A recent article on NPR gave five reasons for California’s housing crisis. One, new housing not built for 70% of demand; Two, outsize demand in urban areas; Three, Prop 13, fiscalization of land use (incentive for commercial over residential projects); Four, UGBs, CEQA, NIMBYs, onerous gov’t review process; Five, high land, labor, and raw material costs.
Another point to explain the housing crisis is contained in a metaphor I’ll make with the following Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote, from his book the Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Why am I thinking of this for housing? Here’s the connection. People who charge extreme high rents are just like you and me. They are doing it because they can; high rent returns are there for the taking.
The point: people look to blame things like the California housing crisis on external factors, but it is really the aggregate effect of selfish, automatic pilot human behavior that has landed us all in a multiple tragedy of the commons mess.
That high rents are a bonanza for some, and a burden for others, can sometimes be glossed as simply a matter of landlord greed and selfishness, of an unabashed pursuit of self-advancement above that of community interests. Greed and selfishness however, are true human characters at a basic level, as people are made of a fundamental stew of competing motivations wherein cooperation and competition are always in tension. Being selfish and having self-centered motivations is par for the course; this is reality. But we are also leavened with altruism and cooperation.
The critical step here for modern humanity, is to break out of a primitive, exclusive tribalism and get ourselves onto the same team: the human race.
For housing, a competing mix of selfishness and cooperation defines the ground we find ourselves in now. In Sonoma County cities, high rents are running the working and servant class out of town and county. Existing stakeholders (landed tribes) don’t want higher density (immigrant and worker tribes), or to expand into open spaces. An overall territorial imperative operates to exclude newcomers and service workers. Locals protect their turf all around. What we have is a reflection of ourselves here. We are the cause of these problems. No sense blaming the city, county, state or any other external group. It’s us, just like Solzhenitsyn said.
Cooperation and altruism are clearly called for to solve the housing crisis, but the bulk of existing stakeholders are torn, if that cooperation impacts their own back yard, or articles of faith or fact, concerning growth, sprawl, and open space.
Indeed, if we are going to be sustainable as a society, there have to be limits to growth. This truth is known from population biology. Thus, we find ourselves in a paradox, a checkmate created by our very nature: more people will have to make do with less, but people also have a strong impulse to maximize their own share. The haves don’t want less in order to make room for the have nots, but by not addressing the needs of the have nots, the whole house will fall. As Jared Diamond said in his book Collapse, Why Societies Decide to Succeed or Fail, the two man common factors for past societal collapse are over-use of resources and social inequality. Said Diamond of past collapses, the wealthy only bought themselves the privilege of dying last.
At some point the Gordian Knot of self-defeating selfishness has to be broken. We have to live up to our name as Homo sapiens, a wise species. We have to look in the mirror and realize that we are the tragedy of the commons, it is not somehow disassociated from us, as only a property of other people.
Solving the housing crisis calls for a fundamental reconciling of contradictory human impulses. These impulses, in Sonoma, are broken out into camps and tribes of stakeholders who then act as if they have a lock on common sense, on true human nature, and therefore, what policy prescriptions make the most common sense. The only trouble with this paired-opposite, binary breakdown, is that we are all indelibly in both camps, selfish and cooperative. The checkmate-behavior, and the rationales cuts through all of our hearts.
Our basic problem now is that there are too many people crowding into the world, and into California. All these people want a reasonable share, to be able to have a modicum of life, liberty and happiness. The unintended consequences here, are too many resource demands, and great social inequality. This results in a trend to collapse, and a concomitant lowering of the quality of life for all, especially for the disadvantaged. Each of us has our innocent needs and desires; we can’t help it we were born human; we all work hard, but in total, all striving to reach certain levels of material prosperity brings us all to the doorstep of one big tragedy of the commons. An ideology of selfishness alone is maladaptive. The automatic pilot of convenient self-advancement (raising the rents because we can) will be the ruin of us all. As per population biology, there is a J-Curve crash staring us square in the face. Not much left to say for something being self-evident.
Now, with California rents and housing, we are in a war of the haves versus the have nots. We can’t quite agree to see out of the box we’re in. How to arrive at an S-curve carrying capacity, for all, and for the environment? Here’s the prescription: We all need to look into the mirror and figure out ways to cooperate before our aggregate, and natural selfishness sinks the ship of earth for all of life. Yes, sustainability is serious; housing is a fractal, only one aspect.
Everyone, when faced with a free bonanza, will be tempted to go for the money, for more rather than less. Convenience wins out for the selfish part of our nature. High rents are possible? Take them. Everyone, when they have it made, will defend their turf and accumulated stuff against any who seek to move in and dilute personal gains.
The cure for high rents is something Susan Gorin said years ago, and I thought it was naïve, but it’s true. Landlords can just not raise, and even reduce rents, so that the fabric of our local society can stay intact, so that the pie can be divided up to more appropriately to fit our population. Such inclusivity is adaptive, forgotten rocks can become new cornerstones. It’s up to all of us to chip in. Governments, for their part, can reduce property taxes and downsize, so as to take the heat off landlords. Governments, as the reflection of the people, can choose sustainability over growth, cool off the assessed value, lower the heat on landlords. Focus on sustainability and not growth. If benefits don’t voluntarily trickle down, as unfortunately they never really have, then equitable partitioning will have to be enforced, but this puts us back at square one of our human nature checkmate.
The cure and prescription is for each to simplify and make do with less, to conserve and sustain our lot in the universe. Keeping after growth and more, more, more, is a demonstrated fool’s errand. We’ve already got plenty of houses, plenty square footage, and infill land for living space. The trick will be to cooperate and divide it up into smaller shares. The local rich and powerful need to lead here, be like Gates and Buffet and not hoard but give it all away.
First, we used selfish incentives to cooperate, to fend off lions in the night, and to defend against competing tribes from the next valley. Now, as a species with a weight of success so great in aggregate that we look at undoing our very future, and all our past accomplishments, it’s to our incentive and selfish advantage to cooperate against our own self-defeating tendencies.
With housing, the line tempting overly high rents cuts through the heart of every human being, and it is equally in our nature to charge a rent proportional to what is just, to an aggregate societal carrying capacity.