Thursday, March 09, 2006

Suburban Snub: Workers Don't Deserve To Live Here

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Several new land use bills have been introduced in the California Legislature, some of which deal with NIMBYism, including this one: SB 1802 — an effort to limit a community's ability to turn down proposals to construct farm worker housing.

Bills like this are very important to people who can't afford housing as a result of the current run up in both housing rental and purchase prices perpetuated by the housing bubble. However, some of these bills also appear to thwart efforts to provide housing for all, particularly in some of the state's more affluent communities.

Consider AB 2572, which is described this way by the California Housing Law Project:
AB 2572 "allows student dormitories to count as a housing unit for purposes of meeting housing element requirements. This is probably the 10th time in 25 years the cities have sought to weaken housing element law in this way. Under federal and state law prisons, student dorms, nursing homes and hospitals are considered 'group quarters' not housing units."
Proposals like this are prime examples of the kind of deceptive tactics some communities will undertake to undercut laws intended to encourage the construction of housing for those who are the backbone of our communities — the service workers.

State law says every community in the state bears the responsibility to ensure they have a mix of housing for all economic segments — that includes the cops and teachers on up to the corporate executives. State law even provides a complex formula to determine a community's fair share of housing. Every city has to do a Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) and comply with "housing element law," as mentioned in the quote above.

So why is it that so few of us who work in the suburbs of Los Angeles can afford housing in those same suburbs?

It's because despite language in state laws intended to keep communities from constraining development, all kinds of shady things get done in the name of "protecting the quality of life." These cities look for ways around the law, such as by counting dorm rooms as residential units (nevermind that no one occupies a dorm room for more than 9 months at a time). In some cases, local officials also draft unrealistic requirements into ordinances, knowing full well that the hoops they're setting up are too costly for developers to jump through. And elected officials pass these local rules knowing that no developer looking to make a profit will bother to even apply.

The result is what we have today — affluent suburban communities that price their service workers out, forcing them to commute great distances, dumping them on the freeways, snarling traffic, contributing to pollution, and depleting the quality of life for those of us on the other side of "their" hill.

This is as much a part of the housing bubble as anything. It is part of the greed that has pumped up the bubble, and the time has come to reverse the trend.

Call it what you like, but the noble effort that began in the name of fighting "suburban sprawl" has been corrupted into the great "suburban snub." Label the land-protection ordinances however you will — open-space protections, slow-growth laws, etc... — despite their well-intentioned purposes, these efforts have put environmentalists and elitists in bed together and turned their message into code for "Keep Out the Riff Raff." That's us, the middle and lower economic classes. It's teachers and cops and firefighters as surely as it is waitresses and office workers and journalists.

Why is it that affluent suburban cities should bear no responsibility for their own service workers? Why should they be allowed to continue pushing the burden off on other communities? Aren't they the source of the traffic and contributors to the crime that they claim to be walling out?

Service workers who do not live in the communities in which they work have no investment in the so-called "quality of life." In fact, some of them grow to resent the city in which they work. LA's suburban leaders must ask themselves how long they can expect to maintain desirability as the last of their middle class workers get priced out of the local housing market.

It is lunacy to think that a worker is going to stay late and work off the clock to be sure something gets done out of a sense of obligation, and yet, this is the kind of effort necessary to build desirable communities. I'm talking about the tasks that go above and beyond, things like giving a student the extra hour necessary to help her see the solution to an algebra equation. I'm referring to the instances in which a cop sees someone who needs an extra push of encouragement to get their life back on track, instead of slipping down the easy slope of drug addiction. These aren't acts that are mandated by policy, but they are the types of things that are done by people who care about the places in which they live. They are the things that make communities great. But, those who believe a government paycheck alone inspires such a sense of pride and obligation have clearly never worked for one.

Service workers don't get merit pay increases. They get passed over in hard budget years regardless of how hard they worked. State, city and school workers get budgets balanced on their backs. And yet, they're supposed to care about the city that doesn't care about them?

Imagine what goes through their mind when they're sitting in traffic on that 85-minute commute from an apartment in the Valley.

The bottom line is this — People have to have a personal stake in a place to care about it. To have a stake is to own a home. And if the leaders of LA's suburban communities don't figure that out, then they're truly doomed.

— The Boy in the Big Housing Bubble