call it capitulation. The uncontested fact is that since Proposition 103 with its public insurance rate reviews passed in 1988, California consumers have paid $13 billion less in insurance premiums than if they’d lived in other states. The companies saw their payout crisis of the late 2010s and early ‘20s as an opportunity to force California to gut its money-saving ballot initiative. As a result, many began to pull out of the state’s insurance market in a case of obvious industry collusion and blackmail.

 

 

        They essentially told Lara to give them a new rate-making formula including black box climate change predictions, or they were gone. Democrat Lara, like his Republican predecessor Chuck Quackenbush after the 1990s payout crisis caused by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, surrendered.

 

 

        Rather than telling insurers they would not be able to sell any car coverage or do other business in California if they did not sell quake insurance, too, Quackenbush got the Legislature to create the California Earthquake Authority, which charges more for quake insurance than the companies did before and provides less coverage in standard policies.

 

 

        Now Lara proposes letting this industry use black boxes here as they do in many other states where regulators decline to fight back. “We can no longer look to the past as a guide to the future,” Lara said. “My strategy (secret black boxes) will modernize our marketplace.”

 

 

        This, he said, would bring insurance companies back to California. But instead, so far, the promise of black boxes has done little, as State Farm and other big insurers cancel ever more policies in what they call “high risk” areas, not even giving much help to homeowners who have hardened their properties with fireproof siding and roofing, plus fireproof vents.

 

 

        The current effort by Gov. Gavin Newsom to speed up insurance rate hikes would only add to the negatives of Lara’s plan.

 

 

Meanwhile, the industry has also begun clamping down on urban, non-wildfire area neighborhoods they consider too dense for their fiscal safety.

 

 

        Responded Consumer Watchdog, whose founder Harvey Rosenfield authored Proposition 103, “(Lara’s proposed) rule fails to spell out whether or how the Department of Insurance would assess a model’s bias, accuracy or scientific validity. (It) proposes use of non-disclosure agreements to meet the confidentiality demands of black box modelers” who work for insurance companies.

 

 

        In short, if California insurance prices rise 30 percent soon, bringing rates here into the ranges now common in most other states, the insurance companies will soon recoup the $13 billion they have not gotten because of Proposition 103.

 

 

        If that happens, a ballot initiative that passed by a handy margin might as well not be law any more. The next question would be which other ballot initiatives could then be administratively reduced or hogtied and how much money that might cost Californians, who already pay continental America’s highest cost of living.

 

    -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net