“If you cannot afford to live here and your kids can’t have decent housing, you should look at where you can afford.” So said Jim Righeimer, Mayor Pro Tem of Costa Mesa. While a housing construction moratorium failed in LA, Costa Mesa passed one of the most restrictive development measures in the state last November – any project that would result in 40 or more dwelling units being built within half a mile of each other within 8 years must be approved by a public vote.
This blog obviously doesn’t agree with that point of view, holding that California cities ought to allow a lot more construction of all types of housing. But it is a point of view that is at least consistent with the actual outcomes achieved by its policies. The cost of housing is driven up policies that heavily restrict housing production, and people are left to fend for themselves in the distorted market that results. If you can’t afford Costa Mesa, you go to Corona; if you can’t afford Corona, you go to Beaumont; and if you can’t afford Beaumont, you go to Buckeye. The answer of people who like this arrangement to the shortage of affordable units and high rent burdens is that they really don’t care.
If, on the other hand, you claim that you do care about the shortage of affordable units and high rent burdens, you ought to come up with a set of policies that can achieve the outcome you want. As I see it, there’s three coherent packages of housing policy:
- You can be a NIMBY and be indifferent to the pain caused by housing costs. This is the position outlined above.
- You can favor more market rate construction to meet the housing needs of most people, plus dedicated more dedicated affordable units, housing subsidies, and other policies to meet the needs of low-income people. This is the position of most YIMBY groups in California, despite many straw man claims otherwise.
- You can favor a massive government public housing construction program, where the government provides many or even most people’s housing. This is the position of some of the more radical YIMBYs.
What you can’t do is claim to care about affordability but offer no plan to build housing in the quantity needed – and recall that for LA County alone, we are estimated to be 1,000,000 housing units short since 1980. Changing housing policy without addressing the supply problem is like playing musical chairs. If you have more people than chairs, it doesn’t matter how much you change the rules, someone is not going to get a chair. Someone is going to have to move to Buckeye.
This is where YIMBYs and pro-housing types get frustrated with the current state of housing policy advocacy in California. Arguments to allow a lot more market rate construction get pushed back with claims that the market will never solve the problem. But that only leaves the third option, and it doesn’t seem like any anti-market rate advocates are pushing for construction of public housing on the scale that’s needed. The only ones actually arguing for this are the more radical YIMBYs.
It’s very strange to argue that market rate construction won’t solve the housing shortage, but then pin your hopes on policies like inclusionary zoning and higher below-market-rate (BMR) percentages, which could only hope to have a major impact on affordability if an enormous amount of market rate development to subsidize them is built. It’s very strange to argue that housing is a right, but then, rather than tax the public at large like we do for things like schools and fire departments and food stamps, insist that new market rate development alone bear the burden of ensuring that right.
Many progressives have an instinctual dislike for “developers” as a concept, since they are generally presumed to be well-off businesspeople running big enterprises, looking to get even richer. (Never mind that this is an unfair stereotype that ignores many small-time developers.)
However, politics is the art of the possible, and it seems to me that many people in California need to decide what exactly it is that we want. If we’re going to solve California’s housing crisis, and we’re not going to argue for the state to build 500,000 units in LA County, we need to work with the development community to figure out policies that can work for everyone. And to be honest, I don’t even think the policies are that hard, it’s the politics of getting a pretty diverse set of groups to work together.
But to do it, we have to decide we actually want to solve the problem.