SARDINIZATION-What kind of urban future is in the offing for Southern California? Well, if you look at both what planners want and current market trends, here’s the best forecast: congested, with higher prices and an ever more degraded quality of life. As the acerbic author of the “Dr. Housing Bubble” blog puts it, we are looking at becoming “los sardines” with a future marked by both relentless cramming and out-of-sight prices.
This can be seen in the recent surge of housing prices, particularly in the areas of the region dominated by single-family homes. You can get a house in San Francisco – a shack, really – for what it costs to buy a mansion outside Houston, or even a nice home in Irvine or Villa Park. Choice single-family locations like Irvine, Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica have also experienced soaring prices.
Market forces – overseas investment, a strong buyer preference for single-family homes and a limited number of well-performing school districts – are part of, but hardly all, the story. More important may be the increasingly heavy hand of California’s planning regime, which favors ever-denser development at the expense of single-family housing in the state’s interior.
In both the Bay Area and Southern California, plans are now being set to force the building of massive new towers in a few selected “transit-oriented” zones. In a bow to political realities, the planners say they won’t bring superdensity to the single-family neighborhoods beloved by Californians; the wealthy – including those who bought early and those with access to inherited money – will still be able to enjoy backyard play sets, barbecues and swimming pools.
Home prices skyrocket -The rest of you had better get used to cramming. House prices over the past two years in Orange and Los Angeles counties have risen at a rate more than 10 times the relatively paltry increases in weekly paychecks, among the nation’s worst ratios of home prices to income. Now, you can’t buy a house in much of Orange County or West L.A. without a triple-digit income; in Manhattan Beach, buying a median-price house requires an income of more than $300,000 a year.
With development on the periphery basically shut down for lack of sufficient transit usage, the bright folks at SCAG, MTC, ABAG, SANDAG (the regional planning agencies in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, respectively) foresee a future of ever-increasing density, with apartment towers interspersed throughout the cities.
To be sure, city life and density might seem great, and could even work to some extent in smaller, scenic areas like Laguna Beach or Santa Monica, with their accessible walking districts. But such locales are only a small part of Southern California.
To live in a high-rise in Ontario or Garden Grove might please planners, but density without much amenity – and nothing that will ever be close to a New York-style transit system or even a system as good as that serving downtown Los Angeles – seems more a ticket to a neo-tenement purgatory than paradise.
For areas that lack ocean breezes or scenic views, we are looking at something more like the congested chaos of Mexico City or Tehran than the tourist’s Paris on the Pacific (more than 80 percent of Paris, France, is outside the compact core).
The biggest losers, as usual, will be those people – working and middle-class families as well as minorities – who have looked to the periphery for housing opportunities and a chance for a better life. Los Angeles County is already a majority-renting community, and attempts to force densification in other counties could bring this reality to Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties as well.
Where minorities can thrive -Until recently, the periphery has offered housing salvation for younger middle-income homeowners, particularly families. Homeownership rates are more than 25 percent higher in the Riverside-San Bernardino area than in the Los Angeles-Orange County area. Minorities also do much better. The homeownership rate inland is a quarter higher among African American and Asian households. The rate for Hispanics is nealy half again higher than in Los Angeles-Orange.
But as housing prices have soared, and opportunities to move outward have shrunk, Southern California has developed some of the worst crowding in the nation. Three of the most crowded areas – based on people per room – are in Los Angeles County: South Los Angeles, the Pico Union area near downtown LA and Huntington Park. Southern California trails only Miami, Fla., for the highest percentage of residents who spend 40 percent or more of their incomes on rent or a mortgage.
The impact of high prices extends well beyond the poor and minorities. As a recent report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office suggests, the lack of affordable housing is one reason why California companies have trouble attracting employees, particularly those with families. To keep the digital hearths going in places like Silicon Valley, companies rely on either young people (often with family money) or, increasingly, low-wage workers, called “technocoolies” by some, imported from Asia.
The LAO is spot on about the disadvantages of California housing, which now costs two and half times the national average, and rents that are 50 percent higher than in the country as a whole. Homeownership rates now stand at 48th among the states. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions follow the same script adopted by our planning elites that seeks to further densify large swaths of central Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, which, since 2000, have accounted for roughly 10 percent of all growth in the state.
Affluent exempt -This planning fiat is sure to spark fierce resistance. Don’t expect to see high-rises sprout amid the expanses of single-family housing in Malibu or Beverly Hills, due to the organized power of their overwhelmingly “progressive” residents. Higher-density development likely will be jammed, instead, into already denser, less-affluent and less politically powerful areas, such as the east San Fernando Valley, North Orange County and some inland communities.
There’s nothing wrong with appealing to a market for apartments, but limiting the expansion of single-family construction will only exacerbate our looming demographic dilemmas. Southern California’s family population is decreasing more than any of the nation’s other large metro areas. Homes are increasingly owned by an aging population lucky enough to have bought before the new planning regime helped drive prices into the stratosphere. Young workers may be amused by dense, high-cost rental space, at least until they desire to start families and own homes. But the crucial middle-class households headed by thirty- and fortysomethings may find themselves forced out of the region if they are unwilling to accept a lower quality of life.
Some of the logic behind densification was based on the perception that the suburban dream is dead. Yet, despite persistent claims by planners and pundits, this turned out to be less a matter of altered market preferences than of temporary effects of the Great Recession. Roughly 80 percent of Americans still prefer single-family homes. So do Californians: In the past decade, single-family units represented the vast majority of all new homes built in the state.
Now that the economy is coming back to life, suburban communities, particularly the much-disdained exurbs, appear to be on the demographic rise again around the nation. By rejecting this option for the next generation, we are essentially putting the California Dream on ice, all but pushing upwardly mobile, but not rich, families to pursue their futures in notably lower-cost, less-regulated places, like Texas.
All this is for a dubious philosophy that has long derided suburban communities and their single-family homes as an environmentally wasteful, anti-social extravagance. Yet, today, many new suburban developments are eco-friendly, including such features as high-efficiency construction and renewable solar power, and employment patterns increasingly allow for work from home or in nearby firms. Business growth near homes in Irvine, often pilloried as the epitome of sprawl, notes former California State University, Los Angeles demographer Ali Modarres, has resulted in some of the nation’s shortest commutes and highest rates of people working at home.
Add to the equation more fuel-efficient cars and the environmental justification for forced sardinization becomes even less compelling. Densification might well increase over time as some people prefer more urban lifestyles. But the opportunity to own a single-family home should not be limited to the very rich, or to aging baby boomers, by Sacramento bureaucrats and unelected regional planning agencies. Yet, precisely this is the inevitable result of the massive attempt at social engineering now advancing throughout the region and state.
(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com… where this piece was most recently posted … and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.)
Vol 13 Issue 34
Pub: Apr 24, 2015