Dan Walters: California’s chronic housing shortage

At its best, journalism shines a light on important issues in the hope that a more informed public will pressure officials to confront and resolve them.

California’s chronic housing shortage is one such problem, and two very recent articles, one in the Los Angeles Times and one in the New York Times, delve into how the crisis has developed and why it is extraordinarily difficult to solve.

The Los Angeles Times details its city’s history of encouraging sprawling family neighborhoods while packing the poor into gated neighborhoods where deadly diseases like COVID-19 run rampant.

It begins with the death of Leonard Miranda, “who rented a shed and shared the kitchen, bathroom and dining room in the main house.”

After COVID-19 attacked Miranda, “it spread to a man sleeping on three red pillows in the laundry room. Then to the grandfather and grandson, who wedged two mattresses into one room. By the time COVID-19 ended the three-bedroom house the eight shared, Miranda and the grandfather were dead.

The article continued: “Los Angeles has more overcrowded homes than any other large U.S. county, a Times analysis of census data found — a situation that has lasted three decades and shows no signs of abating.

“In places like the Pico-Union neighborhood where Miranda lived, generations of families are crammed into tiny apartments. Construction workers, seamstresses and dishwashers live in close proximity. Day laborers sleep with half a dozen or more strangers in living quarters designed for one or two people.

“Within these limits, COVID-19 has proceeded without mercy: orphaning children, killing breadwinners and tearing families apart.”

One of the most poignant passages of the article describes how “city leaders razed Mexican neighborhoods in Chavez Ravine, displacing thousands of people with the promise of new, low-cost public housing to meet the needs of a city that exploded in population after World War II.” Then real estate interests used the communist paranoia of the Red Scare to defeat housing projects, and instead the city gave the Dodgers land for a stadium to lure the team from Brooklyn.

Ezra Klein’s New York Times article happens to pick up where the Los Angeles Times article leaves off. Klein explains in detail why current state and local government policies make it excruciatingly difficult to build the low-income housing that would alleviate deadly overcrowding and the homelessness it breeds.

In 2016, Klein notes, Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion ballot measure to build 10,000 new apartments for the homeless, and Mayor Eric Garcetti boasted, “The voters of Los Angeles have radically reshaped our future and given us a mandate to end homelessness on the street. the next decade.”

“Six years later, however, it became clear that neither the mandate nor the money was enough. In 2016, Los Angeles had about 28,000 homeless people, of which about 21,000 were unsheltered (that is, living on the streets). The current number is close to 42,000 homeless, with 28,000 unsheltered.

The 2016 ballot measure produced only 3,357 units “and the most recent audit found the average cost was $596,846 per unit under construction — more than the median sales price of a home in Denver. Some of the units under construction cost more than $700,000 to build.

Detailing the obstacles to building cost-effective housing, Klein concludes, “This is the paradox of housing development in Los Angeles and many other cities. The politics of the affordable housing crisis are terrible. The politics of what you would have to do to solve it is even worse.”

Both articles should be required reading at the Capitol.

— CalMatters is public interest journalism committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. More stories from Dan Walters can be found in the comments.


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