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Oblivious to reality, Senator Wiener trips over American's third rail

Perhaps, one of the most important features of modern societies is private property ownership, which is epitomized by the single-family home. The ability to purchase real property through hard work and thrift creates psychological incentives and positive outcomes that should not be under-estimated.

Homeownership is in our DNA and our financial, emotional, and physical investment in it remains the single biggest decision most families will ever make. Owning a home is simultaneously a family haven from the outside world, a wealth builder and an automatic retirement savings plan: our so-called nest egg. The desire for a place of one’s own is shared by people of all races, colors, faiths, and income classes.

At the same time, the value of having sufficient single-family housing available for renters must also be included in any calculation. Apartment living is far from ideal and a significant number of single-family homes and town homes in major metropolitan areas, throughout California, are occupied by young families and singles living with roommates, who covet the privacy and space that single-family homes provide for hobbies, family relaxation, pets, storing recreational gear, home businesses, and just for a place to put all the "stuff" that accumulates in one's life.

Scott Wiener appears to either be completely oblivious to any of this or, I suspect, worse, he holds the desires and goals of working, middle class and lower class families in utter contempt, which may be why he is hell-bent to destroy them.

Perhaps he grew up living a privileged life and never had to learn the value of the hard work and sacrifices people make to own a home. I don’t know. However, he seems to put no value on the stability of our communities and the benefits of their inherent cohesiveness, their mutual support systems, and the powerful outcomes of resident’s investment, property improvement, civic engagement, and the work homeowners do daily to maintain a safe and livable environment for their families.

Senator Wiener’s failure to gain traction for his far left, ideological, anti-single family home crusade, most recently evidenced by the failure of Senate Bill 50 to advance in Sacramento, is directly tied to his inability to comprehend what is fundamentally important to the average Californian.

This is not said to suggest that townhomes, duplexes, fourplexes, multi-family, and even high-rise residential development is not appropriate or even desirable in many situations. It certainly is if that's what local planning wants. However, in his single-mindedness to demonize single-family homes, Scott Wiener has stepped on the high voltage, third rail of our body politic. He’s triggered Newton’s Third Law[1] and undertaken an assault on the most fundamental piece of the “American Dream.”

Denying human nature

June is HUD’s “National Homeownership Month.” Accordingly, HUD acknowledges that

“For many Americans, owning a home is an essential part of the American dream that conveys a number of economic benefits, such as the ability to accumulate wealth and access credit by building home equity, reduce housing costs through the mortgage interest deduction, and gain long-term savings over the cost of renting.”

In fact, HUD is tasked with stimulating “homeownership.” One of the primary missions of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which is part of HUD’s Office of Housing and the largest mortgage insurer in the world, is to:

“Contribute to building and preserving healthy neighborhoods and communities[2] (Emphasis added)

In a recent study, Homeownership and the American Dream, by Laurie S. Goodman and Christopher Mayer,[3] published by the Urban Land Institute, it summarizes that

“…homeownership is a valuable institution. On average, it allows families to build wealth and serves as a measure of financial security. Home ownership rates in a variety of countries peak for households in their 60s, suggesting that owning a home helps reduce financial risk in retirement. Moreover, the mortgage interest deduction is not the main source of these gains; even if it were removed, homeowners would continue to benefit from a lack of taxation of imputed rent and capital gains, which are tax benefits available in most countries around the world.”

The study also concludes that homeownership in the U.S. is not keeping up with the rest of the developed world, not because of financial conditions or even wealth disparity (which has impacted the entire developed world), but mostly due to lack of public policy to support it.

The Study notes,

“…while two decades of policies in the 1990s and early 2000s may have put too much faith in the benefits of home ownership, the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way, and many now may have too little faith in home ownership as part of the American Dream.”[4]

Senator Wiener would probably be astonished to learn that the overall homeownership rate has been about 65% give or take, since the 1960s in the U.S. In other words, housing “crisis” or no housing crisis, that number hasn’t moved more than a statistical rounding error. In fact, if you analyze what is currently the number one reason young household formation (the driver of all residential real estate markets) is in jeopardy, it is due to the astronomical amount of student loan debt, which has been rising 15 times faster than credit card debt since 2006, not housing costs.

It has been estimated that student debt is delaying millennial homeownership by as many as seven years.

Still, it is without question that single-family home ownership, the little house with a yard, remains the predominant choice of young families, hands down. The currently fashionable mantra that “this time it’s different” and that urbanism is what people really want turns out to be nothing more than slick marketing.

One has to look no further than my own town, where the minute a young San Francisco couple has a child they are scouring Marin County for anything they can buy for any price they can possibly afford to have, in their own words, a real neighborhood. Someplace that is safe and where they can “settle down” in with great schools and green space and all that comes with it. Again, it is thankfully in our DNA, to want to raise children in something other than four walls and on concrete streets.

This brings us to the fundamentals of why durable and reliable local planning and zoning plays such a major role in home ownership and residential investment.

Why local planning and zoning matters

When people make the decision to buy a home, whether they are aware of it or not, they rely heavily on the planning and zoning that your town has put in place. They drive around and look at “neighborhoods” and weigh locations in relationship to schools and stores and parks, where new homes are being built and were older neighborhoods offer unique opportunities.

They think hard about how safe the streets are for your kids to bike on, proximity to services, and if there’s some yard, where they can grow a garden, and space to watch their kids practice handstands and somersaults. They think about traffic and parking, room to grow, and a thousand other things to make their decision about the place they will call “home.”

But, most importantly, unless they are purposely buying into a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, to incur those investment benefits, they look for stability. And, that is the result of durable local planning and zoning.

The courts have even ruled on the significance of this ability to be able to rely on that what you see is what you get.

In Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (“Topanga”) (1974) 11 Cal. 3d 506, 517-518, the California Supreme Court found that citizens may expect uniform and clearly delineated standards within each individual zoning district. In other words, when we are making the biggest investment of our lives, we are entitled to some sense of “certainty.”

This runs counter to the unpredictable and chaotic development that Wiener and his supporters envision. Apparently, Senator Wiener despises this concept. He seems intent on taking the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” to a whole new level, with similar adverse effects, which probably explains why he is the darling of tech millionaires.

The dismal politics of negativism

The conniving politics of Senator Wiener and his YIMBY chorus is an exploitation of the politics of doom and gloom for personal advancement, and shows a profound lack of understanding and creativity about planning, markets, finance, people, and how housing and communities are created and maintained, and even what government can and cannot do. When it comes to average families wanting to live in single-family homes, Scott Wiener promotes cynical public policies that are controlling and essentially heartless.

Those of us who value a sense of community, and all that implies, are unquestionably the majority. It’s time to push back on insufferable legislation by narcissistic carpetbaggers like Wiener and his ilk. They poison our political dialogue and seek to dominate the conversation and press their personal agendas on everyone else, regardless of the consequences.

In Senator Wiener’s view, we are only offered a choice between equally unacceptable options, regarding growth and planning.

What is so pathetic about all this is that it is totally unnecessary to address our affordable housing challenges for those most in need. The kind of black and white thinking brought to bear is the death of creative problem-solving, and the tendency to argue by “sound bite” has become so normalized by social media that it leads to solutions based on nothing more than noise. Meanwhile, realistic opportunities to engage private capital for public benefit are being squandered by poorly conceived legislation.

There are better ways to address housing: ways that work within our existing socio-economic systems and institutions, and have a chance of producing actual results. For more about that please see:

Affordable housing solutions: more government, less government, or smart government?

And

"New Suburbanism 2.0" - A new way to look at planning, growth and the greening of our world

And

CASA's Housing Compact - How ideologically-driven policies will make housing less affordable

And

Opportunity Zones: Opportunities Wasted


Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.


[1] “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

[2] https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr-edge-frm-asst-sec-081318.html

[3] Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 32, Number 1—Winter 2018—Pages 31–58

[4] https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/96221/homeownership_and_the_american_dream_0.pdf