On the surface, California seems politically monolithic. But as its younger citizens come of age, and as they find themselves locked out of homeownership and economic opportunity, a revolt is brewing.
In January, Kerry Jackson, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, publised a searing Los Angeles Times op-ed on poverty in the Golden State. According to the latest U.S. Supplemental Poverty Measure, released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September, California has the country’s highest poverty rate — a distinction it wins by a wide margin. Compared to a national average poverty rate of just under 15 percent, California’s stands at over 20 percent.
Beneath that headline statistic are a number of even more disturbing facts. Despite being home to about one-twelfth of the U.S. population, for example, the state contains more than one-fifth of the country’s homeless. And even those who do have homes struggle: More than half of renters spend over 30 percent of their income on housing; a third spend more than 50 percent. All this comes after a five-year period during which California’s per capita GDP increased about twice as much as the national average.
These numbers hint at the real problem. As its population has expanded thanks in part to the tech boom, California hasn’t built enough housing, which has pushed up prices and pushed people who can’t afford them into poverty. As noted in a March article by Benjamin Schneider in CityLab, whereas a healthy city creates about two new jobs for every unit of housing, between 2010 and 2015, Los Angeles added 4.7, San Francisco added 6.8, and the Central Valley added 11.4. To put it even more starkly, over roughly the same period, California as a whole added “77,000 more households than housing units.”
All of this is a direct consequence of zoning policy, a battle over which is now dividing California’s liberals, as Gabriel Rossman noted last month. Thanks to a combination of NIMBYism, tough environmental regulations, and regulations against property-tax increases, it became next to impossible to build high-density housing. Los Angeles, for its part, went from being zoned for a population of 10 million people in 1960 to a population of 4.3 million in 2010. In reality, about 13 million people live there now.
What to do about the housing crisis is much contested. As Jackson observed in his January op-ed, “with a permanent majority in the state Senate and the Assembly, a prolonged dominance in the executive branch and a weak opposition, California Democrats have long been free to indulge blue-state ideology while paying little or no political price.” This means, Jackson notes, more environmental regulations, more land-use regulations, and huge outlays for anti-poverty programs — all of which have failed to address the underlying problem and have, in fact, exacerbated it.
But Democratic unity may not last for long. Not because Democrats will soon lose their majority, but because the Left is now divided, as Rossman limned in his article. First, there are the old-school NIMBYs, who are loath to see the value of their now incredibly expensive property diminish, and as Schneider argues, “their old-school environmentalist allies.” Then there is a newer breed of YIMBYs, such as state Senator Scott Wiener, who have pushed legislation that would dramatically overhaul the state’s zoning laws. One proposed bill, SB 827, would stop some jurisdictions from restricting housing density near mass transit and would increase height limits on buildings. (I’ll have more to say about SB 827 in a future post. Though I’m strongly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause, it must be said that the bill has many practical limitations, and is more a symbolic measure than anything else.)
So who will prevail, the NIMBYs or the YIMBYs? Ultimately, the victor will be determined by California’s youth. As of 2016, 49 percent of Californians under the age of 18 have at least one immigrant parent, and almost 60 percent of them are being raised in low-income households. Roughly a quarter of California’s second and one-and-a-half-generation kids are the children of unauthorized immigrants. Right now, the political beliefs of unauthorized immigrants can be safely ignored, and naturalized immigrants, in California as elsewhere in the country, tend to vote at lower levels than their native-born counterparts, so they, too, can be discounted. While California’s progressives often project their own convictions onto their immigrant neighbors, the truth is that their voices aren’t really reflected in the state’s politics, at least not yet. A decade from now, though, the children of these immigrants will start to assert themselves.
And if past experience is anything to go by, I doubt they’re going to be satisfied with a California in which a disempowered working class exists alongside a perfumed archipelago of ultra-rich enclaves. There is a widespread belief on the left that younger Californians will embrace the state’s political status quo, on the grounds that it is so enlightened and forward-looking, an idea that David French touched on last week. Color me unconvinced. This is not to suggest that California’s rising generation will embrace mainstream conservative politics as currently practiced by the state’s GOP rump — that strikes me as pretty unlikely, too. But I do believe there’s going to be an appetite for a unifying nationalism that speaks to second-generation Californians, and that conservatives would be wise to reflect on what it might look like.