Hillary Clinton’s 4.3 million-vote victory in the presidential election in California illustrates how much Democrats dominate the Golden State now. But America’s largest state has had a generally liberal electorate that believes in social justice and cares deeply about the environment for years.
That’s one way of looking at California politics. A new report from the respected nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and a recent analysis by The Los Angeles Times suggests another: residents’ commitment to social justice and the environment may waver when personal sacrifice is a possibility.
Social justice’s most common definition is that everyone — regardless of race or gender — deserves equal social, political and economic rights and opportunities. Belief in social justice is a huge factor in societal debates about racism, sexism and income inequality. Yet consider California. It has the nation’s highest poverty rate, and the primary cause of poverty is the extreme cost of housing. You’d think Californians who believe in social justice would want to bring down the cost of housing by increasing supply — even if it led to more congestion and crowding.
However, as Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor notes, public opposition to new housing is at the heart of California’s housing crisis. His report details how state programs meant to prod local governments into adding housing stock have failed, leading to such jaw-dropping statistics as median monthly rent for two-bedroom apartments in Los Angeles being $2,700. Credit.com estimated L.A. renters spend 49 percent of their income on shelter.
“Unless Californians are convinced of the benefits of significantly more home building — targeted at meeting housing demand at every income level — no state intervention is likely to make significant progress on addressing the state’s housing challenges,” Taylor wrote.
His report is written in the LAO’s usual dry, straightforward style. But the conclusions it points to are downright melancholy. The housing crisis is punishing low-income and middle-income Californians — especially young people — and until enough Californians who aren’t being punished begin to care, nothing is going to change — because lawmakers won’t act without indications that they’re giving constituents what they want. A recent Sacramento Bee analysis of Census Bureau records identified a trend that’s unlikely to change anytime soon: From 2005 to 2015, 2.5 million lower-income residents left California for other states.
Californians’ housing antipathy also imperils the state’s ambitious environmental goals. As detailed in The Los Angeles Times, cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 can’t happen without an embrace of housing density near work and commercial hubs. Logically, “You can’t be pro-environment and anti-housing,” USC urban planning expert Marlon Boarnet told the Times. “You can’t be anti-sprawl and anti-housing.”
But logic doesn’t have much to do with how some Californians think about housing. For them, it’s a cold calculus built on self-interest. Affluent people and people with reasonable mortgages will not see a housing crisis because they’re not affected. They will consider themselves enlightened because of support for green causes — until such causes might affect their lifestyles.
If California wants to stop losing its young people to less expensive states — if California wants to keep leading the world in protecting the environment — something’s got to give.