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Government can do more to save needed housing

Larry Kennings’ Marin Voice column on Nov. 10, concerning his view of housing issues, obfuscated a number of problems.

It was disheartening to read a professional planner begin his analysis by resorting to name-calling. It would seem obvious that over the past 60 years, planners have failed to “plan” for both housing and traffic.

If NIMBYs are responsible, as he asserts, then why do we have a worldwide housing crisis? From San Francisco to Nairobi, Cairo to London, there is a crisis.

Squatters’ slums are growing across the world due to a lack of planning and affordable housing, as Robert Neuwirth demonstrates in his 2006 book, “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters. A New Urban World.”

To blame local citizens for the housing problems is contrary to fact.

In the post-World War II period, the government provided significant financial support for new housing and to upgrade substandard housing, both with the mortgage loans and government-built housing, as well as redevelopment.

Even with this massive government effort the conditions for low-cost, safe housing fell very far from needs. Government support fell substantially after 1970. After this date, housing size exploded and that was a central reason for the increase in cost.

Reference to DataQuick on housing built between 1980 and 2010 or using Census data shows that most housing built was over 2,000 square feet (up from about 900 square feet) and definitely not affordable for most workers given the fact that since 1970 wages have fallen short of keeping pace with inflation.

But this was not the only factor; investment in housing changed the landscape, as housing became “commodified” as Margaret Jane Radin explained in her analysis of housing financing and public housing policy: “Rent Control and Incomplete Commodification: A Rejoinder.”

The same situation has occurred elsewhere.

The Nov. 21 edition of the Financial Times has an article by Jonathan Eley that documents the effects of housing becoming more an asset to be invested in than a dwelling to be lived in.

Note, for example, the hedge fund Blackstone’s ownership of Invitation Housing and its recent merger with Starwood Waypoint, another owner of housing, now owning a total of 82,000 single-family homes across the U.S.

More REITs and investment vehicles are buying housing as investments, so the market is driven, not by housing needs of people but by the need to acquire hard investments, assets that are secure.

Even in China there is an investment boom in housing speculation.

So, where do we see affordable housing? Where governments own the land and the housing, as in Hong Kong and Singapore, and where the government sets rental prices at wage levels.

Both have housing bubbles, just as our “financialization” or commodification of housing, but government action has stabilized housing for the majority of the population, about 50 percent in both locations.

So if we want affordable housing, the county or the state will have to build it.

Some might be uncomfortable with big government taking over this portion of the housing market, but then Senate Bill 35 that Mr. Kennings supports, guts local government controls of development and enhances Sacramento’s power.

What local governments can do now is stop the destruction of our most affordable housing — rentals and small homes — that are under siege not only by Airbnb, which is displacing them from the long-term rental market, but in the demolition and/or gutting of them for larger single-family units.

On Bolinas Road in Fairfax, a duplex serving two families has been gutted and expanded into a single-family McMansion. One would think, if Mr. Kennings was for affordable housing, he would have advised his client, the town of Fairfax not to allow this destruction to occur.

This process should be targeted by advocates for low-cost affordable housing, but instead they seem only interested in massive, multi-unit projects like Corte Madera allowed to be built on the former WinCup site.


Niccolo Caldararo is an anthropologist. He is a former Fairfax Town Council member.