By David M. Greenwald
This year people have been shrugging off the housing crisis. I get it, COVID, economic downtown, civil rights have definitely, if not muddied the water, made it far more complicated to address long-term problems.
One argument we should reject out of hand, however, is the one I have seen—California’s growth rate has slowed, perhaps it is even in the negative with more people leaving the state than entering it.
Part of the problem with that argument is that the housing crisis is to some extent causing that problem. There are other factors at play here as well, but in a lot of cases, why would you want to wade through traffic, drive to work for hours from an overpriced and overly-small home if you can now just as easily live in a cheaper area and telecommute?
Still, allowing businesses and people to leave the state in droves is not a recipe for success and California is going to have to figure out better balance between business and environment, between quality of life and affordability—or we will have neither.
A fascinating article appeared in the New York Times last week, and it posits the question: “Is it possible to import growth without also importing housing problems?” Their answer: “I can’t point to a city that has done it right.”
The Times’ Conor Coughtery writes: “Statistically speaking, Idaho is one of America’s greatest economic success stories. The state has low unemployment and high income growth. It has expanded education spending while managing to shore up budget reserves.”
But the article points out: “But there is another factor at play: Californians, fleeing high home prices, are moving to Idaho in droves. For the past several years, Idaho has been one of the fastest-growing states, with the largest share of new residents coming from California. This fact can be illustrated with census data, moving vans — or resentment.”
This isn’t an unmitigated victory for either. For environmentalists in places like Davis, remember one of the allures of Idaho is the lack of environmental regulation and so you can talk about our carbon footprint all you want, but people moving from California to Idaho means that we are likely watering down environmental regulations.
For Idaho, this growth comes with a cost. The Times points out, “Home prices rose 20 percent in 2020, according to Zillow, and, in Boise, ‘Go Back to California’ graffiti has been sprayed along the highways. The last election cycle was a referendum on growth and housing, and included a fringe mayoral candidate who campaigned on a promise to keep Californians out.”
The answer to the question about whether Idaho can import California’s growth without also importing its housing problems?
The answer is apparently no.
“I can’t point to a city that has done it right,” said Lauren McLean, Boise’s Democratic mayor.
Why: “That’s because as bad as California’s affordable housing problem is, it isn’t really a California problem. It is a national one. From rising homelessness to anti-development sentiment to frustration among middle-class workers who’ve been locked out of the housing market, the same set of housing issues has bubbled up in cities across the country.”
Doughtery points out: “They’ve already visited Boise, Nashville, Denver and Austin, Texas, and many other high-growth cities. And they will become even more widespread as remote workers move around.”
That gets me back to California and even more so to home.
First of all, the reduction in California’s growth rates cannot be viewed as a reason not to build the appropriate amount of housing because, quite simply, the lack of affordability (as opposed to affordable housing) is driving the trend.
Second, as the article notes, the problem is not a California problem, it is a national one and we need to start solving it at home where we can.
I got an interesting email over the weekend from a long-time resident. They asked two very critical questions.
First, how do preservation and conservation zoning codes in Davis restrict housing and contribute to the housing crisis? Should those codes be relaxed or abolished?
Second, should residents of R-2 districts consider organizing to pressure the City to “up zone” the relevant areas to allow various forms of higher density?
What I have noticed is that, for the most part, the city has not taken these issues head on. I keep asking where the next wave of housing is going to come from because infill and densification is not only difficult to do, and expensive, but we are running out of infill space without leveling neighborhoods—and the residents still seem very reluctant to build peripherally, as Measure D passed overwhelmingly, extending Measure J for another ten years while Measure B was narrowly defeated.
Yes, we are taking on things like the Downtown Plan which might add housing if we can figure out fiscal viability, the new housing element, and ultimately the general plan. Those are hard questions that no one likes to have to address—how do we gain affordability and density without decreasing our quality of life?
We may not be in it alone, it may be a question beyond just Davis—but, guess what, every community still has to solve it at the local level.
—David M. Greenwald
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