California’s politics haven’t caught up with state’s housing costs


On the list of topics critical to California’s future, the cost of housing beats almost everything.

High housing costs provide the main reason people leave the state.

Costs limit economic growth by reducing the number of workers able to take jobs.

They’re a prime factor behind the insanely long commutes so many Californians endure, as people search for affordable housing far from employment centers.

High costs also drive the homelessness crisis. Yes, a sizable number of people living on the streets have serious mental illnesses, but they’re the minority. Most simply can’t afford a place to live.

A new poll done by the Los Angeles Business Council in partnership with the Los Angeles Times illustrates the impact.

As Times reporter Liam Dillon wrote in reporting the poll’s findings, 60% of Los Angeles voters have thought about leaving because of high housing costs, and 35% say they’ve given that “serious consideration.” That’s despite the fact that on most other measures — safety and security, availability of grocery stores, parks, transportation and general quality of life, large majorities are happy about where they live.

Top of mind, not top of politics

Yet despite the way high housing costs drive many of the state’s worst problems, housing affordability has never emerged as a defining issue in the state’s politics.

Over the last four decades, huge issues have swept through the state and reshaped its politics: a property tax revolt led to Proposition 13 in 1978, a furious debate over immigration culminated in Proposition 187 in 1994, campaigns over reproductive rights helped cement the state’s Democratic majority, the battle against offshore oil drilling boosted the state’s environmental movement.

Housing affordability has never made that political top tier.

That’s not to say the state has ignored the issue: In recent years, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom have put into law several major housing measures, mostly designed to limit the ability of local governments to block housing construction.

But while the issue has been a major one in Sacramento, its impact on state politics has been limited. The new poll provides some clues about why that is and what it might take to change.

A failure of political imagination

By almost 2 to 1, city voters supported the idea of building significantly more housing in Los Angeles, the poll found. Large majorities supported the idea of building affordable rental housing in their own neighborhoods, as well as housing for low-income seniors, veterans and public service workers.

But the poll shows that most voters see those measures as steps to help other people, sharply limiting the political appeal.

On the issues that have had outsized impact on state politics, “people see a very direct role for government and know what they want government to do,” said Aileen Cardona-Arroyo, a senior vice president of Washington-based Hart Research, who oversaw the new poll.

On housing affordability, “there’s a comparable intensity of concern,” but “there’s less clarity on what the role of government is or should be.”

In focus groups conducted along with the poll, voters voiced strong opinions about the ways in which high housing costs limit their opportunities, Cardona-Arroyo noted. Renters worried about whether they’d ever afford a home of their own, homeowners worried they couldn’t afford a larger home.

“But when we asked what government could do” about those problems, “we got blank stares,” she said.

In part, that reflects the scope of California’s problem.

“The scale of the challenge makes it difficult for voters to see a path to a solution,” said Mary Leslie, the president of the Los Angeles Business Council.

In part, however, the lack of voter response also reflects the narrow way elected officials have defined the problem.

In public debates, the high cost of housing has largely been discussed in terms of its most acute symptom — unhoused people living in the streets.

In his 2018 campaign, Newsom called for a massive increase in the number of housing units built in the state. In office, however, that goal has receded. Last year, the governor focused on rebuilding the state’s dysfunctional mental health system and pushing a bond measure, which voters narrowly approved in March, that will fund construction of facilities with 10,000 new treatment beds.

The way elected officials have focused the debate on the plight of the homeless is understandable, given the crisis the state has faced, but it’s left a lot of voters with a limited conception of the role public policy plays in the housing market.

“When people think of affordable housing, they have a very narrow” concept in mind, said Cardona-Arroyo. “They think of it as for very low-income people. They’ll say, ‘that’s great that you’re building affordable housing, but I’m a teacher, I work, I have a job. That’s not for me.’”

Expanding the concept of affordable housing doesn’t necessarily mean a massive government construction program — although that’s an option the U.S. pursued in the decades after World War II and which several European countries have successfully employed.

Leslie’s organization, for example, argues for steps the government can take to make building faster, easier and more predictable. Los Angeles has eased the path to build housing for the homeless, she notes. Now, that could be expanded to a broader range of affordable- and mixed-income housing.

Developers, she said, need “certainty” about where they can build and on what timetable.

But whatever the specific policies, the political key is to convince voters that they’ll directly benefit.

“Residents — voters — are saying, ‘we want it, but you’ve got to tell us it’s for us,’” Leslie said.

Fear of loss

Right now, voters are not convinced.

Renters have the most to gain from increasing the supply of housing. But when the poll asked if building more housing would make their communities more affordable, just 40% of renters said yes, compared to 49% who said more housing would drive up costs and push out existing residents.

Only 22% of renters said that building apartments in their neighborhood for people with low-to-moderate incomes would decrease their own costs.

As for homeowners, 56% said that building new apartments for low-to-moderate-income residents would reduce their property values.

Those reactions stem from multiple factors, but the most important, said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, is a simple one: “Most voters have housing.”

One of the enduring findings of research into human psychology is the power of loss aversion: Faced with a possible change, people react far more powerfully to the fear of losing what they have than the hope of what they might gain.

Few areas of public life display that fear more vividly than development proposals, as anyone who has sat through a contentious zoning hearing can attest.

Public policy in the U.S. has made the loss aversion problem worse by heightening the stakes. Most middle-class Americans have a large share of their wealth tied up in their homes, making debates about property values even more fraught.

“People believe there’s a housing crisis,” said Steinberg, who, as a legislator and mayor, has been a leading figure on housing policy in the state for a generation. “It’s the issue of our time.”

“They’re not hard-hearted,” he added, “and yet, when you break it down” to specific solutions — most of which involve building more housing, “people are reluctant.”

People who have invested in housing “are more wary,” he says.

In the last decade, Steinberg says he has seen the politics of housing in California shift significantly. The impetus comes from a younger generation that is more pinched by the status quo and has less to lose by change.

“Younger people are feeling it more,” he said. “They’re rightfully demanding that the system produce more opportunities for them.”

The burden is on political leaders to propose solutions that will truly address that demand. If they do — if they can galvanize voters around a program that offers a realistic path toward lower housing costs — California may yet find a way to fix one of its most intractable problems.

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