02/29/2024

Opinion: California’s housing crisis and the density delusion

Once seen as a human-scale alternative to the crowded cities of the past, California’s cities are targeted by policy makers and planners dreaming of bringing back the “good old days,” circa 1900, when most people in the largest cities lived in small, cramped apartments. This move is being fronted by well-funded YIMBYs (“yes in my backyard”), who claim ever greater densification will help relieve the state’s severe housing crisis.

. . . In reality, the YIMBY’s suggestion that new, dense housing will improve affordability for all is patently absurd. Decades of densification in Los Angeles has seen ever higher rents, displacing low-income, especially minority households. Many former transit customers have been driven to lower-rent areas with less transit service, precipitating a massive decline in ridership, even as billions continue to be spent building new rail lines. The Wiener Bill could exacerbate this trend, and likely increase the need for low-income housing, already well beyond the capability of public coffers.

Nowhere, here or abroad, has densification materially improved housing affordability, whether for low income households or the larger number of middle-income households. Density-oriented policies have helped drive prices up so high that Bay Area, $200,000 salary engineers cannot afford a home near their headquarters. In the meantime, many young families are increasingly leaving the state for less heavily regulated and less expensive states like Texas, Nevada and Arizona. Among those under 35, 80 percent of all homes purchased nationwide are single family houses and virtually all surveys of millennials express an overwhelming desire for this kind of residence.

The goal, as stated by one YIMBY journalist, is startling in its retroactive boldness. “Getting people out of their cars in favor of walking, cycling or riding mass transit.” notes Liam Dillion, “will require the development of new, closely packed housing near jobs and commercial centers at a rate not seen in the United States since at least before World War II.”

Besides being ahistorical — this kind of housing was restricted to the urban cores a few of the largest metropolitan areas — many residents of these districts, including in California, gleefully abandoned this lifestyle for a more private, lower-density and family friendly lifestyle as soon as it became practicable. In fact, millions of people moved here from crowded cities, small towns, rural areas and other countries to enjoy this lifestyle.

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