Even if peo­ple leave, we still need hous­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - STEVE LOPEZ

The pop­u­la­tion of Cal­i­for­nia was just above 10 mil­lion when I joined the party in 1953. To­day we’ve got nearly four times as many res­i­dents, or just short of 40 mil­lion. Is that too many peo­ple? Plenty of peo­ple think so, judg­ing by the re­ac­tion I get when­ever I write about Cal­i­for­nia’s hous­ing cri­sis. That was true last week, af­ter I said a bas­ket of bills to fi­nance more hous­ing would of­fer some pain re­lief if not a cure.

What cri­sis? read­ers asked.

“The is­sue in Cal­i­for­nia is not lack of hous­ing, but an over­sup­ply of peo­ple,” wrote Sun­ny­vale res­i­dent Mark Baker, who ad­vo­cated for a pop­u­la­tion cap. “The only so­lu­tion is to re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia through re­duced im­mi­gra­tion and births.”

But birth and im­mi­gra­tion rates are in de­cline, and even mass de­por­ta­tion — as some read­ers rec­om­mended — wouldn’t free up enough hous­ing. The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment says 1.8 mil­lion new hous­ing units are needed by 2025 to han­dle pro­jected growth.

An­other gag­gle of read­ers sug­gested that any­one who has trou­ble pay­ing the rent or the mort­gage in high-rent dis­tricts should move east, or to the Cen­tral Val­ley, or out of state. We do have what could be an en­dur­ing water short­age, af­ter all.

“You can only build so much den­sity, only so much in­fra­struc­ture, only so much mass tran­sit,” said Michael Bracken, a Palm Desert econ­o­mist who be­lieves that com­pa­nies and peo­ple have to move to places where the cost of liv­ing is cheaper and “there’s more el­bow room.”

“There’s only a ‘cri­sis’ if you be­lieve — as you seem to — that ev­ery per­son who wants to live here should be able to, full stop,” wrote Richard Schenkman.

“I hap­pen to live in Hol­ly­wood, which I have watched be­come dec­i­mated, ugli­fied, and over-packed with hu­mans, cranes, autos and

more, thanks to ram­pant over-de­vel­op­ment,” Schenkman went on, adding that it takes as long as 12 min­utes to drive a lit­tle more than half a mile as he heads east and west.

The former New Yorker said he doesn’t have all the an­swers, but far more mass tran­sit is at the top of his wish list.

To be hon­est, I’m just as both­ered as any­one else about the mad­ness of get­ting from here to there, and I don’t have all the an­swers, ei­ther. When I first lived in Los An­ge­les, in the late 1990s, I won­dered how many more peo­ple South­ern Cal­i­for­nia could ac­com­mo­date be­fore we were all trapped in hell’s park­ing lot.

But I don’t know how you can cap pop­u­la­tion.

“I’ve seen the same tra­jec­tory and won­dered many times over the years if there were too many of us,” said D.J. Waldie, the bril­liant ob­server of L.A. life and his­tory and au­thor of “Holy Land: A Sub­ur­ban Me­moir.” “But I could never see a ceil­ing. Who gets to close the door and turn out the lights?”

Some peo­ple will choose to leave, said Waldie, “But lots of peo­ple live where they live be­cause they get some kind of psy­chic ben­e­fit from liv­ing there. They’re loyal to it, it’s in their hearts, and they can’t tear that part out and live where ... plan­ners think they ought to live.”

And you can’t ig­nore the fact that mid­dle-class and work­ing-poor peo­ple, al­ready liv­ing here, are crit­i­cal to the econ­omy but they’re be­ing tor­tured by the ev­er­ris­ing cost of scarce hous­ing and ob­scenely long com­mutes.

Last week I wrote about a house I bought in San Jose in 1983, for $130,000, that would sell for more than $1 mil­lion to­day. Lots of read­ers pointed out that in­ter­est rates are much lower now, so the price dif­fer­ence isn’t as dra­matic as it might sound. And that’s true, but my point stands:

Buy­ing and rent­ing are more ex­pen­sive when in­ven­tory is low and de­mand high. The ev­i­dence reached a level of ab­sur­dity last week in Sun­ny­vale.

A three-bed­room, twobath house in Sun­ny­vale was listed for $1.6 mil­lion, drew a bid­ding war and sold for nearly $800,000 above ask­ing.

We may be clos­ing in on the day when a $1-mil­lion list­ing sells for $2 mil­lion, even as the home­less count rises.

If and when that hap­pens, we’ll de­serve what­ever hor­ror is vis­ited upon us, be it lo­custs, pesti­lence, rabid coy­otes or $5,000 iPhones.

My old news­pa­per, the San Jose Mer­cury News, re­ported that dozens of Sil­i­con Val­ley houses have sold for more than $200,000 above ask­ing price in the last month, in­clud­ing a 1,200-square-foot home that went for $1.83 mil­lion, $433,000 more than it was listed for. Is it sick of me to hope it has ter­mites?

If you drive a truck in Sil­i­con Val­ley, or teach, or draw blood at a hospi­tal, or sweep the floor un­der a so­cial me­dia mogul’s feet, may God bless you and yours.

Your op­tions are to live in a shack near a canal in cow chip coun­try two hours away, work three jobs, or plow half your take-home into a $2,300-a-month, one-bed­room apart­ment, the go­ing av­er­age in Santa Clara County.

For all the rea­sons I listed last week, hous­ing con­struc­tion has lagged for years. Peter Schrag, re­tired news­man and au­thor of “Par­adise Lost,” which chron­i­cled Cal­i­for­nia’s re­trench­ment from its era of in­vest­ment and ex­pan­sion, of­fers an­other rea­son:

“Proposition 13 dis­cour­ages peo­ple from mov­ing into smaller places,” Schrag said, cit­ing him­self as an ex­am­ple. At 86, he’s lived in the same house in Oak­land for 20 years, partly be­cause of the tax ad­van­tages.

“That means it be­comes in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for younger home buy­ers be­cause they have to pay taxes on the go­ing mar­ket rate. The whole hous­ing mar­ket is dis­torted by that.”

A study by McKin­sey & Co., a con­sult­ing firm, found that Cal­i­for­nia ranks 49th out of 50 states in hous­ing units per capita, and that New York, to name just one state, added 80% more hous­ing units per capita than Cal­i­for­nia in the five years end­ing in 2014.

“As a re­sult,” said the re­port, “Cal­i­for­nia’s real es­tate prices have in­creased by more than 15% since 2009, but me­dian in­come by only 5%.”

We have to build, peo­ple, for the ben­e­fit of work­ing peo­ple, not those who can pay $800,000 above ask­ing.

We can’t build care­lessly, as we’ve done so many times in the past, and not where the scale and char­ac­ter of es­tab­lished neigh­bor­hoods are un­fairly com­pro­mised. But as close as pos­si­ble to where we work and shop, and where the trains and buses run, so it’s pos­si­ble to live a full life free from the soul-sap­ping, time-suck­ing monotony of slow, bumperto-bumper tor­ment.

I’d like to see more ded­i­cated busways be­cause that’s a cheaper in­vest­ment than rail. I’d like to see bike­ways on sec­ondary streets, in­stead of steal­ing traf­fic lanes on pri­mary thor­ough­fares.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia has taken steps, big and small, smart but not al­ways, to de­sign such a place. It’s not for ev­ery­one, but we’ve run out of the hor­i­zon­tal and all that’s left is the ver­ti­cal, here in the beau­ti­ful mess Carey McWil­liams once called “a gi­gan­tic im­pro­vi­sa­tion.”

As for the whole of the state, we still haven’t fig­ured out where we’re headed or how we’ll man­age, but hasn’t that al­ways been part of the at­trac­tion?

‘Lots of peo­ple live where they live be­cause they get some kind of psy­chic ben­e­fit from liv­ing there. They’re loyal to it, it’s in their hearts, and they can’t tear that part out.’ — D.J. Waldie, au­thor of “Holy Land: A Sub­ur­ban Me­moir”

Jabin Bots­ford Los An­ge­les Times

THE ARTS DIS­TRICT in down­town L.A, shown in 2014, is see­ing a de­vel­op­ment boom. Some Cal­i­for­ni­ans worry about higher den­sity and a water short­age.

Keller Wil­liams Realty

A THREE-BED­ROOM, two-bath Sun­ny­vale home was listed at $1.6 mil­lion and sold for nearly $800,000 more. In the last month, dozens of Sil­i­con Val­ley homes have sold for more than $200,000 above ask­ing price.

Associated Press

CAL­I­FOR­NIA ranks 49th out of 50 states in hous­ing units per capita, a con­sult­ing firm’s study found.

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