Let’s start, with some California statistics. They are easy to access on the internet. (Recommended sites: Public Policy Institute of California, University of California Berkeley Library Housing Statistics, and, yes, even Wikipedia’s many links.)
- Roughly 45% of us are renters and 55% of us are homeowners.
- Our median housing costs run about 47% higher than nationwide, the highest in the nation.
- California ranks 49th in the nation in housing units per resident.
- There are about 125,000 homeless in the Golden State.
- About 20.4% of our population lives in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the nation.
- More people are now leaving California than are moving here.
Now comes the “dismal science” of economics, as it’s been called. But it need not be dismal if we rightly understand its context. The science is there, of course, but it’s not free-standing. The platform of the American Solidarity Party goes to the heart of the matter.
The American Solidarity Party believes that political economy (economics) is a branch of political ethics, and therefore rejects models of economic behavior that undermine human dignity with greed and naked self-interest. We advocate for an economic system that focuses on creating a society of widespread ownership (sometimes referred to as “distributism”) rather than having the effect of degrading the human person as a cog in the machine.
It’s the models of greed and self-interest and their zero-sum games that make for a dismal science. In contrast, an economic democracy of community building and broad ownership, including homeownership, leads to the flourishing of the persons who share in it.
Decent shelter is a core human good. We know that California has the physical resources to realize this good. The housing crisis is a tragedy of our own making. There is, to be sure, no simple solution to resolving this tragedy. We can, however, take a close look at what we might call “the signs of the times.”
The current and lethal pandemic underscores our housing inequities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development recently thanked the new administration’s “actions to address urgent food and housing needs…during the COVID pandemic. The CDC’s eviction moratorium extension is a positive step towards ensuring housing stability and keeping our communities safe. Tens of millions are behind on rent payments and would be vulnerable to losing their homes without this protection.”
Even though there is no magic formula, and despite the ravages of the pandemic, there are some clear and recognized factors that we must underscore if we are to meet the housing crisis we face. Among them, we can list the following.
- State support in funding and tax credits are critical components in responding to our worsening housing shortage.
- In meeting our housing needs, we need to take into account environmental limits.
- In containing construction costs, we need to recognize reasonable labor costs.
- Our low-density requirements are compatible with prudent flexibility.
- Statewide goals and local participation in meeting them can work in tandem.
In reflecting on these characteristics, the role of the principle of subsidiarity takes on critical importance. What we do at the local level we should do there; what we can only do at a higher level, for example, at the level of the country or the state, we should be doing there. At the heart of the principle of subsidiarity is a truth about human nature: we most fully realize our potential in acting, and we can best act in harmony with others.
Subsidiarity in the political sphere begins with the family, the first social unit of any society. The family is the school of the virtues that enable us to live together in polity. The housing crisis, seen in this light, is a crisis for families who make living homes out of their houses. It is a crisis as well for any of us who would open our homes to others.
Here the principle of solidarity comes into play. The first measure of a just society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable. Again, the platform of the American Solidarity Party gives us direction. In working for political change, it affirms that “Funding and services should also be provided to encourage families to care for elderly and disabled family members at home without being impoverished by lost income. This should include preferential housing options, tax credits, and respite care.”
Over the past year, no one has been more at risk than the elderly and disabled who live in “care facilities.” Sometimes we have no feasible alternative other than to make use of such facilities, and the caregivers they employ who too often work at near minimum wage levels. But a “care facility,” even at its best, is not a home. When possible, it is far better to keep our homes and our lives open to our family members in special need. That we so often fail to do so is perhaps indicative of our tendency to confuse our homes with places of escape and, indeed, of consumer cocooning.
The antithesis of coming together to overcome the housing shortage is the kind of perverse “social isolating” that gives rise to what the sociologist Robert Bellah termed, in his seminal Habits of the Heart, the “lifestyle enclave” and the “gated community.” Even were there a world in which we could all find such places of refuge, there would still be a crisis of homebuilding. There would continue the splintering of families into evermore possessive individuals. Indeed, even in such an affluent dystopia we, too, one by one, would become sooner or later infirm or frail and elderly or gravely ill. What then would await us? The homelessness of a “facility.”
In our perilous times, of which the housing crisis is but one manifestation, it is only too easy to conjure up dystopias. Noting this, some of us come to imagine utopias and try to harness them to drive our politics. History shows us that doing so ends badly. What we need, instead, is common sense, common ground, and a commitment to the common good. When we have these we can revitalize our housing, make homes of our houses, and extend our homes to households that include both family and friends. In these households, we learn that to be fully human we need to appreciate that we all depend, in one way or another, on our fellow humans and, indeed, on the natural world around us.
A source of strength, as we move from the family into the larger society, is what we have often thought of as the “town” and now, in the time of the megalopolis, perhaps as the larger neighborhood. Indeed, the new movement Strong Towns offers one example of how we might think through the interchange between family and society. It values resilience over short-term efficiency and urges us to “start taking small, incremental steps and iterating based on what we learn” and to “start building [our world] based on how our places actually work and what our neighbors actually need today.”
So what about building new houses? The Strong Towns approach calls for many owners and many builders. It recommends integral and incremental growth rather than master plans and mega-financing. And it is an approach that understands that places have personalities and particularities that we must respect. None of us want it to be said of our hometown (or neighborhood) that, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, “there’s no ‘there, there.”
Who’s listening? For a start those of us who are growing the American Solidarity Party here in California.