For far too many Californians, the cost of housing in the Golden State has become too high. With one out of three renters shelling out at least half of their income for rent and homeownership remaining nothing more than a pipe dream to many more, it’s no wonder why State Sen. Scott Wiener — who serves California Senate District 11, including San Francisco — has declared: “We’re in a crisis!”
After pressure from constituents increased and a pro-housing coalition finally organized, the California State Legislature last month passed — Gov. Brown signed — a multitude of pro-housing measures. While these measures steer us in the right direction, we must convince our friends, relatives and neighbors, including ones right here in Westwood, to have the chutzpah to push for new housing in their communities.
On September 29, Gov. Brown held an extremely well-attended bill signing to celebrate the passage of a major legislative housing package. The package contained, among other things, a surcharge on real estate transactions to raise money for affordable housing projects and a regulatory reform to streamline the approval process to spur more housing construction. While these new laws appear beneficial and have wide statewide support, more work is needed to climb our way out of a crisis many years in the making.
To put it simply, California’s high cost of housing is largely a supply and demand problem. While the state’s population has grown, new housing construction has failed to keep up with population increases, forcing tenants and potential homeowners to compete with their wallets for the available units on the market. Every effort should be made to allow for more housing construction, especially affordable units, while protecting our natural lands, respecting historic minority communities from gentrification, keeping housing near major job centers (preferably near high-quality mass transit) and maintaining the character of our neighborhoods (to the greatest extent possible).
The shortage of housing units in California has been caused by a multitude of factors, but it all boils down to strong opposition to new housing construction at the local level — or “NIMBY” (Not-In-My-Back-Yard)-ism. Many neighborhood associations, including Westwood’s, are afraid of a change in their areas, an increase in traffic, a shift in property values and various other factors. They have, therefore, successfully pushed city council members to severely limit new construction in these neighborhoods through the enactment of exclusionary zoning laws and burdensome regulations, making the building of new housing harder. To be clear, there are legitimate reasons for many of these regulations, and there are real concerns with gentrification and displacement in minority communities. However, the status quo has become completely unacceptable as rents continue to climb and gentrification continues regardless of regulation.
In other words, since young professionals want to escape brutally long commutes to work and cannot afford to move into wealthier neighborhoods, they settle into longstanding majority minority communities where rents are lower. Beyond Westwood’s boundaries, Los Angeles’ daunting rents are pricing young Jewish professionals and college graduates out of Jewish communities with strong concentrations of synagogues and kosher restaurants.
Despite the epic proportions of this housing crisis, it has still been very hard to convince people, especially longtime homeowners, of the need to build more housing in our communities. As a society minded individual, I have always thought that people can be convinced to do something based upon the “good it can do for the larger population.” That notion has proven to be false, and we should pick a new strategy to argue that we need to allow for more housing.
The only way to convince longtime homeowners to allow for more housing is to appeal to their self-interests. We must convince our neighbors, friends and relatives that their bottom line (or another factor in their life) will be significantly worsened if we do not build more housing. I think a winning argument might be that many kids of the “Baby Boom” generation, including myself, will not be able to afford housing anywhere near where their parents live. I know that my Jewish mother would be absolutely devastated if I had to move far away from her. Many other parents would feel the same way and would not just push for more total housing units, but also for more affordable housing to ensure that their kids can move out of the house and live close enough to ensure lots of family visits.
We must have the chutzpah to build more housing or we will cease to be the Golden State. The status quo of outrageous rents and the displacement of our most vulnerable residents threatens our economic vitality and is a threat to the social fabric. You do not have to have a Jewish mother to understand that. The high cost of housing affects everyone and with a simple change of mindset, we can ensure that California remains a place for economic opportunity for all.