HOUSING LA - This is Part 2 of the CityWatch article WIMBY Echo Chamber, which dealt with what was not discussed at the UCLA Lewis Center symposium, California’s Housing Crossroads.
Further subjects that were not discussed at the conference:
Anti-speculation housing policies.
When the ultimate goal a la Mercatus/Koch Bros/Thiel/Cato is utter market deregulation with the narrative that the “magic of the Market” will trickle-down to the plebes and create housing affordability, you wouldn’t expect to hear a lot about policies designed to decommodify housing.
Simply put, if housing is a human right, then homes are primarily for living in, not primarily investment vehicles. If housing is a human right, then the kind of profiteering condoned or endorsed by the Wimbys, is not only bad policy, it’s also immoral.
Anti-speculation housing policies would and should aim to treat housing as a public good rather than as a source of profit. Anti-speculation housing policies would include: limiting foreign and/or corporate ownership of housing; vacancy taxes; anti-flipping provisions; anti-hoarding and antitrust measures; policies and funding to encourage homeownership for real people.
However, when the goal of Wimbys is not an expansion of homeownership and the American middle class, but rather the further financialization of housing in the service of the Urban Growth Machine, one would hardly expect any discussion of what should be done to deal with Wall Street, global capital, speculators in various shapes and sizes, and those who would use housing to park or launder money.
Wimbys have no interest at all in anti-speculation housing policies because they aren’t really interested in affordability, equity, or the environment (despite the happy-talk, they could care less about the Natural world). They are interested in growth and profits, and should the subject be discussed, they would invariably try to deflect the country’s housing ills back to homeowners, while giving Wall Street speculators a hall pass (all the while trying to keep up the appearance of their “progressive” bona fides). Wall Street’s pursuit of fairy tales of eternal economic growth isn’t the problem, you see; Wall Street profiteering is just a false bogeyman covering up the maliciousness of the (still, for the time being) majority of Americans who are homeowners. It’s very much what you would expect from hard-core Ayn Randos, no matter what costume they happen to be wearing or what Trojan horse they are hiding in.
Interestingly, a number of “progressive” Wimbys love to look at Vienna, Austria as a model of housing affordability. Setting aside the massive infusion of public funding – not available here -- for municipally-owned housing in Vienna, a recent report from SCAG made clear that housing affordability was directly attributable to strict limitations on profits by private companies at every step in the process, from land acquisition to construction to rents. This stands in stark contrast to the Wimbys’ second mantra (after “Build, Baby, Build!”), encapsulated by California state senator Scott Wiener’s famous statement: “I don’t care how much money developers make!”
The role of money within our political system.
Well, of course this subject never came up. Corporate money infuses and infests our electoral and political system, with the Big Money behind pro-business and pro-labor interests: anything to keep the growth party going. It’s hardly surprising that most politicians, whatever political party they are affiliated with, can be described either as “pro-business” or “pro-labor.” It’s hardly surprising that very few politicians, whatever political party they are affiliated with, can be described as “pro-resident” or “pro-Community.” With massive infusions of Big Tech, Koch Bros, Urban Growth Machine cash and other sources of Dark Money filtering down to academia and AstroTurf nonprofits specializing in agitprop, our growth maniac friends have, in general, nothing to complain about, even if they get tetchy when once in a blue moon -- for whatever reasons – the corporate money happens to be on the other side.
With massive infusions of cash from all sides of the political spectrum oiling the Urban Growth Machine, it is unsurprising that all the policies, prescriptions, and practices propounded by these doddering deifiers of density would be embellishments on the fairy tales of eternal economic growth. When it’s all ‘bout the money, grifters, opportunists, lobbyists, and other shills are all too willing to sell out the shrinking American middle class and even their own communities.
While people undoubtedly have a panoply of personal motivations to support the Urban Growth Machine’s brand of density fetishism – everything from solipsism, religious fervor, spite, intolerance, delusion, bitterness, political opportunism, narcissism, hubris, to out-and-out venality – it is to be hoped that those selling out are at least making it pay. If you’re going to be a sell out, then you might as well be a well-paid prostitute rather than just a cheap whore.
Support for robust rent stabilization policies.
Unsurprisingly, there was no serious talk about tenant protections or rent stabilization policies at the Arrowhead conference. One attendee mentioned that after long-standing opposition, they had slowly come to accept the need for rent control. However, it seems that the “need” alluded to isn’t the need itself to protect tenants, but the need to continue posturing as “progressive.” It’s become increasingly clear even to Wimbys that the displacement and eviction of lower-income tenants isn’t a good look and that radical-libertarian free market prescriptions are pretty much the opposite of “progressive.” One way to deal with this is simply to engage in denialism that their preferred policies lead to the displacement and eviction of lower-income tenants. The other – also done with the attempt to create unholy alliances with tenant advocates – is to bite the bullet by not pushing back on rent stabilization policies.
So the begrudging acceptance of rent stabilization and other mild forms of tenant protections are the bitter pill that “progressive” Wimbys have to swallow in order to maintain even the barest semblance of actually caring about what happens to low-income tenants. It’s all done strategically in service of the larger – very Kochesque – goal of market deregulation.
While paying lip service to "tenants' rights," most of the Wimby groups who claim to care about housing affordability have furiously sat on their hands -- and continue to sit on their hands -- during the efforts to repeal California’s Costa-Hawkins law, which handcuffs cities wanting to impose rent stabilization policies, as well as the Ellis Act, which gives landlords a blueprint to evict tenants. Of course, that’s because they aren’t really interested in repealing either Costa-Hawkins or the Ellis Act.
This lack of support (or feigned support) to protect tenants is unsurprising considering the role of Yimby groups as a tool of the Urban Growth Machine, including Big Tech and developers. For them, in the final analysis, it's all 'bout the money, and market deregulation -- not tenant protections or housing stability -- is the ultimate goal, including weakening or getting rid of pesky environmental protections.
Well, there was in fact a panel at the conference on homeownership, but it was infused with skepticism by people whose goal is evidently to turn us into a nation of renters. For many of the attendees, homeowners are the bad guys, villains responsible for the nation’s housing shortage and lack of housing affordability. Developers, the Real Estate Industry, and Wall Street speculators are unfairly maligned, misunderstood do-gooders, who in reality should be viewed as latter-day folk heroes.
Perhaps it is simply an unmistakable case of cognitive dissonance that leads some of these density fetishists to launch their misguided attacks on homeowners. Selfish homeowners, so the narrative goes, object to deregulation and upzoning (or the elimination of zoning, which is the dream scenario for these progressives-cum-libertarians) because they are “protecting their property values.” Never mind that upzoning actually increases the property values of incumbent homeowners. Never mind that many homeowners, in fighting for their communities, are actually working against their own financial interests. Never mind that urban supremacists evidently have a hard time fathoming that anything could ever be more important than money.
And so, the Wimby narrative rejects the notion that homeownership literally makes people feel more invested in their community. According to the Wimbys, homeownership actually turns people “bad.” And, in another trip to the Orwell, homeowner concern about Urban Growth Machine policies that would turn over control of their neighborhoods to for-profit developers and speculators is actually “anti-democratic.” (We can add a little Kafka to the Huxley and Orwell; presumably, the word “democratic” is being employed here in the usage of former East German leader Erich Honecker).
With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that there would not be any real discussion about expanding homeownership to enlarge and strengthen America’s embattled middle-class. It is as if the conference’s attendees somehow think that the remedy to America’s legacy of redlining and restrictive covenants actually should be to deny homeownership to everyone, rather than create restorative policies that would allow those who had been excluded to become homeowners, if they so choose (which, again, would include a vast majority of Americans of all stripes). Public transportation also happens to have a checkered legacy of racism, as do many other public and quasi-public institutions in America. It’s as if, rather than eliminate racist practices connected with public transportation, one suggested we eliminate public transportation itself to remedy its legacy of racism.
If homeownership makes people bad, then why create policies to expand homeownership? Wouldn’t it just be better to turn us into a nation of renters?
From the perspective of the Wimbys, the answer, of course, is a resounding “yes.”
Indeed, the Wimby Wall Street suck-ups would try to disabuse Americans of the notion that homeownership is anything other than a risky investment. They would dismiss the preferences of a vast majority of Americans who value the security of owning the home they live in. Instead of investing in a home Americans should – according to these anti-homeowner Wimbys – play the market or maybe even invest in crypto. Of course, should Americans actually listen to these disingenuous hucksters, Wall Street would enjoy a double whammy: more fees generated from more available funding seeking investment opportunities (as if derivatives, the stock market, futures, mutual funds, and crypto would provide more stability and greater returns at a lower risk level than homeownership); and less pushback against the further commodification of housing.
These Wimbys are contending that housing should be “treated as consumption, not investment.” Never mind that for many Americans, housing is much more than a “consumer good.” But even if housing were just a “consumer good,” for many Americans this would provide a rationale for even higher levels of homeownership. Many people would understandably prefer to own the most important “consumer good” they use. Wimbys have an impossible time understanding that maximizing profits and ROI aren’t always the highest values prioritized by Americans. They just don’t seem to get the concepts of stability, family, and/or Community.
In the stretch to sell Americans on the notion that homeownership isn’t a “good investment,” the Wimby propagandists would seriously posit that homeownership is really a “Ponzi scheme.”
So homeownership is a Ponzi scheme, but capitalism itself – in its pursuit of expanding markets and ever-higher levels of profit -- isn’t?
If the Wimbys are really interested in Ponzi schemes, perhaps it would be better for them to concentrate on the magnitude of the ecological Ponzi scheme caused by their pursuit of fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
They’re only really interested in one thing. It’s all ‘bout the money.
The conference simply underlined that the Wimby goal is to create a nation of rootless renters, ready to move at the drop of a hat to where the oligarchs and capital say they will be most productive, will be more compliant, where they will be a profitable source of recurring revenue for the Urban Growth Machine and real estate speculators, and easier to control than pesky and obstreperous homeowners who care about their communities and who have laid down roots within them.
Despite the conference’s character as an Alpine echo chamber, the word “backlash” did float around, wafted up into the air, and then was waved off into the night without a serious discussion of how, where, and why there might be a backlash to putting the Urban Growth Machine, the Real Estate Industry, and Wall Street in charge of housing and urban planning throughout America.
And this omission left some tantalizingly interesting questions unanswered:
- Do the majority of Americans (of all stripes) think that single-family neighborhoods should be abolished?
- Talk of zoning makes most people’s eyes glaze over, but will ordinary Americans wake up once forced densification leads to outsize, out-of-place, sore-thumb monuments to greed?
- Will ordinary Americans who see homeless encampments next to shiny, new high-rises of luxury condos really believe that luxury housing is somehow solving the homelessness crisis?
- Will people who, thanks to the proof-of-concept of remote work, have an increasing number of choices – both when it comes to where to live and how to live – find the allure of “Superstar” cities so irresistible that they will brave the specter of anomie to live in them (or get sucked into them, as the case may be)?
- Or have “Superstar” cities reached an inflection point (a term that was liberally used at the Arrowhead conference)? Is – despite the false Wimby narrative -- centrifugal force now in alignment with people’s actual housing preferences? With the proven potential of remote work, will this cause a deconcentration of opportunity away from the “Superstar” cities and a renaissance of older communities, including within the oft ignored and much maligned Flyover Country, which in the past have been the victims of corporate greed, egged on by the agglomerationists?
- Do Americans really prefer to be renters throughout all cycles of their lives, or will they, despite the Wimby propaganda, continue to look to homeownership as a worthy goal?
- Will our politicians – at all levels – side with the moneyed special interests, thereby increasing income inequality and widening the wealth gap, or will they side with the American people in an attempt to lift more Americans into the middle class?
- If the politicians take the side of corporate America and the moneyed special interests, will the majority of ordinary Americans fight back and create the kind of backlash some at the Arrowhead conference whispered about but never really discussed?
John Mirisch was elected in 2009 to the Beverly Hills City Council, and has served three terms as Mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.