Mirisch: If Housing is a Human Right… (Part 1)

Sen. Scott Weiner wants to get rid of single family  housing.  Instead, he prefers Manhattan style housing and slums, with high crime rates.  How well does it work?

“In contrast, Vancouver presents a compelling case of a major city that upzoned aggressively.  They eliminated single-family zoning, allowing by right four units where a detached house had previously stood.  Today Vancouver is the densest city in Canada and one of the densest in North America.  Vancouver’s urban density has even given rise to the term “Vancouverism” to designate “tall slim towers for density, widely separated by low-rise buildings.”

It didn’t work.  Housing has not become more affordable in Vancouver. With a median multiple — the price of housing compared to incomes — of 12, the Canadian city has the highest housing prices in the English-speaking world, according to the 2020 Demographia report.”

It harms the poor and middle class—and that is the point, the Democrats harm those that vote for them.  We need to explain this to the folks that are destroyed by Democrats values.

Tomorrow I will publish the second part of this article.  This is a must read, from a Beverly Hills council member who understands economics and housing policy.

If Housing is a Human Right… (Part 1)

By John Mirisch, Beverly Hills City Council, Exclusive to the California Political News and Views, 2/24/21

Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

If housing is a human right, then it should no more be the vehicle for profiteering than other basic utilities of human existence such as the supply of water, education or life-saving medicine.  If housing is a human right, then profiteering off housing is not only bad policy, it’s also immoral.

Among numerous groups in California and elsewhere, there is much talk about a “housing crisis.” Yet this talk is misleading, and if self-styled “housing advocates” want to invoke any crisis, they should more properly be discussing an “affordable housing crisis.”

As State Senator Nancy Skinner has pointed out, there are currently more than 1.2 million vacant units in California.  According to the quasi-governmental housing giant Freddie Mac, the housing deficit in California amounts to some 830k units.  This figure comes from just before the pandemic struck, in Feb. 2020, and before the exodus of firms and residents from the state appears to have accelerated.

The solutions proposed by many of these “housing advocates,” WIMBYs (Wall Street In My Back-Yard) by any other name, generally involve massive upzoning, forced densification, the elimination of single-family neighborhoods, and a lot more market-rate housing.  Using an oversimplified appeal to the “law” of supply-and-demand, these density fetishists essentially advocate for allowing “the magic of the Market” to “solve” the affordable housing crisis.

There is just one problem with the WIMBY prescription: it’s wrong. 

The notion that Market-led forced densification (or any kind of densification for that matter) will lead to any meaningful kind of housing affordability is both misleading and unproven, though it may lead to maximizing developer profits through luxury condos – which in most cases seems to be exactly the point.

Clearly, statutory up zoning – the urban planning version of turning lead to gold – seems designed to commodify housing even further.

Manhattan, by far the most dense locality in the US (though the entire New York urban area itself is only the fourth most dense urban area in the country), is hardly known as a bastion of housing affordability.

In short, advocates of statutory upzoning can’t point to any substantial empirical evidence that the developer giveaways and corporate welfare they are promoting will actually lead to housing affordability.

In contrast, Vancouver presents a compelling case of a major city that upzoned aggressively.  They eliminated single-family zoning, allowing by right four units where a detached house had previously stood.  Today Vancouver is the densest city in Canada and one of the densest in North America.  Vancouver’s urban density has even given rise to the term “Vancouverism” to designate “tall slim towers for density, widely separated by low-rise buildings.”

It didn’t work.  Housing has not become more affordable in Vancouver. With a median multiple — the price of housing compared to incomes — of 12, the Canadian city has the highest housing prices in the English-speaking world, according to the 2020 Demographia report.

Former supply-side Vancouverist professor Patrick Condon, who himself had in earlier years supported many of Vancouver’s policies of statutory upzoning has revised his views in the face of what he calls “indisputable” evidence.  Condon speaks openly about the prevailing urbanist “addiction” to the notion that if we just “unleashed” the free market, we would somehow create housing affordability.  The evidence is in and is hardly surprising to those who never have bought the Urban Growth Machine’s spiel: lot splits essentially double the price of the land. 

Building more Porsches doesn’t reduce the price of Priuses.  What WIMBY policies do achieve is rather the further commodification of housing and the fueling of real estate speculation. Byproducts of these policies are: gentrification, displacement, decreasing homeownership and the further denial of the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth and stability for historically disenfranchised families– not the creation of affordable housing.

It’s time to implement a bold, well-examined combination of anti-speculation policies which could, in fact, serve to decommodify housing. 

 Such policies should be oriented to urban humanism  with the aim of creating housing affordability and offering people a wider variety of housing choices.  

Anti-speculation, urban humanist housing policies should include:

  1. Limiting foreign and corporate ownership of housing.

All actual residents, regardless of immigration status, would be permitted to own homes. But just as many other countries and jurisdictions place limitations on foreign ownership of residential properties (including Vancouver as a result of the failed supply-side experiment), and a number of states within the US place limitations on foreign ownership of agricultural land with policy considerations in mind, we should place limitations on both foreign and corporate ownership of residential real estate.

Global capital’s speculation in residential real estate fuels speculation and causes property values to inflate.   What real-life human being, especially prospective first-time home-buyer, can compete with foreign corporations or Wall St. REIT’s or global oligarchs looking for a safe haven to park or, yes, launder money, as has been the case in Vancouver?

  • Vacancy taxes.

The staggering number of vacant housing units in California, contrasted with the estimated underage of housing units has been pointed about above: 1.2 million vacant units.  A pre-Covid shortage of 830k units.  The simple math is fairly compelling.

Vancouver and other cities, including Oakland, have already instituted vacancy taxes. In this spirit, some cities have also created laws banning or restricting the use of residential housing for short-term vacation rentals.  As with many housing-related measures, the devil is in the details, but it clearly is a lot more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable to use existing buildings for permanent housing than to have to build new ones.

The aim, however, would be clear: to reduce or end the use of housing as a financial tool of speculators.

In a discussion on vacancy taxes, WIMBY supply-sider UCLA professor Michael Lens fails to differentiate between speculators and families who are hoping to build equity through their homes: “But, you know, in one case, we’ve got, say, a grandmother in Detroit, and the other case, you’ve got a foreign investor in Los Angeles. We want to treat those two people very differently, but they might be hoping for the same outcome in the end.”

Yet the differences between the grandmother in Detroit and the Russian oligarch are significant. The Detroit grandmother who has been living in her home for decades is fulfilling the function of “housing as a human right.”  She is living in her home.  Her hope to establish equity or intergenerational wealth is a byproduct of her living in her own home.  This is a very different situation from the Russian oligarch who is using residential real estate either solely to create profits or perhaps to park money with the intent of avoiding the clutches of the Russian (or American) tax collector.

If the vacancy taxes don’t serve to make the empty units more accessible, then cities could even go a step further, as Barcelona has been threatening. A CityLab article outlined Barcelona’s strategy: “Fill vacant rental units with tenants or we will take over your properties, the city is warning landlords.” While taking the intent of a vacancy tax a step further, “Barcelona’s latest affordable housing tool” is a measure we should consider here so that more existing housing units can do what they are supposed to do: namely, house people.

More anti-speculation housing policy suggestions to follow in Part 2 of “If Housing is a Human Right…” tomorrow.

John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, including three terms as mayor.  He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.

About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.

Comments

  1. If you were around in the 1960’s there was a hippy song talking about all the ticky tacy housing in Frisco that were stacked right next to each other.

    Does Vancouver sound like that?

    Weiner, Newsom and the rest of the Dem’s don’t get it because they refuse to look at the world as it is. Human nature trumps the “wish” politics of the Radical Left.

    Do you know the Luddites? You should it is the explanation of why the Socialist/Communists will never succeed.

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