Everyone agrees that it is too bad that such a rich country has such a crying need for inexpensive housing (and nowhere in the country is the need more extreme than here in Southern California). The problem is not new; it has been festering, and worsening, for decades.
I think the cause of the problem is clearly due to the selfish action of what is perhaps the largest, most powerful special interest group in the land--existing homeowners. Not just the favored few, but all of us in the ownership position choose invariably to exercise our political right to protect our hard-won economic status from the encroachment--and potentially value-depressing effects--of new low-income housing.
Apartments--the obvious solution to the need for low-cost housing--now cost “only” about $50,000 per unit to build. But the average value of an existing single-family residence is about $150,000. Thus, when a public meeting is announced (notices are sent only to those residents within a few hundred feet of the site in question), the homeowners are asked for their approval of a project that will necessarily lower the average value of dwelling units in their area.
Their answer is resoundingly “No! You can’t build it next to me !”
When the injured group is so large (60% of us own our homes) and so politically powerful (as witness the enormous tax preference given to homeowners), there seems small prospect for city councils to decide in favor of low-cost housing. I believe, however, the decision-making process can be restructured so that the less narrow interests of a larger group can lead us to more useful decisions on housing. While adjacent owners may see their values go down, the whole economy of the city/county may be greatly advantaged by the creation of new, affordable and healthy living quarters.
We need ways to increase the involvement of potential renters--who normally have little or no representation in the zoning/permitting process. We need ways to convince other property owners that actions taken in non-contiguous areas of the city, or of the county, or even of the state, will ultimately affect the operation of the economy, and of all property values, everywhere.
So, while the negative answer of the individual property owner who is asked to approve low-cost housing in his area may not change, we can perhaps restructure the decision process so that a larger voting group may reach a more reasonable answer. Hopefully, reasonable people can work out reasonable ways to compensate adjacent owners (Reduced tax rates? Building of parks? New schools?) the cost of which might be shared by others of us who will be benefited by the solution to this problem.
JIM E. DAVIS
Davis is chair of the real estate department of Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.