Poodle | How Not to Solve the Housing Crisis
SPARE ME: For nine years, I had the dubious good fortune to attend Catholic school. There, I learned how to diagram a sentence, how to absorb punishment, and how to run like crazy from arguments wrapped in high-minded moral certainty.
My heebie-jeebie response to the latter got trip-wired last week while watching the Santa Barbara County Supervisors struggle to save around 1,000 Isla Vista tenants from what looked like certain eviction. Supervisor Das Williams, a gumbo of suffused born-again fervor mixed with progressive activism, delivered a “Build, baby, build” sermon in favor of more housing construction. In it, he blamed environmentalists for causing the housing crisis. And he said they made the environment worse, not better.
Given that Williams cut his teeth politically campaigning on behalf of candidates who promised to monkey-wrench developers every chance they got, I figured this was his Paul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus moment and we just heard the scales fall from his eyes. He’s entitled. But up to a point. “One of the reasons I’m a bummer to listen to,” Das preached, “is that I believe recognizing our own hypocrisy is the only way to achieve ethical and moral public policy. Right?”
With a rhetorical setup like that, the only way to disagree is to admit you’re a hypocrite. Or that you don’t support ethical or moral policy. Or all of the above. Right?
I get it. Das is all about the VMT. That’s wonk-speak for Vehicle Miles Traveled. Unaffordable housing costs mean more commuting workers, more VMT, more greenhouse gases, more melting glaciers, more sea-level rise. Right? But enviros are solely to blame for housing costs? Wrong.
Joining Das in the build-baby-build chorus was Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, himself a youthful escapee from a Catholic cult, not to mention the Republican Party. But Lavagnino doesn’t cast himself as a historical change agent and he doesn’t shroud himself with any whiff of messianic overtones. Instead, Steve’s a knee-jerk comedian — one of the virtues of a Catholic education — who goes for the laugh. This time, he played it straight. More housing. Supply and demand. More housing. Build.
That too makes sense.
Up to a point.
Fortunately for me, Supervisor Joan Hartmann tried to insert that point. In fact, she tried twice. For the record, Hartmann left the Lutheran church when she was 11. At the time, her dog had just died, and dogs, she’d been told, don’t go to heaven.
Just because we build it, she cautioned, the people we want housed — firefighters, teachers, nurses, and other worthy workers — won’t necessarily get the housing. There are new economic forces afoot, she warned; pension funds and hedge funds are investing in rental properties worldwide, gobbling up what had once been workforce housing, upscaling it, and jacking up the rents.
In some places in Santa Barbara, Hartmann noted that 18-23 percent of residential properties sit unoccupied as second homes. Even small 700-square-foot properties billed as “affordable by design” — one of the architects’ favorite catchphrases — are snatched up as “lovely pieds-à-terre” by well-heeled out-of-towners jazzed to have a snug little Santa Barbara getaway. That doesn’t count all the vacation rentals or fractional ownership deals like Pacaso that likewise take otherwise habitable living space off the market.
Later, Joan would issue a broadside detailing how UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang’s steadfast decision not to build the faculty and student housing called for in multiple — and legally binding — campus planning documents has contributed to the housing pain.
To Hartmann, I say thanks for the sanity. I’d also point out Pope Francis has also seen fit to let dogs into heaven.
I have witnessed Williams’s self-righteous swagger before. About 10 years ago, Das was in the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown, then facing an immense budget crisis, abolished all 400 redevelopment agencies throughout the State of California. Brown — and Williams — framed it as a choice between funding public schools and all the poor kids of color who attend them, and funding government agencies described by Das at the time as being “intellectually dishonest” at their core. And he had a point. Redevelopment agencies were created to allow cities to siphon off property taxes that would otherwise go elsewhere to invest in blighted areas of town. The definition of “blight” became the stuff of statewide scandal and people like Das had cause for genuine outrage.
But lost in the deal was the $1 billion a year that these agencies invested in capital-A Affordable housing projects. In the City of Santa Barbara, that translated to about $5 million annually, which in turn translated over time into 3,700 affordable housing units that would not otherwise have gotten built. At the time, Das backed Brown to the hilt. When mayors Helene Schneider and Margaret Connell — of Santa Barbara and Goleta, respectively — objected, Williams scolded them with finger-wagging vigor, astonished that they would stand on the wrong side of history.
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In the years since, no meaningful effort has been made to restore the affordable housing funding streams lost. According to former Santa Barbara City Manager Paul Casey, that amounts to $50 million evaporated over the last 10 years. Given that Santa Barbara’s Housing Authority has a demonstrated track record of leveraging such funds by a factor of 10 to one, that’s $500 million that could have been used to build real affordable housing. Even if Casey were exaggerating by half, that’s $250 million that could have been earmarked. Either way, that’s not nothing. In fact, that’s one fat, chubby baby Das helped chuck out with Jerry Brown’s bathwater.
Did the environmental movement create the housing crisis? To the extent that Das is a card-carrying environmentalist — and I know he walks the walk — then maybe he can credibly blame the environmental movement for the housing crisis.
I bring up religion here because the faith people in the “Build, baby, build” crowd hold in such pseudo-scientific ephemera as “Supply and Demand” and “The Invisible Hand” is every bit as mystical and magical as the belief millions of Christians have in the Holy Trinity. More so, I’d say. The cruel irony here is that rents and mortgages have reached new stratospheric peaks just as we have witnessed the greatest explosion in new housing product since the end of World War II, or the early 1970s.
In the past few years, the City of Santa Barbara reports an increase in 800 new rental units — either built or permitted via the Average Unit Density (AUD) program — and another 700 built or permitted through the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) program, more picturesquely known as “granny-flats.” These programs work. The AUD system bribes developers to build rental housing by allowing far greater densities than otherwise would be allowed while cutting parking requirements in half. In exchange, developers agree to set aside 10-15 percent of the units built as affordable. For the rest, the sky’s been the limit. So much for the “trickle down” theory.
If Das preached less and listened more, he’d recognize that many of us hypocrites would be happy to accept increased densities — skyline views and traffic congestion be damned — if we had some assurances the housing built would actually reach people occupying the “missing middle” of the economic spectrum. Or the low end. Feeding the horses to feed the sparrows — as trickle-down has been described — does not qualify as a “moral or ethical” public policy in my estimation. Or an effective one either.
So what does work? First, stop the bleeding. Don’t allow new hotel development on land zoned for housing, especially when the parcels involved are 4.5 acres. Second, create a new steady, reliable stream of revenue to replace what we lost when redevelopment agencies were killed. I’d suggest a 2-percent hike on the bed taxes City Hall collects from hotel guests.
We haven’t increased our bed taxes since 2000, and many cities, it turns out, charge more than we do. Hotel and motel owners will understandably squawk, but their nightly room rates have skyrocketed in recent years, and they can share some of that wealth. Yes, this would require a vote of the people, but the people most immediately impacted — hotel guests — don’t live here. And if we really mean business, we would vote to increase our local sales tax by a half-percent or so. Yes, that would be money coming out of our pocket. But it would be a lot less than what the pension fund real estate investors will take in the form of renovictions and rent gouging.
In the meantime, don’t pit the enviros and affordable housing against each other. It may feel good, but it’s not very effective. Maybe I learned that in Catholic school too.
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