Noe Valley Voice November 2008

Economic Crisis Brings a Flurry of Worries

By Corrie M. Anders

Burke Ray, 75 years old and retired not even a year, has watched $40,000 evaporate from his 401K account. To save money, bartender Heather Daniels cooks at home more often. Helen O'Rourke worries about what would happen if she were to lose her rent-controlled apartment.

Throughout Noe Valley, there is a growing sense of dread, as residents and workers await repercussions from the widening global economic crisis.

The stock market meltdown, in particular, has left residents feeling far less sanguine about their future. Bank failures, layoffs in high-tech and the financial industry, chinks in the housing market, along with rising consumer costs, also contribute to the unease.

People have responded by shuffling money from one bank to another, flooding investment advisers for guidance, and cutting back on discretionary spending. Sales signs are everywhere in "downtown" Noe, as storeowners try to woo reluctant shoppers. "A lot of mom and pop places are barely making it," says Tim Vu, the office manager at Sherri King Tax Services, which handles financial matters for many local residents and businesses. "Everybody is very worried about how long this downturn is going to last."

Empty Pockets on 24th Street

A tour through Noe Valley on a mid-October afternoon that was shirtsleeve-warm revealed that constant talk about recession and depression has left many residents and businesses on edge.

No one, it seems, has escaped the impact of the country's economic retrenchment. That includes panhandler Alfreda Tillman, who pursued her trade from a makeshift chair just outside Bell Market.

"I've got regular people" who help out, she says. "One of my friends just gave me $20."

Increasingly, however, the pedestrians who stop by her sidewalk office are like Burke Ray, a regular donor who used to give Tillman more than the dollar he slipped into her hand this day.

"I've lost a lot in the stock market," admits Ray, who retired in February from a front-office job for a downtown architectural firm.

Never a "big spender," the Fair Oaks Street resident says he now is "being much more careful about what I buy." He and his partner eat at home most nights, Ray says, but occasionally spring for a $9 hamburger at Toast Eatery.

"It's good and it's inexpensive, and it's better than going to one of the high-end, fancy restaurants."

Counting on Bar Patrons

Heather Daniels, a popular bartender for 11 years at Noe's Bar who works a second job at a Burlingame hair salon, doesn't bother to routinely check her shrunken retirement account.

"No, I don't look at it," confesses Daniels. "I'm only 42 and it's got a chance to come back. But anybody who is getting ready to retire right now, I feel sorry for them."

Daniels got rid of one big worry of her own in July when she refinanced an expensive subprime mortgage loan on her home for a cheaper fixed-rate loan. "Thank God," she says, "because I would have been a statistic like everyone else."

Like many people concerned about the economy, Daniels acknowledges that "I'm cooking at home more, rather than eating out." It has been the hair salon income that has declined more than the tips from her regulars at the 24th and Church Street watering hole.

"Lots of the clientele [at Noe's] are blue-collar jobs, regulars, people who are still employed, still doing [home] remodeling jobs," says Daniels. "They don't want to stay home and watch the news because that's depressing. So they come out and have a couple of beers and socialize."

Tips, Haircuts Trimmed

Down at the end of Church Street, a hairstylist at Great Hair Cuts took only a second to address the issue of whether the economy worried her. "Of course it does," said Bella, who preferred not to give a last name.

All five chairs in the salon were empty on a weekday afternoon, and Bella described the shop's traffic as good but "not great." Though no business is exactly recession-proof, Bella says the tough times may not hurt hair salons as much as other lines of work.

"People still need their hair cut," she says. "If they don't come today, they'll come tomorrow."

A few doors away at a storefront laundromat, Ismael Robles, 26, took clothes from a hot dryer and neatly folded them. Robles works in an upscale Hayes Valley restaurant, but laments that "people are not tipping us as well as they used to.''

Instead of the customary 15 to 20 percent, customers are leaving tips of about 10 percent, Robles says. With less trickling down to his tip jar, he says, "I'm trying not to go out as much."

Retirement Roulette

For more than 20 years, 24th Street CPA Lawrence Ratner has been preparing taxes for local residents and handling bookkeeping and accounting for local businesses. Ratner says most of the complaints he hears these days revolve around clients' retirement accounts.

"People are just very concerned," Ratner says. "All mutual funds are declining right now. So the money they were counting on for retirement is just not there--at least not now."

Vu, of Sherri King, notes that Noe Valley has "a lot of people who are getting ready to retire," and many are asking what they should do to protect their Wall Street investments. Vu says he advises them that "if you don't need the money right away, just leave it, because it will eventually rebound."

Bank Customers Dizzy

Many 24th Street bank depositors, particularly those with accounts at Washington Mutual Bank--which was seized by federal authorities and transferred to J.P. Morgan Chase in September--are biting their nails, too.

Worried about the safety of their CDs and other deposits, some customers have been shifting money back and forth between banks, including the local branches of Sterling Bank and Trust, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo Bank.

"I sense a nervousness...some uncertainty out there," says Sterling Bank president Steve Adams, "but it's helping me. We have a lot of new customers coming in."

A "big increase in traffic" is also evident at the local Wells Fargo branch, says area manager Reza Razzaghipour.

Adams and Razzaghipour say employees are trying to allay consumer fears. As part of last month's $700 billion bailout of financial institutions, they note, the federal government now guarantees CDs and other deposits to a maximum of $250,000--up from $100,000.

In addition, Wells Fargo's Razzaghipour says the bank's "financial consultants are every day calling customers, checking and making sure all their questions are being answered."

Depression Memories

Bank failures were omnipresent during Helen O'Rourke's Depression-era childhood. Born in 1935, she says the tough times her family endured seven decades ago still resonate.

"I remember we had rations. People had to sacrifice. Go shopping? You never did that when we were in the other depression. No one had anything," she says. Her father was a dentist who "had just gotten out of school, and he'd sit there and wait for someone to come."

The Hoffman Avenue resident says those experiences have made her extra-cautious today. "I'm trying to use cash instead of charging. I don't eat out. I don't drive like I did. In a lot of ways I'm cutting back. And I'm paying down my debts," says O'Rourke.

O'Rourke is a former nurse who supplements her state retirement pension with a two-day-a-week job at an East Bay firm that aids the homeless.

"I don't have investments," says O'Rourke, who is banking her financial future on the safety of her pension, and on not losing the rent-controlled apartment she has lived in for 16 years.

"If something happens to that, I'm really going to be in deep doo-doo," she says.

Nor could she afford to stay in Noe Valley if she had to leave her apartment. "I couldn't live here. I'd have to go someplace else."

Hard Times for Part-Time

John Klein is another senior who is watching the turmoil in financial markets. Klein drives a cab, but spends a lot of time at Café XO at 30th and Church streets.

The financial mess "hasn't exactly affected me yet," says Klein, 71, who lives on 29th Street. "I do have a mortgage that costs a lot more than what I can afford, [but] I'll probably be okay."

If the nation's economy tanks further, however, Klein says he might be forced to drive his taxi four nights a week.

"I can stand driving a cab for two nights of 10-hour shifts, but the idea of doing four 10-hour shifts would just kill me," he says. "The quality of my life would be miserable."