A new social contract for housing in California
How do we fix California housing politics?
The following is the script from my June 29th talk at SPUR. Thanks to all my subscribers for their patience as I took a bit of holiday, and worked on some longer form pieces, including the one below. I’ll be back to my regular cadence this summer, and appreciate all those who open these emails and read.
Big Ideas 3 : Where We Go From Here 10
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It’s hard to imagine, but it’s been about a decade since my first talk at SPUR. I’ve been honored to give 4 or 5 talks over the years here, but this one is particularly meaningful - it is my first talk as a member. I will come back to this issue of membership, including why it took me so long to join, because membership is particularly important the topic of my talk - what a healthier and more productive social contract for housing can be in California.
One: Improve our understanding of how California Gets Made
But first, I want to extend a special thanks to Noah Christman, SPUR’s longtime director of public programs, who just left after a decade at the organization. Noah worked for years to make talks like this one free and open to the public, and I can’t tell you how important this is to me as both a speaker and a member. I didn’t join SPUR to be a member of a club with special privileges, but because I knew that my membership fees would go to support programming that helped Californians learn how California gets made, or think about what California could be.
That educational mission is absolutely essential to me and to California. It’s the primary mission of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San Jose State, where I’m honored to be a visiting scholar, and we look forward to partnering with SPUR and many other organizations, agencies and companies to build a better public education system for issues like housing.
I will talk today about the pillars of a new social contract for housing, and one of those pillars must be dramatically improving our collective knowledge about our housing system, especially in the coming generations. If we are to have any hope in fighting the dueling fires of climate change and deeply rooted racialized inequality, we must raise our children to understand how California is built and rebuilt. We have to provide new opportunities for adults to learn about housing and other systems, long before they show up at a community meeting about the housing element. And we need to keep making new and more effective opportunities for jaded and sometimes middle-aged professionals like myself to push ourselves to learn, evolve, adapt, change, to get better at being housers. Congratulations again to Alicia, Noah and SPUR for making these talks free, and for doing as much as any group in the Bay Area to step into this massive void.
So this talk brings together a lot of my ideas and writings about housing in California, especially from the past few years. Much of what I’m going to talk about is written down somewhere, whether in one of my books, or in my new Substack on California Housing called Where We Go From Here. Some of these ideas are going to appear in the great housing publication Shelterforce in the coming months, both in a piece I wrote myself and in an interview with the brilliant Charmaine Curtis, who many of you know and admire like I do. I’m going to go through a lot of things today, and if something piques your interest or ire, I’ve made a bibliography of related writings you can check out to get the fuller picture, which will be posted on the event page where you can see a recording of this talk.
I know that many of you are neck deep in the current leg session, or in your day to day work or life, whether or not it relates to housing. I took a break from writing comment letters on housing elements to write this, and if you need that break as well today, then welcome. This is a talk that requires a bit of headspace and patience, and if that’s not where you are at today, I feel you, and I urge you to come back to the recorded version of this talk when you have that time and space. For all my readers out there, you can get the script for this talk on my Substack, or the transcript via the SPUR site, so if you are like me and would prefer to read things and not listen to a white guy talk at you insistently for 35 minutes, I got you twice over.
Now one thing I am not going to talk about is how bad our housing crisis is, or which part of the crisis is worse. I am going to assume that you are here because you know we have lots and lots of housing problems in California, have had these for a very long time, and you’re looking for ways to make it better.
I’m also not going to give you a laundry list of bills to support, or policies to enact, or financing and development and design models to embrace. I tried to show in my first book, The Road to Resegregation, that California has never lacked good ideas for policies, plans or anything else. The problem is and has long been that we never built the type of housing politics to make all these good and progressive ideas become reality on the ground, to make ideas and intent into stable and affordable homes. By politics here I mean all of the people and groups that advocate around housing, not just the decisions made by elected officials, and not just the decisions made by public agencies. Private policy matters too.
This is why the full title of the book is The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics. Our politics of housing in California have failed us, and without changing the politics, without making more things possible, none of our bills or programs or ideas will be able to produce the kind systemic change needed to make a real difference in people’s lives and in the future of this State that so many of us dream of and work for on a daily basis.
The Social Contract approach
So how do we fix California housing politics, which is a notoriously brutal, divided and fragmented space?
The first step is to admit that our relentlessly divided housing politics aren’t just about NIMBYs and YIMBYs, aren’t just about land use politics or about decisions made by local governments about specific sites or buildings. We desperately need all of the folks who are rightly asking hard questions about housing policies to cast their net wider. Every actor with skin in the housing game bears some historic responsibility for where we are at - from powerful business and industry groups to labor unions, from environmental groups to non-profit advocates to foundations to elected officials to the lobbying and professional consultant machine that I am now a part of. Countless people wake up every day in California and work to preserve some aspect of the status quo while raising the flag for the interests of their group. Power doesn’t just rest with homeowners who don’t know or don’t care what happens to most of society. I’m a homeowner now after decades of renting, and grew up in an owner-occupied home in Marin County, a home which is my primary hope for retirement. I fully accept the truth of every shitty thing that NIMBYs have done over the years, and have fought and continue to fight their arch conservatism. But to place all the blame for our inadequate housing politics on this NIMBYism is just historically incorrect, and harmful to any hope we have of making politics - let alone housing - better.
Admitting that this is bigger than NIMBYs and bigger than any single key issue like land use or affordable housing is essential to the second and most important step we must take - transforming the politics of housing has to become our primary collective goal. We have to turn the broader consensus in California - that housing is an issue, that it has to be addressed, that everyone needs and deserves decent housing they can access and afford - into actionable politics. We can’t just keep preaching our values and our solutions, but instead must collectively start pushing for the kind of grand bargains that can turn a supermajority into action.
This is why I talk about the Social Contract for Housing, or in the language of my more recent book, a Spatial Contract. A social contract is a society-wide deal - a basic understanding, something you can see in formal laws and policies, and in informal practices and culture and understandings. It’s both the rules we set down, and quote unquote the way things are done around here. While the term is often used to talk about general things like the economy and labor, I prefer to use it more specifically around key systems like housing or health care or transportation. And it’s not that the Social Contract of housing is missing - it exists, but it is dysfunctional, frayed, weak, or as we describe it in the Spatial Contract, unhealthy.
For me, the social contract approach is essential to retrofitting California housing politics - not just policies. Thinking about this basic set of agreements, one that again is as much about the day to day practices of real estate and housing professionals as it is about public policy, helps us in three ways.
First, this social contract approach focuses us on that broader politics, and the broader deal. Too often our politics get derailed because one group decides to go to war over a particular issue in a way that damages possibilities across the housing spectrum. We need all the powerful actors in housing to think as much about the larger goal of stable and secure and resilient housing for everyone, about the forest, and not just the trees.
Second, A social contract approach helps us build real rights to housing by recognizing that there will always be a deal. While the idea of a right to housing animates many, actually making those rights, let alone making new housing or fixing up the old ones, requires a deal. Things will be negotiated and exchanged, and compromises will be made. Always, every single time. Every home represents a long list of agreements and deals, no matter the political and economic system. Thinking about a social contract gets us in the headspace to build a better deal, which can and should include real rights across the board.
Third, A social contract approach helps us think about the full housing system, about culture and practices and labor and finance and materials, not just policies and laws. It forces us to take a wider viewpoint that is so essential in a system like housing. As I will talk about in a few minutes, one of the pillars of a new social contract for housing is that we must embrace the fact that we are trying to change the housing economy, not (just) housing policy.
It’s a sad and terrible irony that I am giving this talk the week after Roe v. Wade was gutted, as part of the steady attack on the social contract of women’s and reproductive health in the United States. But it provides a lesson for us in California. I have much more faith and confidence in the social contract of reproductive health in California as it currently stands than I do for housing. Not only will we likely pass the laws and policies we need, I have more faith we will build and maintain the clinics and the medical education system and supply chains we need. Abortion, after all, is not a right unless you have a system that actually provides it. I have more faith that our companies and universities and advocates and hospital systems are more or less on the same page when it comes to building a healthier social contract for reproductive health in California, one strong enough even to support all those human beings under vicious attack in other states and in the nation’s capital.
We need to do the same for housing, which should be much easier. Nobody's religious texts promote eviction and homelessness. Nobody's God has anything to say about rent regulation or homeownership or bond finance or green building regulations. Understanding the difference between health care and housing is critical, for not all politics are created equal. The divisions around housing are entirely of our own creation, and we must find a way through them.
PILLARS OF A NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT FOR HOUSING
So what does this new social contract for housing look like? I like building metaphors, and so I talk about pillars. Pillars are ideas I think we can rally around, that could be the foundations of a grand bargain to unite a super-majority of producers, maintainers and consumers of housing.
I gave you one pillar already - a commitment to more and better and wider learning about housing - and I’m going to give you 8 more ideas in rapid succession. Maybe this will be too many for some of you, and not enough for others. This is just a start, and if I missed something, then please, offer it up.
Two: Leave your ideology at the door
One of the many things that makes housing politics hard is the deep American tradition of political and economic ideology. By ideology I mean the tendency to believe or not believe in certain political and economic mechanisms, as if they were a matter of faith. We have ideologies and beliefs around markets, property, the size and scope of government, around the best scale of government, around private and public and the idea of community.
Being ideological means making up your mind about rent control or homeownership or land use regulation or union membership or profit margins based not on what is actually happening on the ground, but based on what you believe about these things no matter the complex reality. I’ve witnessed powerful groups say no to very small asks from less powerful groups purely on these kinds of ideological grounds, even when they could benefit long term from a compromise. I’ve watched less powerful and well-meaning groups refuse to budge from a position, no matter the impact on their members, because it didn’t fit with their shared ideology.
These political and economic ideologies are killing us in housing. If the goal is stable and secure and resilient housing for all - something I think the overwhelming majority of California housing professionals and citizens agree upon - we can’t get there if everyone is starting from an entrenched ideological point of view, and then trying to make the housing system work around it.
When I ask you to give up your ideologies, I’m not asking you to give up your values. Precisely the opposite. Values are things like believing in equality, in human dignity, in wanting everyone to go to sleep in a safe and secure environment that brings them joy and dignity, in wanting to finally address the deep and troubling history of racism in our housing system, a history which has left people and communities of color less well housed by virtually every metric in every corner of the state. These are the things I “believe” in – not in any specific political or economic tool. Rent control and homeownership support are policies that can help realize those values, or if done poorly, can make the situation worse. I don’t believe or disbelieve in either - I believe in equity. I support smart rent control and smart homeownership policies as mechanisms because either I have evidence that they can and do save lives and make lives better when done well, or because I can design a policy that I think will work when policies in the past have failed. And since it isn’t a matter of faith but of practice, if they don’t work then I am open to critique and finding a way to make them better. There is no altar, no god, no holy book, no ideology.
Three: Stand against exploitation and displacement
Four: Keep it real
Speaking of values, while I think there is some consensus on values, I do think there is one really important step we need to take as a State when it comes to shared values. We need to push harder to collectively recognize just how prevalent exploitation and displacement are in our housing system, and how it has been that way for a long time. We’re not just hurting people through inaction, people are getting hurt every day in and through the housing they already have - rents that are too high and rising, mortgages offered at terrible terms, housing tenures that are too insecure, homes that are overcrowded and unfit for habitation. As scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Matthew Desmond have shown, exploitation can and does happen whether you own or rent. It happens in underground housing economies and in business models supported by policy and subsidy alike. We make people homeless at a much faster rate than we can ever possibly rehouse them, and suck the life out of so many families trapped in housing situations that are making them poorer rather than richer, more insecure rather than safer and more stable. As the third and fourth pillar of a new social contract for housing, we need to strengthen our collective commitment to making a housing system that hurts people less, and we need to keep it real when pain happens - whether or not it is intentional, no matter which collection of actors is at fault, even if it’s a group we belong to.
One way to truly embrace the value of removing exploitation as a pillar of our housing system is for organizations to continue the recent trend of restorative justice work, work which when I wrote about it in the Road to Resegregation seemed more like a dream than a reality. From the Sierra Club to the National Association of Realtors, powerful housing voices have been coming clean about what happened in the past. I applaud them for this, urge other groups to do the same. But we need to go further and apply this lens to the present and not just the past, apply it to exploitation and not just exclusion and inclusion. After all, to reference Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor again, inclusion can be predatory - serving someone a shit sandwich is not solving the hunger problem.
Five: Embrace true diversity in housing
If getting real about exploitation is going to make some of my more business-orientated or centrist listeners unhappy or uncomfortable, now I need to push my fellow progressives. We desperately need a broader vision of what good housing looks like.
Some of this is about where housing happens. We have 40 million incredibly diverse humans stretched across a land mass bigger than Japan. We are rural and suburban and urban, we are desert and deep forest, coast and mountains. While I am all for densifying my transit-rich neighborhood in Oakland - I am working to build a group that can help do this, I promise you I will turn my own single-family home into a four-plex as soon as I can afford to - we have to start articulating a much more inclusive vision of a well housed California. This is a vision that inspires and insists upon on a real and bold and legitimate housing solution in every jurisdiction - including places that will never have mass mass transit, including places that may burn or have burned, including places that have water and those that must pipe it in, including all the places in inland California where people of color have moved to pursue a better life in a fucked up California housing market - in Antioch and Riverside and Modesto and Fresno and Marysville and Chico and even Paradise.
We can’t rebuild the social contract of housing based on an old school smart-growth vision of what we should have built a half-century ago but did not. It’s 2022. We have the State we have. Every single jurisdiction in the state has housing problems, every jurisdiction is at risk from climate change, every jurisdiction is responsible for creating or living with inequality - or often both - and every jurisdiction has ways they can and should make their housing system better - more secure, more equitable, more sustainable.
This doesn’t mean abandoning our ideals to a certain white lady from Mill Valley who will not be named, or to McMansions and madness. It just means actively trying to include people from across the urban suburban rural spectrum. It means understanding what the fabulous Emeryville Councilmember Courtney Welch talks about as housing across the lifecycle - what works for single folks in their 20’s isn’t ideal always for middle-aged people with families or older folks or babies, or vice versa, and every group needs to be housed. We are on the cusp of major housing programs for students and teachers, for families and our elders, and this full lifecycle approach has to exist in dense urban places, in sparse rural communities, and in the suburban landscapes which are the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods in california - no matter whether they are in San Jose or Santa Ana, in Oakdale or Oakland or Oxnard.
Most controversially, we desperately need people to start recognizing how critical temporary housing is to a functioning society, economy and housing market. If you are going to read any of my Substack pieces after this talk, this is the one I beg you to read. I fully understand the impact that many short-term rental companies have had on fragile housing markets, but their bad behavior doesn’t change the fact that humans need places to sleep that are temporary, almost as much as they need places that are permanent. Embracing just how critical temporary housing is and has been for the length of human history doesn’t mean abandoning a housing first approach to homelessness, doesn’t mean condoning evicting people from their homes to make vacation spots for bougie folks like me.
It does mean understanding that people need to leave homes on short notice. People get divorced, they suffer abuse in their homes or have toxic environments, they need to visit family or care for sick friends or do trainings or check out a job opportunity or attend school or see if a place is right for them. We are already losing thousands of housing units every year to climate - related disaster, and that number is only going up, and these folks need places to stay for a night or a week or a month or a year.
And everyone needs to have a holiday once in a while.
We need a housing system that is robust and regulated enough to enable an abundant and secure supply of both permanent and temporary housing, one that can tell the difference between the two and regulate accordingly, one that appreciates that the two types of housing benefit from different types of capital and management and laws and rules. We can’t keep pitting one type of housing against another, for then we pit one group of housers against each other, and welcome to our current reality.
Six: Ownership Matters
Okay, so there are really two pieces I hope you read if you haven’t already. The second one is called Ownership Matters. It’s also about expanding progressive ideas of what good housing looks like, and about not pitting different types of housing against each other.
One of the most important things we can do to make housing politics more productive is to try and shift the political lines. This picture shows three houses on my street. One of these houses my wife and I own. One will be a Habitat for Humanity Below Market Rate homeownership opportunity. The third will be an Oakland Community Land Trust building with two units, one likely a rental. These are all different housing tenures, with different advocates in Sacramento and different believers in a world driven by housing ideologies. These supposedly represent ideologically opposite solutions - quote-unquote affordable versus market rate, subsidized versus unsubsidized.
But these dichotomies are horseshit. All of these houses represent housing tenures where the folks living there have some voice or control over their housing, regardless of how much of an equity stake they have. All are subsidized - mine by a mortgage income tax deduction, theirs by private donations and public monies. All have relationships with major financial institutions - none of these homes is debt-free. All depend on a mix of small scale professional workers and DIY for renovations and survival. And all of them are part of markets - different markets for sure, with different rules and different rates, but markets nevertheless.
The point here isn’t just that these types of housing, all of which are part of the solution, are more similar than we think. It is that all of them are resident-controlled to a certain degree, and that resident-control is what we should be fighting for, and we should be fighting for it together. What type of resident-controlled housing you live in should depend on your needs and desires and circumstances, but they are not in opposition to each other. The opposite of resident-controlled housing is housing controlled by powerful institutions who give you no voice.
This isn’t just important materially, it’s essential politically. Only a coalition centered around resident-control can truly achieve the kind of change we need. This means that advocates for land use reform must start thinking more and more about ownership, about who owns the buildings that we need to build, not just how dense they are or how many of them there are - no matter how important those things are. Advocates for affordable housing need to start fully embracing land trusts and BMR homeownership and real resident voice and control in their properties, and to see that these aren’t inherently in opposition to forms of subsidized homeownership like mine - something many of them should know because they own their homes just like I do.
The way to achieve this coalition is through the largest push for homeownership that California has ever seen. When I say this I don’t mean the racist and environmentally destructive form of homeownership of the 1950s, or the exploitative, speculative, house of cards and still racist push of the Bush years, but a safer and more secure type that embraces the radical diversity and plurality of what resident-control can mean - including effective ownership of your home even if you have no equity.
This coalition can work not just because it gives folks what they want - voice and control and (sometimes) a way to build wealth - but because it makes clear the real opposition - bigger and greedier investors who would happily create a rentership society, owning every unit they can and raising rents as much as possible. We can unify around moving the greediest of investors slowly but surely out of housing. We can unify around massive condo conversions - shifting all those expensive new built rentals into new homeownership opportunities, shifting as many older buildings into protected affordable resident-controlled buildings like CLTs or limited equity condos or any other number of creative models like Permanent Real Estate Cooperatives. Speculative investors can be great for temporary housing like hotels, but permanent housing needs to be controlled by the folks who live there.
Seven: Transform the Housing Economy
Talking about investor responsibility is a reminder of what we’re really trying to do here - transform the housing economy. As I explain in an upcoming piece in Shelterforce, California’s houses are worth $9.24 trillion based on a recent Zillow estimate. Real estate alone - not including construction - is 9% of US GDP. Three million Americans work in either real estate or residential construction. Our housing economy is absolutely massive, and any intervention that doesn’t transform the housing industry and economy isn’t going to change much at all.
It’s a retrofit of epic proportions.
A key part of a new social contract is embracing and centering this type of change. We need to fix investment and development models, following the lead of groups like the Inclusive Capital Collective who seek to redesign the capital stack to make it work better for community owners, developers, workers and users of real estate, or folks seeking to create real standards for impact investing in housing, which don’t really exist at the moment. As Charmaine Curtis says in our interview, we need capital willing to take a lower return, and developers willing to make money on scale, not by making every building a home run. We need to change the business models that have increasingly made developers into corporate landlords. And we need to shift who is able to become a developer, growing BIPOC and women-led companies, and doing so based on better models of housing - in other words, making more Charmaine Curtises possible, and making it easier and more supported than what she faced over the past two decades.
I don’t have time to go through every aspect of this shift - I do more in the article, including featuring work that folks like Andre Perry are doing around appraisals, or the need to reshape housing markets - both the deed-restricted kind and the non-deed restricted kind. All of it points to the need to center this kind of housing economy shift in our work. It must be a key pillar in a new social contract, and it is part of weaving together many of the other pillars - from resident ownership to diverse housing types to reducing exploitation.
Eight: Pursue Greatness.
As we near the end of my list, I want to talk about greatness. One of the saddest parts of housing in California is just how low our collective expectations are. When I look at this picture, I see two areas where California is great. The pride flag in the middle - Happy Pride everyone! - is a potent symbol of our world historic leadership on LGBTQ+ issues. The Golden State Warriors represent our brilliance in climbing the mountain, in overcoming injury and pain and years of futility, enshrining themselves alongside California’s other great basketball tradition from Los Angeles, the one in purple and gold. In technology, health care, open space and recreation, arts and entertainment, only the world’s best will do in the Golden State, but somehow we accept a housing system that doesn’t come close to being great - and honestly, doesn’t really aspire to be.
If we are to really pursue greatness in housing, more housers need to slow their roll when it comes to critiquing ideas and proposals. Rather than ask what’s wrong with this plan, ask instead what can this become? Two of the most exciting ideas in the current state legislative session, Alex Lee’s Social Housing bill and Toni Atkins and Bob Hertzbergs’ California Dream for All plan, are bold attempts to reshape how we build and how we own homes, each coming from different sides of the housing spectrum. Are either perfect in their current form? Of course not. But that is largely because too many housers look for the flaws, or our past failures, rather than ask how can I help turn this into something great. Too many housers would see these as incompatible, rather than seeing that their greatness could come from combining the two, seeing how both together could make something magical, something worthy of Harvey Milk and Stephen Curry, of Tara Vandeveer or Margaret Cho.
If we are to succeed in turning this ship around, we must start to work for greatness.
In closing, let me come back to where I started - membership.
The reason I didn’t join SPUR for all these years was partly because of its history, going back to the dark days of urban renewal. While the organization has acknowledged this past, there is always more to be done. But the real reason I didn’t join is that I didn’t feel I was in a position to take responsibility for what the organization was and must become. I am now ready - both to carry the baggage from an era when I wasn’t even born, and to raise my voice to push the organization to do more for a healthier social contract of housing, transportation and more. After years of being away, I’m rooted again, and I’m able to be a real member of an organization. I’ve joined housing groups in Oakland, both of which have stances and platforms I don’t completely embrace, but I’m ready to push them to be better and grind alongside their staff, board members and activists in good faith.
Any chance of a healthier social contract of housing in California requires people to own the groups they are members of, and push them from inside to be better, to push for a grand bargain and not just short term self interest. I’m not just talking about civil society groups like SPUR, but the powerful professional societies which represent industries and professions, or organizations which supposedly represent the collective interests of different types of governments and government officials. Member-based organizations, from chambers to leagues to unions to associations, are incredibly powerful and influential in California housing policy, and every single one can get much better on housing - especially on the big picture issues I’ve raised today. If you pay dues somewhere, please, ask more questions, demand more collaboration, push the board and staff to make changes, and support the heroes who aren’t afraid to step into the fray and insist that colleagues and the organizations do what is needed and what is right. Change, after all, often comes from within.
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