Guest Commentary: The Consequences of Forcing



by Mark Dempsey   

Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost recently wrote an editorial (“Forcing Consequences“) explaining her, and Supervisor Sue Peters’ vote to permit a mass eviction. By coincidence, I was at this meeting to object to the proposal that the County spend $89 million to expand its jail–a proposal which ultimately failed, even though Ms. Frost and Ms. Peters voted for it.

I’ve already written about the jail (see this and this), but it’s worth reiterating that 60% of those in the County jail are not convicts. They’re awaiting trial, and can’t afford bail. There are non-monetary pretrial programs in other counties, but apparently it’s illegal to be poor in Sacramento County, so off to jail you go, poor people!

Ms. Frost’s justification for no-fault evictions echoes orthodox economics, saying that interfering with landlords discourages them from building more affordable housing. Never mind that such tactics are a long-term strategy, and these tenants’ needs were immediate, or that orthodox economics is imperfect enough to have missed predicting the biggest economic event of the last 90 years–the Great Recession–or that years ago the Reagan administration altered tax laws to remove–retroactively–an important subsidy for limited partnerships building multi-family housing, so existing partnerships declared bankruptcy for previously viable projects.

Never mind that the Reagan administration cut the HUD budget for federal affordable housing 75%, even as it cut taxes on the wealthy by half. Incidentally, we seldom hear that Reagan and his successor raised payroll taxes eight-fold, but they did that too. Thanks to their record-breaking deficit, they got an unexceptional business cycle recovery, called “Morning in America” by the Wall St. Journal.

Ms. Frost’s husband, Jack, says Republicans just need better marketing. I’d humbly suggest what they really need is better policies.

As a consequence of nearly a half century of such policies the Federal Reserve reports 40% of our population can’t handle a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing money, and 65% of seniors have only Social Security to fund their retirement.

So…if you could design a system to crush the poor, subjecting them to debt peonage, jailing them when they can’t afford bail, or evicting them to potential homelessness, I’d suggest there are few better designed than what we have now.

Ms. Frost’s response to the evicted tenants’ request to modify that system was simply the icing on the cake. And speaking of letting them eat cake, in her best Marie Antoinette imitation, Ms. Frost sternly lectured the assembled tenants that, although it broke her heart to do it, she would oppose their remedy. She then added that the tenants really needed to save a little money and purchase a house for themselves, then they wouldn’t have such problems–apparently a sign she doesn’t believe the Fed’s description of 40% of the population.

Her prescription: more tax breaks for landlords. She has no proposal for the County to build housing, or to create a public bank to fund such projects. She declines to endorse the “split-roll” proposal for closing Prop 13’s commercial property loophole. That would bring the state $11 billion a year in revenue to address such problems.

Perhaps Ms. Frost and her Republican friends believe at least they can retreat to some gated community, like the Hamptons, if things get worse. But, as political economist Mark Blythe reminds us: The Hamptons isn’t a defensible position.

People are angry at the treatment they’re receiving. They’re climbing on the furniture at City Council meetings. There’s not a lot of room for better marketing, or polite civic discourse, to get much traction. Meanwhile, those evicted tenants will be on the street soon enough with some small compensation ($2,500) from the County to help them find new housing in one of the tightest rental markets on record.

Article first appeared in It’s Simpler Than It Looks blog.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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