Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose.


My family lived in this building when I was a kid in the 1970’s. This was the door to our old apartment. It’s in a nondescript part of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. There are a million places just like this all over the Southland. These beige stucco boxes are the workhorses of semi-affordable market rate housing in California. The place hasn’t changed in forty years other than the on-going deferred maintenance.

I walked around the block to see the buildings where my friends used to live and the shops where we bought groceries and such. I can’t say I felt nostalgia. These weren’t happy times. But I was aware of the fact that the people who live here now are the same as my family was then – basically good people who are scraping by with almost no money doing the best they can with what they have. These are the minimum wage workers who do all the invisible dirty work of the city. Real incomes for these folks haven’t changed since I was a kid. But the cost of everything important from owning a home to health care to a proper education has skyrocketed.

I want to go back to my last post about the exclusive homes in the fringe suburbs. The people who can afford to live here do so in large part so they can distance themselves from the people in my old neighborhood. Fair enough. I completely understand. I don’t want to live in my old neighborhood again either.

But there’s that lingering problem of public infrastructure vs. the tax base of various forms of development. The city has spent almost nothing on my old block for decades. Yet those sad buildings keep spinning off revenue year after year. And there are a lot of them. Collectively they generate enough excess cash that the authorities can siphon it off to fund other activities. When it comes time to allocate resources who do you think has the most likely chance of getting what they need? The people who live in my old apartment, or the folks who live in the $700,000 homes up on the hill?

As a society we want to believe that the poor are draining the public coffers dry. We need to blame the lower end of the working class for whatever we don’t like about the country. We want it to be true that they are undeserving compared to the better people who begrudgingly support them from a distance. Welfare. Food stamps. Section 8. But the reality – if you look at the budget and the actual numbers – is that without the poor packed tightly in their crappy apartments all working for crumbs in underfunded sections of town there could be no exclusive enclaves.

Billie Holiday said it best. Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo