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Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable – Article by Andrew Berryhill

Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable – Article by Andrew Berryhill

Andrew Berryhill
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California has the highest poverty rate in the U.S. and is rated dead last in quality of life.

In July, the mayor of San Francisco frankly stated that poverty in the city is so bad, that “there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen.” And it’s not just her – the local NBC investigative unit found a “dangerous mix of drug needles, garbage, and feces throughout downtown San Francisco.”

While such conditions are thankfully not widespread, California still has the highest rate of poverty of any state when factoring in living costs and is rated dead last for quality of life. It’s no wonder that from 2007 to 2016, California lost a million residents on net to domestic migration.

This plight may appear counterintuitive since California’s economy is booming. If the state were an independent country, its economy would rank as the 5th largest in the world. However, a high GDP does not necessarily entail socioeconomic wellbeing.

So, what’s the main problem ailing California and creating such a high cost of living?

Housing Costs

How bad are housing costs? The median price of a home in California is over $600,000 (compared with $300,000 nationally) and a recent study found that:

“Across California, more than 4 in 10 households had unaffordable housing costs, exceeding 30 percent of household income, in 2015. More than 1 in 5 households statewide faced severe housing cost burdens, spending more than half of their income toward housing expenses.”

Housing costs are so high that in San Francisco and San Mateo counties the government considers a household of four making $105,350 as “low income”.

And it’s not just low and middle-income families that are suffering – even many “elite” technology workers can barely make ends meet. Lucrative six-figure salaries don’t go far when you live in the most expensive housing markets in America while also paying some of the highest taxes.

You can save money by living in the suburbs, but multi-hour commutes in soul-crushing traffic may await. Is such an arrangement worth it? Many have said “no” and moved to other states. While their new jobs elsewhere might pay less, other benefits more than make up for it.

But why is the housing situation in California so terrible?

It’s easy to simply say “supply and demand” – so many people have moved to cities that housing construction can’t keep up, causing real estate prices and rents to skyrocket.

However, this invites an important question: why can’t residential developers build fast enough?

Regulations

Regulations play an especially large role in the San Francisco Bay Area, which shockingly includes 15 of the 30 cities with the highest rents in the country. One article explains these struggles well:

For new housing developments in San Francisco, there’s a preliminary review, which takes six months.

Then there are also chances for your neighbors to appeal your permit on either an entitlement or environmental basis. The city also requires extensive public notice of proposed projects even if they already meet neighborhood plans, which have taken several years of deliberation to produce. Neighbors can appeal your project for something as insignificant as the shade of paint. . .

If those fail, neighborhood groups can also file a CEQA or environmental lawsuit under California state law, challenging the environment impact of the project. . .

Then if that fails, opponents can put a development directly on a citywide ballot with enough signatures. . . That’s what happened with the controversial 8 Washington luxury condo project last November even though it had already gone through eight years of deliberation.

These barriers add unpredictable costs and years of delays for every developer, which are ultimately passed onto buyers and renters. It also means that developers have problems attracting capital financing in weaker economic years because of the political uncertainty around getting a project passed.”

Why aren’t politicians working to fix this? Self-preservation. Here’s the unfortunate reality:

“The reason the San Francisco city government won’t fix things that seem obvious . . . is because it fears a backlash from the hundreds of neighborhood associations that blanket the city and can reliably turn people out to the polls.”

Community Sentiment

This cultural opposition to development is not a modern phenomenon:

“San Francisco’s orientation towards growth control has 50 years of history behind it and more than 80 percent of the city’s housing stock is either owner-occupied or rent controlled. The city’s height limits, its rent control and its formidable permitting process are all products of tenant, environmental and preservationist movements that have arisen and fallen over decades.”

Development proposals have been shot down for reasons ranging from burrowing owl protection to complaints that the size of new residential buildings will block sunshine and thereby “devalue human life”.

The power of this “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) movement has been considerable, but counter-movements are growing. When one homeowner recently complained in a Berkeley city council meeting that a proposed residential building would block sunshine for her zucchini garden, one young woman angrily responded: “You’re talking about zucchinis? Really? Because I’m struggling to pay rent.” Young workers facing unaffordable rents are increasingly fed up with petty opposition to more affordable housing.

However, Californian cities still seem more preoccupied with banning strawscocktail swordsscootersdelivery robots, and workplace cafeterias.Even when politicians try to help, they frequently ignore the root causes of the issue. For example, California Representative Kamala Harris recently proposed a bill called the “Rent Relief Act” that would provide a tax credit for people spending over 30 percent of their income on rent.

Harris’ proposal only addresses symptoms of an underlying disease and would almost certainly be counterproductive. It doesn’t encourage more housing construction, which is the only real solution.

Until sweeping housing reform to enable residential development is passed at the state and local levels, Californians will keep fleeing to Texas, Nevada, and Arizona. I don’t blame them.

Andrew Berryhill is an Alcuin Fellow at Intellectual Takeout and a rising senior at Hillsdale College majoring in economics. Andrew has interned on Capitol Hill and was a research fellow for Hillsdale’s economics department. In his spare time, he enjoys practicing the violin and playing golf.

This post (“Why California Cities Are Becoming Unlivable“) was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Andrew Berryhill.

Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
February 28, 2015
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People sometimes support regulations, often with the best of intentions, but these wind up creating outcomes they don’t like. Land-use regulations are a prime example.

My colleague Emily Washington and I are reviewing the literature on how land-use regulations disproportionately raise the cost of real estate for the poor. I’d like to share a few of our findings with you.

Zoning

One kind of regulation that was actually intended to harm the poor, and especially poor minorities, was zoning. The ostensible reason for zoning was to address unhealthy conditions in cities by functionally separating land uses, which is called “exclusionary zoning.” But prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, some municipalities had race-based exclusionary land-use regulations. Early in the 20th century, several California cities masked their racist intent by specifically excluding laundry businesses, predominantly Chinese owned, from certain areas of the cities.

Today, of course, explicitly race-based, exclusionary zoning policies are illegal. But some zoning regulations nevertheless price certain demographics out of particular neighborhoods by forbidding multifamily dwellings, which are more affordable to low- or middle-income individuals. When the government artificially separates land uses and forbids building certain kinds of residences in entire districts, it restricts the supply of housing and increases the cost of the land, and the price of housing reflects those restrictions.

Moreover, when cities implement zoning rules that make it difficult to secure permits to build new housing, land that is already developed becomes more valuable because you no longer need a permit. The demand for such developed land is therefore artificially higher, and that again raises its price.

Minimum lot sizes

Other things equal, the larger the lot, the more you’ll pay for it. Regulations that specify minimum lot sizes — that say you can’t build on land smaller than that minimum — increase prices. Regulations that forbid building more units on a given-size lot have the same effect: they restrict supply and make housing more expensive.

People who already live there may only want to preserve their lifestyle. But whether they intend to or not (and many certainly do so intend) the effect of these regulations is to exclude lower-income families. Where do they go? Where they aren’t excluded — usually poorer neighborhoods. But that increases the demand for housing in poorer neighborhoods, where prices will tend to be higher than they would have been.

And it’s not just middle-class families that do this. Very wealthy residents of exclusive neighborhoods and districts also have an incentive to support limits on construction in order to maintain their preferred lifestyle and to keep out the upper-middle-class hoi polloi. Again, the latter then go elsewhere, very often to lower-income neighborhoods — Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a recent example — where they buy more-affordable housing and drive up prices. Those who complain about well-off people moving into poor neighborhoods — a phenomenon known as “gentrification” — may very well have minimum-lot-size and maximum-density regulations to thank.

When government has the authority to restrict building and development, established residents of all income levels will use that power to protect their wealth.

Parking requirements

Another land-use regulation that makes space more expensive is municipal requirements that establish a minimum number of parking spaces per housing unit.

According Donald Shoup’s analysis, parking requirements add significantly to the cost of housing, particularly in areas with high land values. For example, in Los Angeles, parking requirements can add $104,000 to the cost of each apartment. Parking requirements limit consumers’ choices and increase the cost of housing even for those who prefer not to pay for parking.

Developers typically build only the minimum amount of parking required by law, which indicates that those requirements are binding. That is, in a less-regulated environment, developers would devote less land to parking and more land to living space. A greater supply of living space will, other things equal, lower the cost of housing.

Smart-growth regulations

In the 1970s, municipalities enacted new rules that were designed to protect farmland and to preserve green space surrounding rapidly growing cities by forbidding private development in those areas. By the late 1990s, this practice evolved into a land-use strategy called “smart growth.” (Here’s a video I did about smart growth.)  While some of these initiatives may have preserved green space that can be seen, what is harder to see is the resulting supply restriction and higher cost of housing.

Again, the lower the supply of housing, other things equal, the higher real-estate prices will be. Those who now can’t afford to buy will often rent smaller apartments in less-desirable areas, which typically have less influence on the political process. Locally elected officials tend to be more responsive to the interests of current residents who own property, vote, and pay taxes, and less responsive to renters, who are more likely to be transients and nonvoters. That, in turn, makes it easier to implement policies that use regulation to discriminate against people living on low incomes.

Conclusion

Zoning, minimum lot sizes, minimum parking requirements, and smart-growth regulations demonstrably and significantly increase the cost of housing for everyone by raising construction costs and restricting the supply of housing.

The average household in the United States today, rich or poor, spends about a third of its income on housing. But higher home prices hit lower-income households disproportionately hard because a dollar increase in housing expenditure represents a larger percentage of a poorer household’s budget. Indeed, the bottom 20 percent of households spends around 40 percent of income on housing.

In other words, these land-use regulations are unfairly regressive. Relaxing or even removing them would be a step toward achieving greater equity.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.