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The Housing Crisis- why can't people find affordable homes?

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

Conor Dougherty- 2020

The housing crisis is a slow-moving disaster that's been eclipsed for now by the Covid-19 epidemic, the BLM movement, and the opioid epidemic, among dozens of other crises the media feeds us.

I've been lucky living in the Midwest to have been able to find affordable housing my entire life, and this book was an eye-opener to see what others are facing in large cities all over the country. Conor Dougherty tells the story of the San Francisco area, ground zero of America's housing crisis. He interviews several of the main players in efforts to create more housing and shows what a huge, complex problem it is with this book.

The home that the Tanner's lived in on the show Full House now goes for about $6 million- a bit above the level of most middle-class single parents like Danny Tanner. Rents in the bay area have climbed near $3,000- $4000 per month, and for those not employed in the high-paying tech industry, they are impossibly high. California has over 100,000 homeless at any one time, and has multiple families sharing houses and working multiple jobs just to pay the rent. During the age of Covid, those pressures have only gotten worse.

The star of this book is a housing advocate, Sonja Trauss, who goes from a lonely questioner at public meetings to a leader of a movement to build more housing units in her area. Dougherty follows her progress and the obstacles that block her way, as well as some other advocates for alleviating the housing crisis in the bay area.

The book introduces the term YIMBY, which is the counter to the NIMBY set of opponents to any and every housing proposal. People who already have housing that they are happy with will more often than not block proposals that threaten to transform their neighborhood. This is the not in my back yard (NIMBY) philosophy. YIMBY says yes to building, especially larger, taller structures near jobs and transportation that can hold more people.

America's housing since the end of World War 2 has been centered around the single-family home idea, which led to suburbs and sprawl of multiple housing developments. That all peaked in the 20th century and the housing industry hasn't kept pace since then - thus severe affordable housing shortages in our largest cities. We are over 2 million units short in the US, and more new households are being formed every year.

Because of rising inequality, much of the new home building today is for bigger homes for the wealthy. Salaries are not keeping up with the rising cost of renting or buying a home. Thousands of people in California are living in their cars and RV's, or putting up with 4 hour or longer commutes. New housing units need to be built near where the jobs are,and in San Francisco that hasn't been happening.

Golden Gates tells the fascinating story of how good people like a Catholic nun who became a real estate mogul made a difference, and how well-meaning politicians have tried to make a difference. It's a tale of small cities and their restrictive zoning laws and protective tribes that keep things from getting better, and of how a 1978 ballot initiative named Proposition 13 made things harder for everybody.

Probably the best thing I found from this book was its assertion that the housing industry hasn't progressed in productivity in 50 years. Homes today are mostly built the same way they always have. One house at a time, one contractor at a time, tons of inspections and building codes, and not much innovation. Dougherty talks with a home building factory that would cut down the costs significantly, which is one of the biggest roadblocks to affordable housing. Money is being spent- just not very efficiently.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the future. Rent controls are good temporarily, but how do you keep landlords in business? New construction is good, but how do you get the right mix and make the zoning zombies happy? Subsidies are helpful for those who are the poorest of the poor- but how do you find the money?

If you have a roof over your head tonight- give thanks. A lot of people don't. And that needs to improve. Dougherty's book is an important discussion of this crisis, a tale of people on the front lines trying to help, and some suggestions on how to make a difference.

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