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When Will Unions Fight to Lower the Cost of Living?

A report issued earlier this year from California’s Office of Legislative Analyst “California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences,” cites the following statistics:  “Today, an average California home costs $440,000, about two–and–a–half times the average national home price ($180,000). Also, California’s average monthly rent is about $1,240, 50 percent higher than the rest of the country ($840 per month).”

It’s actually much worse than that. Anyone living on California’s urbanized coast, from Marin County to San Diego, has to laugh at the idea that a modest home can be found for anywhere close to $440,000, or a decent rental can be found for anywhere close to $1,240 per month. In most urban areas within 50 miles of the California coast, finding a home or a monthly rental at twice those amounts would be considered a bargain.

These prohibitive costs for housing are mirrored in California’s unusually high costs for electricity, gasoline, water, and, of course, California’s unusually high taxes. The cost of living in California is one of the highest in the nation – along the coast, it’s probably the highest in the nation. For this reason, it’s completely understandable that California’s state and local government unions perpetually agitate for higher pay and benefits for their members. But they’re leaving everyone else behind.

The problem with the oft-repeated mantra “teachers, nurses, police and firefighters need to be able to live in the communities they serve” ought to be obvious. Nobody can afford to live in these communities, unless they’re either very wealthy, or they’re early arrivals whose mortgages are paid off and whose children have graduated from college. Otherwise, if they live on the California coast in a decent home, they’re in debt to their eyeballs.

20151027-UW-SJhomes
These homes with 2,000 square foot interiors and no yard, located in a
remote suburb of San Jose, California, are selling for over $1.0 million each.

This is a failure of policy, and the worst possible response is to exempt public sector workers – the most powerful voting bloc in California – from the consequences of these policies. Because the most enlightened public policies that union leadership might advocate – all unions, public and private – are not to raise pay and benefits for their members, but to lower the cost of living for everyone. And the way to lower the cost of living for everyone is to permit competitive development of land, energy, water and mineral resources.

Along with permitting private interests to compete, California needs to change how public money is invested. California’s biggest infrastructure project in decades is the high speed rail project, which was originally sold to voters as costing $9.5 billion. According to a 10/24/2015 report in the Los Angeles Times, here are the latest projections:

“After cost projections for the train rose to $98 billion in 2011, vociferous public and political outcry forced rail officials to reassess. They cut the budget to $68 billion by eliminating high-speed service between Los Angeles and Anaheim and between San Jose and San Francisco.”

The LA Times report goes on to describe how High Speed Rail is again over-budget. If it’s ever built, it’s likely to cost approximately $100 billion. Using an online mortgage calculator, you will see that a 5.0%, 30 year fully amortized $100 billion loan will require total payments per year from taxpayers of $6.4 billion. That’s over $1,000 per year from each of California’s taxpaying households. Don’t count on ridership revenue to help pay capital costs – it is highly unlikely ridership will even cover operating costs.

The opportunity here, however, is that California’s high speed rail project may never be built. Because one of the conditions of the project is attracting a percentage of matching funds from private investors, and these commitments are not pouring in. Unions who are currently fighting for high speed rail will need to find new projects to support. Regardless of what you may think about unions, as long as they have the political clout they’ve got, their support for new projects could be good, if they modify their criteria.

California’s unions need to support competitive resource development and they need to advocate public/private investment in revenue producing civil infrastructure that passes an honest cost/benefit analysis. These policies would not only lower the cost of living, they would create millions of jobs. The problem with high speed rail isn’t that it doesn’t create jobs, the problem is it destroys more jobs than it creates. High speed rail would be a parasitic economic asset dependent on taxes and subsidies to exist, while not even making a dent in California’s overall transportation challenges.

Unions in California need to return to the core ideals of the labor movement, which is to care about ALL working families. And if they care about those ideals, they will make hard political choices. They will take on California’s super-sized environmentalist lobby, along with their powerful friends, trial lawyers and crony green capitalists. They will challenge the biased studies that claim California cannot solve its land, energy, water and transportation challenges without what is essentially rationing. They will recognize that policies that create artificial scarcity only empower the rich and the privileged. They will participate in a new dialogue aimed at identifying measured and decisive ways to unlock California’s abundant resources; aimed at identifying infrastructure projects that are financially viable enough to attract private investment. They will get out of their comfort zone, confronting old allies, and finding new friends.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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An Economic Win-Win For California – Lower the Cost of Living

A frequent and entirely valid point made by representatives of public sector unions is that their membership, government workers, need to be able to afford to live in the cities and communities they serve. The problem with that argument, however, is that nobody can afford to live in these cities and communities, especially in California.

There are a lot of reasons for California’s high cost of living, but the most crippling by far is the price of housing. Historically, and still today in markets where land development is relatively unconstrained, the median home price is about four times the median household income. In Northern California’s Santa Clara County, the median home price in October 2014 was $699,750, eight times the median household income of $88,215. Even people earning twice the median household income in Santa Clara County will have a very hard time ever paying off a home that costs this much. And if they lose their job, they lose their home. But is land scarce in California?

The answer to this question, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is almost indisputably no. As documented in an earlier post, “California’s Green Bantustans,” “According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land. Think about this. You could put 10 million new residents into homes, four per household, on half-acre lots, and you would only consume 1,953 square miles. If you built those homes on the best prime agricultural land California’s got, you would only use up 14% of it. If you scattered those homes among all of California’s farmland and grazing land – which is far more likely – you would only use up 3% of it. Three percent loss of agricultural land, to allow ten million people to live on half-acre lots.”

So why is it nearly impossible to develop land in California? The answer to this is found in the nexus between financial special interests, who benefit from asset bubbles, and powerful environmentalist organizations who apparently view human settlements as undesirable blights that should be minimized. In the San Francisco Bay Area, to offer a particularly vivid example, the Santa Cruz mountains are being targeted to be cleansed of human habitation. Instead of creating wildlife corridors, they are eliminating human corridors. Is this really necessary?

Human Cleansing – The Evacuation Plan for the Santa Cruz Mountains

20141203_RingDo you want to live in the mountains?
Forget it. Only billionaires and non-humans allowed.

If you are familiar with the San Francisco peninsula, you will see that the area proposed for the “Great Park of the Santa Cruz Mountains” encompasses nearly the entire mountain range. A coalition of environmentalist organizations and government agencies are proposing to create a park of 138,000 acres, that’s 215 square miles, in an area that ought to make room for weekend cabins, mountain dwellers, and vacation communities. Why, in a region where homes cost so much, is so much land being barred to human settlement? The pristine stands of redwoods in Big Basin and Henry Cowell State Park were preserved a century ago. There is nothing wrong with preserving more land around these parks. But do they have to take it all?

This is far from an isolated example. Urban areas in California, primarily Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, have been surrounded by “open space preserves” where future development is prohibited and current residents are harassed. Ask the embattled residents of Stevens Canyon in the hills west of the Silicon Valley, if there are any of them left. Once you’re in a “planning area,” watch out. Backed by bonds sold to naive voters, endowments bestowed by billionaires, and the power of state and federal laws that make living on any property at all increasingly difficult, the relentless land acquisition machine continues to gather momentum. Anyone who thinks there isn’t a connection between setting aside thousands of square miles in California for “habitat” and the price of a home on a lot big enough to accommodate a swing set for the kids needs to have their head examined.

It doesn’t end with open space that is actually purchased, cleansed of humanity, and turned into government ran preserves for plants and wildlife, however. Acquiring permits to build on any land is nearly impossible in California. Land developers who fight year round to try to build housing for people shake their heads in disbelief at the myriad requirements from countless state, federal and local agencies that make the permit process take not months or years, but decades. And it isn’t just farmland, or wetland, or special riparian habitats where development is blocked. It’s everywhere. Even semi-arid rangeland is off limits for housing unless you are prepared to spend millions, fight for decades, and have the staying power to pursue multiple expensive projects simultaneously since many will never, ever get approved.

What is the result? Here is an aerial photo of a subdivision in the Sacramento area, one that every hedge fund billionaire turned environmentalist in California – especially one who runs cattle on his own special 1,800 acre fiefdom in the Santa Cruz mountains on a property that just happens to be in a “non-targeted area” – might consider living in for the rest of his life in order to understand the human consequences of his ideals – cramped homes on 40’x80′ lots, at a going price in October 2014 of $250,000. Notwithstanding being condemned to a claustrophobic existence at a level of congestion that would drive rats in a cage to madness, $250,000 is a pittance for a billionaire. But for an ordinary worker, $250,000 is a life sentence of mortgage servitude. And even this, the single family dwelling, is under attack by “smart growth” environmentalists and public bureaucrats who prefer density to having to divert payroll and benefits to finance infrastructure. The excess! The waste! Stack them and pack them and let them ride trains!

Priced to Sell at $250,000 – Housing for Humans on 40’x80′ Lots

201402_Sacramento-500pxNo mountain air, ocean breezes, or open space for the little people.
Buy a permit, get in line, visit for a day, but then come home to this.

When public employee union leadership talk about the importance of paying their members a “middle class” package of pay and benefits, they’re right. Government workers should enjoy a middle class lifestyle. But they need to understand that the asset bubbles caused by high prices for housing are not only making it necessary to pay them more, but are also creating the inflated property tax revenue that they rely on for much of their compensation. They need to understand that the phony economic growth caused by everyone borrowing against their inflated home equity is what creates the stock market appreciation that their pension funds rely on to remain solvent. And they need to understand that all of this is a bubble, kept intact by crippling, misanthropic land use restrictions that hurt all working people.

There is another path. That is for public employee union leadership to recognize that everyone deserves a chance at a middle class lifestyle. And the way to do that is not to advocate higher pay and benefits to public employees, but to advocate a lower cost of living, starting with housing. One may argue endlessly about how to regulate or deregulate water and energy production, essentials of life that also have artificially inflated costs. But as long as suburban homes consume less water than Walnut orchards – and they do, much less – build more homes to drive their prices way, way down. There’s plenty of land.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

How to Create Affordable Abundance in California, July 1, 2014

California’s Green Bantustans, May 21, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2014

Pension Funds and the “Asset” Economy, February 18, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Joel Kotkin, January 4, 2014

Bipartisan Solutions for California, October 27, 2013

How Should Technological Advances Affect the Role of Government?, September 16, 2013

Preserving America’s Middle Class, June 24, 2013