California’s Housing Crisis is a Failure of California’s Democracy

May 06, 2021
Title page of the 1849 Constitution of California.

Here’s a puzzle: Since 2009, over 55 percent of San Franciscans have been renters, yet on that city’s 11 member Board of Supervisors, at least nine are homeowners. In Los Angeles, 63 percent of homes were occupied by renters in 2019 and yet every single member of the city council owns their own home. If renters so vastly outnumber homeowners in these cities, why do they never hold elected office?

This question goes beyond one of just descriptive representation. Understanding why renters are shut out of elected office in California goes a long way in explaining why California politicians continually dither as the state’s housing crisis grows worse and worse. California’s political institutions — as in the rest of the United States — have a strong bias towards both intensity and incumbency. More simply stated, voters who remain in a specific area for longer are more likely to see their preferences enacted as policy even if they’re a numeric minority. Far from The Schoolhouse Rock conceptualization of American government, the flaws in America’s democratic design beget a myriad of other policy failings not limited to housing. 

California’s current housing policy reflects the preferences of a minority of voters. A November 2020 poll of LA residents commissioned by the city found that 65% of residents thought opening single-family zoned neighborhoods to apartment buildings near jobs and mass transit should be a major priority for the city, and 46% of residents thought it should be a major priority to abolish single family zoning entirely. A 2019 Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 62% of Californians favored forcing local governments to end single-family zoning in jobs and transit rich neighborhoods. That same poll found that 61% of Californians thought governments who fail to do so ought to have state transportation funding withheld from them. 

If such clear majorities favor such large overhauls of state housing policy, why has California’s zoning and land use policy remained largely the same for decades? Political scientists have described a phenomenon known as “The Democratic Deficit” where public policy is incongruent with public opinion. Legislative bodies often fail to enact policies for which there is clear support from a majority of voters. Moreover, how responsive they are to public opinion is influenced by various design features that most people pay little attention to, such as whether being a legislator is a paid full-time job and whether or not legislators are term limited. 

A large part of this deficit is the inability of politicians to accurately assess the preferences of their constituents. To this end, who a politician hears from greatly affects what they think their constituents want. In the housing arena, ample work has been done showing that homeowners disproportionately participate in local government and politics. Economist William Fischel coined the term “homevoter” to describe such people. These voters are motivated to follow and participate in politics as the price of their most valuable and important asset — their home — is intimately tied to the decisions of state and local governments.

The solution might seem straightforward — just get more renters to the voting booth! — but unfortunately there are other barriers in place. For one, almost all legislative bodies in California from a city council to the state Senate function on what are known as single-member districts. In this arrangement, just one person represents a fixed area such as a council district, a supervisorial district, etc. Moreover, the boundaries of these districts change often and until recently, were redrawn by politicians themselves, (in many cities, this is still more or less the case.) As such, a candidate’s incentive is not to appeal to the broadest possible group of voters, but to the narrowest set of interests that will most reliably turn out in a given district. 

Imagine you’re a city council candidate in a city like Los Angeles. While 65% of Angelenos want to eliminate single-family zoning near job centers, one doesn’t run for office campaigning to all 2.2 million registered voters in that city. Rather, one runs in one of 15 council districts and here again, renters find themselves at a disadvantage. The average renter moves at a rate 4.3 times higher than the average homeowner. In California, homeowners comprise about 56 percent of households, but 93 percent of homeowners remained in the same residence as the previous year compared to 83 percent of renters. Moving has extremely negative effects on one’s voting propensity and that those who are residentially stable vote at far higher rates than movers. This makes intuitive sense — after a move, one needs to not only reregister to vote, but to learn which new districts one now resides in and which candidates are running for office. More than just needing to re-educate one’s self, residential instability deprives someone of friends and acquaintances that can not only educate them about politics, but that can encourage them to both vote and participate in politics. 

Meanwhile, the residential stability that comes with owning a home allows homeowners to become more active in politics and gives them time to form deep social ties with others that increase the power of their political activities through the formation of neighborhood groups and civic associations. Further, homeownership often comes with an interest group pre-bundled — a homeowner’s association. These groups have an organized leadership structure, a dues-paying membership and perhaps most importantly, a single unifying objective to guide their activism. Beyond just governing mundane issues like landscaping and garbage collections, some homeowners associations have become powerful players in both city and state politics

Given the higher voting propensity and political might of the homeowner minority, it’s no wonder there’s a link between single-member districts and depressed housing construction. The incentives for an elected official are as plain as day — threaten the asset appreciation that many homeowners view as their birthright and you’ll face an immediate organized backlash by a powerful constituency motivated by a single issue. But encourage new housing and you’re rewarding low-propensity voters who may not even live in your district come the next election and who may be motivated by other issues besides housing. Besides, new housing construction takes decades to become affordable when term-limits will prevent you from holding the same office anyhow. Expanding housing inventory is a necessary long-term path to greater affordability and new housing makes existing housing cheaper than it’d otherwise be, but politicians don’t think long-term; they think in four-year terms.

In many ways, the housing crisis mirrors the climate crisis. Solving both requires imposing immediate short-term costs for eventual long-term benefits. However, America’s political institutions are uniquely unsuited for such necessary transformative change compared to those of other democracies. Both America and California’s political institutions are built to preserve the status quo by offering numerous points along the legislative process where organized interest groups can block new policy. Thinker Francis Fukuyama calls this a vetocracy “whereby the American system of checks and balances makes collective decision-making based on electoral majorities extremely difficult.”

The causes of and solutions to California’s housing crisis are by now a matter of consensus among those who study the topic. But what California lacks is not an understanding of the issue, but a political system that can efficiently translate broadly-held issue preferences into effective policy. Instead, like national politicians who dither on our climate emergency, many elected officials in California are content to ignore the counsel of experts in favor of drivel produced by charlatans simply because mortgaging the future in service to a middling present is the path of least resistance.

What California requires is a radical flattening and broadening of our governing institutions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California had 539 city and county governments as of 2017. This patchwork of jurisdictions makes regional housing strategies difficult as a multitude of jurisdictions have absolute authority over all land within their city limits. Known as “local control,” this hyper-federalism means that in San Mateo County, 21 separate jurisdictions control just 449 square miles of land, meaning each jurisdiction on average controls an area of land about equivalent to half the size of neighboring San Francisco. Acting as if people live within the arbitrary boundaries of a city rather than within vast metropolitan areas where one wakes up in one city, works in another and perhaps grabs dinner in a third, is a fantasy that has dire consequences for government responsive to the needs of everyone in a region. As America painfully learned and continues to learn during the COVID19 pandemic, one cannot have a patchwork of policies for a problem that requires a unified response. In a similar vein, land use policy should be made at the state and regional level with a clear set of regulations that apply equally to everyone.

At the same time, local government must be made more responsive to not just wealthy incumbents, but to newcomers as well. This means collecting public input not from meetings held at inconvenient times for working people that go on for hours, but through scientific polling and other outreach methods where the demographics of the respondents can be proven to represent that of the entire city. Such “Deliberative Polling” has been shown by researchers to result in both better input for elected officials and better engagement by citizens.

Further, making local government more responsive to all Californians means even broader overhauls to the decision making process. For most cities, it means expanding the number of seats on the city council and allowing multiple members to represent a single district. Further, these council members should be elected via a system of proportional representation, such as the ranked-choice voting system first implemented by San Francisco in 2002 and later adopted by cities like Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro

Such an electoral system would break the stranglehold that a plurality of homeowners have on geographically fixed districts by making room for a second or third place finisher to also represent the district. These types of elections are also more conducive to the emergence of new parties, where a group of candidates all run under the banner of some shared policy or ideological platform. Such parties are essential for helping voters quickly identify candidates whose policy positions match their own and serve as effective cues for how to vote in races that often don’t receive much media attention. Rather than looking at your ballot and seeing a list of unfamiliar names, imagine being able to vote for a slate of Democratic Socialists, Environmentalists, Renters or, if we might be so bold, YIMBY candidates. Proportional representation also helps ensure local governments are more reflective of their community’s diversity. While California cities have been transitioning to district-based elections following the passage of the California Voting Rights Act, district-based elections only ensure ethnic diversity if a city’s level of residential segregation is high.  

Finally, city councils, planning commissions and other elected bodies must hold their elections to coincide with statewide Primary and General elections every even numbered year. Consolidating local elections with state and federal contests has been shown to boost voter turnout by between three and five percentage points in CaliforniaSB 415, which took effect in 2018, applied a voter turnout test for municipalities who still hold elections “off-cycle” but this legislation doesn’t go far enough. A number of cities in California, including Riverside, Compton, San Bernardino and Redondo Beach, still hold municipal elections in off-years and many others hold ballot initiative elections in off years as well. Such abnormal election timing has been shown to not only dampen participation, but also increase the power of interest groups

There’s a reason why the inflation-adjusted price of a home has increased by 131 percent since 1996 and yet California’s housing policy has changed little over the last 25 years. For many long time homeowners and landlords, this failed set of policies has translated into a tremendous financial windfall. These individuals have every incentive to see the status quo continue and unfortunately, California’s political institutions are designed to reward the wealthiest, loudest and most intense voices rather than the majority. 

For any politician looking to remain in office, the choice of who to reward under the present system is clear. A homeowner will likely vote in the next election while a renter might leave the district or even join the hundreds of thousands who have left the state in recent years. The reforms outlined above take bold steps in reducing the bias in both whom an elected official hears from and whose interests they need to consider if they wish to win an election. These steps are bold, but given the scale of the crisis, bold steps are necessary, for housing is just one of several areas where California’s democratic failings have profound consequences on people’s lives.