Housing in California & Its Cities

Not only does California lack affordable housing, it also leads the nation in poverty, according to recent Census Bureau data. A full quarter of all homeless people in the nation are estimated to reside in California (more than half of whom reside in Los Angeles County). While homelessness is dropping nationwide, not here.

When it comes to looking at this huge and complex issue, I think it’s imperative we consider the local level and also on the state, and even regional, level as well—the microcosm and the macrocosm, if you will.

Los Angeles County, for example, with a population of more than 10 million faces different problems than, for example, Santa Barbara, just 95 miles to the north-west. Or, for that matter, Bakersfield, which is just more than 100 miles north. The housing crisis, in terms of pure numbers, is most structurally apparent in Los Angeles County, which also leads the nation in terms of poverty and homelessness. But wealth and poverty are, on some level, relative: A teacher working in Santa Barbara likely can’t afford to live there (median house price, according to Zillow: just north of $1.1 million, having risen more than 11% just this year). So its easier to be poor in Santa Barbara, even with a good job, than in Los Angeles. My neighbor, who works in Santa Barbara, spends about an hour every morning, along with all the others, making her way there from the more affordable hamlet of San Buenaventura. In the time it might take to drive from downtown Los Angeles to Bakersfield, she traverses a mere 25 miles.

The state’s population, according to the Census Bureau, has grown modestly in recent years. And I, wrongly, presumed the growth in population would be in places with booming industries, such as San Diego and San Francisco. In fact, the fastest areas for population increase are Placer, San Joaquin, and Merced counties. According to this study, the reason is simple: That’s where the cheap houses are. The median income for a resident of San Joaquin County is just $22,000 annually. You can’t buy a house in San Diego or San Francisco on that. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Merced and Placer counties are adjacent to the impossibly expensive Bay Area. You can work in their shadows—or even in their bellies, with sufficient patience for the commute each way—and still make a living and own a house: The so-called American Dream.

On some level, I don’t think we can or even should ‘solve’ the crisis of affordable housing. I know that might sound cruel, but housing ultimately is not a right, at least not yet in the United States. (This is not to say that it shouldn’t be.) To what other commodity pricing do we say, on a governmental policy level, “That should be cheaper”? Farm subsidies, perhaps. Water. Healthcare, to some extent, and we dabble with higher education. But most other commodities are left to the market to sort out. Nobody says, for example, “Cars are too expensive. Nobody can afford them. We need to increase production of cars so that they are cheaper.” And yet with housing, this is the argument. It’s a moral argument, not an economic one. That is, if you oppose creation of “affordable housing” you are, I suppose, cruel. You are against the housing of people. You are pro-homelessness or at least you are siding with the capitalists who suck every penny possible from poor people trying to put roofs over their heads. And yet, never once in my life have I met a poor developer. I’ve met failed developers, but never a poor one. (Never met a poor libertarian either, for what it’s worth.)

I am troubled by economics dressed up in morality plays. Some people get rich off of housing scarcity (i.e., landlords, realtors, homeowners, banks) and some people make their money building and selling new housing stock (i.e., tradesmen, realtors, developers, banks, materials suppliers).

Houses are expensive because money is cheap. The average American household that uses credit cards owes $15,482. That totals nationally to $927 billion dollars owed. As shocking as that might be, compared to mortgage debt it’s drop in the bucket. There’s an outstanding $9 trillion in mortgage debt nationally!

In Alex Marshall’s The Master Hand, he says, convincingly, that government creates markets. Government created this debt, which in turn exacerbates this problem. It wasn’t malicious. America is predicated on the aforementioned American Dream. George W. Bush touted an “ownership society”: The idea being that the more people own housing, the more they are invested in their communities. Couple that noble intention—and policies to back it up—with cheap credit, and what do you get? Ten years ago the Case-Schiller Index marked the greatest decline in housing pricing in history. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Alan “The Maestro” Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, had said just such a thing was impossible. He was wrong. Millions of Americans suffered poignantly. Immeasurably. They lost everything.

Meanwhile, Greenspan was embarrassed.

Just in our backyard here in Ventura, there are huge new housing developments slated to be built in Los Angeles County: the so-called Centennial Project at Tejon Ranch (nearly 20,000 houses) and the Newhall Ranch development (nearly 22,000 houses). Both developments are well outside the City of Los Angeles, the largest urban hub in their satellite and a likely place for resident employment and services. Will they alleviate the homeless epidemic in that city? I don’t hold my breath. And I don’t think even 42,000 new homes will drive down home prices much in a state with a population approaching 40 million.

Again, housing is just one issue tied into many. What good is owning a house when you don’t have water or face regular food security? The question becomes, home ownership at what cost?

The biggest challenge with global climate change and aging infrastructure will be securing water deliveries to existing cities as well as new developments. We already see farmers in the Central Valley routinely fallowing croplands to deliver water to cities like Antelope Valley. Water delivery allotments fluctuate hugely depending on reservoir levels and snowpack. Plus, much of the State Water Project lies along the San Andreas Fault. An earthquake could easily disrupt delivery to Southern California, where 22 million of the state’s total population of 36 million resides. In his seminal piece in California Sunday Magazine, A Kingdom from Dust, journalist Mark Arax shows how Central Valley ‘farmers’ are already preparing to sell water—stored groundwater, and state and federal allocations—rather than agricultural products, despite protesting to the contrary.

Where will the food come from and what will happen to the cities and populations of California’s struggling central corridor? What about national security when we no longer control our own food supply? And, to Marshall’s point, how is government policy encouraging this huge shift to happen?

I have throughout my life struggled to find housing I could afford. Having recently received a Social Security statement, I can tell you that I earned $16,000 in 2003 while living in San Francisco (building houses in Marin County, by the way). I’ll add this: I lived there not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I lived frugally, in a less desirable neighborhood, with roommates, and had the time of my life. I also worked to earn more (also reflected on the Social Security statement). Living in San Francisco isn’t a civil right, even if you grew up there. Neither is having a family. Or home ownership. The people I know who remain in San Francisco who aren’t hugely wealthy tend to have no children or have them later, and they get by with less. They move to places like Oakland and Contra Costa County. That’s the cost they are willingly paying. They might complain about it, but who doesn’t complain now and then? And let’s be honest about this: If you’ve owned a house in California for more than a decade, you’ve made good money on that investment. My mother, a single school teacher with two kids, bought a foreclosure in 1982 that’s now worth a chunk of change. There are many like her, and many more who wish to be.

More housing isn’t going to solve homelessness or the opioid epidemic (71,000 Americans dead last year as a result of drugs and alcohol) or bridge the deep tribal divides in this country. Yes, here in California building new houses is a pain. (I, like my father, have worked in construction here). It takes time and money like no other state. But people keep doing it. Why? Because, again, money is cheap. Debt is rampant. People keep buying. The hype machine keeps rolling. This is by design. I don’t have sufficient background in economics to understand how to incentivize a more humane system. But as Marshall noted, Adam Smith said that if the market is the invisible hand then government is its invisible arm. People in power, like Diane Feinstein, are married to people like Richard C. Blum, who has made billions under this arrangement.

Remember that Edmond Brown’s State Water Project is the reason Southern California exists, to “correct an accident of people and geography.” As he said, Whatever it costs you have to pay it. … If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.”

The future is unwritten. Maybe a plague will ravage our populations. Or an earthquake will knock out our water supply. I don’t know. I remain skeptical about the sudden arrival of the Messiah (and also Elon Musk). I do think that we should concentrate humanity in cities to diminish sprawl. Furthermore, we should make Los Angeles County its own state, thus wiping so much human misery off our ledgers and balancing our coffers with regular water deliveries.


Ventura Water’s New Director

Last year I wrote about how Lake Casitas was at its lowest level ever, at just 35% of capacity. (You can read that here.) Then we got good rain. Nearly six inches in a single day in Ventura and my roof began to leak and I was actually kind of OK with it because it had been so dry for so long. The trouble was, despite the deluge, it was quick and fierce and it did nothing to depress long-term demand in the region. Quite the opposite, it would turn out. Whereas the drought that persisted through 2015 had elicited frank, difficult discussions about how we allocate water and what we want our community to look like in the future, the drought doesn’t come up much anymore. Construction continues and lawns are lush. This despite the fact that Ventura County never really came out of a drought, according to USGS’ Drought Monitor project. The El Nino raindrops lulled us to sleep, it seems. And now Lake Casitas is back down in the 36 percentile, nearly as low as its lowest low ever, just one year later. Mandatory water cut-backs remain in place, though many of us seem to not know the difference anymore.

Some interesting water developments over this year.

  • Shana Epstein, general manager for Ventura Water, resigned. This was made public at a March 22, 2017, meeting convened by District 1 Supervisor Steve Bennett. Epstein, who kept a Beverly Hills street sign with her name on it in her Ventura office left for–Beverly Hills. (Epstein never actually lived in Ventura, for what it’s worth.)
  • Meanwhile it was announced around the same time that the City of Ventura, for the first time in its history, would begin work on a permanent connection to the State Water Project via Calleguas Water District. In return, Calleguas would be able to “bank” water in Ventura’s aquifers and in Lake Casitas in case they ever run out. For it’s part, the City of Ventura will take less water from Casitas, in hopes that the lake might recover faster.
  • And Lake Casitas took over control of water delivery for the City of Ojai–at a tune of $34.4 million dollars. This was based on a feasibility study from 2011! I wonder what the authors of that study would think about the price tag and how that might affect feasibility? Or persistent, historic drought?

All of this was made public in the same week or so last March. A lot to digest. I don’t mean to disparage any of the people who work for the agencies above. I like Shana Epstein, thought she did a really good job here, and wish her the best. What concerns me is the lack of historical knowledge and vision within the system. For example, the interim general manager squeezed through approval for a 200-unit housing development by citing two-year rain averages. If he had looked out three, five, or ten years, according the VC Star, the project might not have been deemed sustainable. And now he’s gone! On Sept. 5, 2017, the City of Ventura announced that Kevin Brown, a Naval Engineer from Washington, D.C., will be at the helm.

There is now surface water running at the mouth of the Ventura River. That’s good news. But what about 50 years from now? What does it all look like then and does that vision reflect the values of our community? To that end, I wish Mr. Brown, and us, luck.


On Connecting to State Water …

I have a new piece out in the V.C. Reporter about Ventura County and proposed plans to connect to state water. This is a big deal. All prehistoric Chumash settlements in the region correspond with annual water flow. Junipero Serra consecrated his ninth and final mission here on Easter Sunday, 1782, and then the mission went about building a 7.5-mile aqueduct to secure water from San Antonio Creek and the Ventura River and send it out to fields and cisterns. Water has always been an essential, but local, issue.

Until now.

What are the possible benefits? Who is benefiting and at whose expense? What are the costs? Missed opportunities? 

I don’t answer or even ask all of these questions in the piece, but they are on my mind. Read more here.  

Water in Ventura

Lake Casitas at 35% capacity.

I’m excited and pleased to have a feature in the winter issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly about water in Ventura. Read it here. It’s a great magazine and I look forward to future issues.

I couldn’t have done it with out the expert editing and support of Todd Oppenheimer. Duane L. Georgeson is probably the leading expert on the California State Water Project and was an immensely important influence and source and now a friend. Ben Pitterle of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper isn’t just knowledgeable on topics like local aquifers and tributaries, he’s also the kind of person to get in there and experience the mischief and mystery of these things (great stories). Mike Kiparsky of the U.C. Berkeley Wheeler Institute is the leading expert on the critical nexus of ecology and law when it comes to the State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). He’s also one of those rare experts who is generous with his time and wisdom. Finally, none of this would have happened with out the outsized generosity and openness of my cowboy friend Roger Haley. His family is heading into its second century on this land and it’s a proud legacy of stewardship and tradition and they will do well.

Water is a workhorse of a word. We perhaps demand too much of it. When I began on the project, an affable and stylish man of about 50 asked me what I was working on. “Water in Ventura,” I said.

“Oh, you mean all the brain cancer from it? Good luck with that. I only drink the bottled stuff myself.”

When it abounds, we scrutinize its quality. When it’s scarce, we scrutinize each other. When it falls from the sky it’s rain. When it falls from a cold sky it’s sleet or snow or hail. Where it flows fresh we call it a river or creek or stream or tributary. As that drys and cracks we call it mud. To the water manager it’s a commodity and public relations risk (keep it cheap). To the consumer its mostly an afterthought (ranked slightly before cable television). To some it’s sacred. There is no life without it, which is everywhere and nowhere at once.

(I almost wish the title of the piece had been ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Water.’)

Here in Ventura we have an opportunity to see it for what it is, because we are so close to our water. We are bound by two rivers, the Ventura and the Santa Clara, and an ocean, the Pacific. On that fourth dimension there are mountains–and creeks and rivers and meadows–and that is our rain catcher-maker. Unlike Santa Barbara, to the north, and Los Angeles, to the south, all our water is local. As Shana Epstein, manager at Ventura Water, told me, “They pray for snow in the Sierra Nevada. We pray for rain in the Los Padres.”

But how many people in Los Angeles actually pray for snow in the Sierra or Rockies?

And in this time of perceived crisis, we are deliberating about our water in Ventura. It’s transmogrifying from that category of cheap commodity to something more essential. Our priorities are reflecting the preciousness of this thing we call water, which really is our essence. And we are praying for rain.

How It Started & Ended (& Continues)

Years ago I had the opportunity trek through Baja with Donnie Albright, who has been a favorite person of mine: thick glasses, quick smiles, lots of stories about the sorts of things that capture my imagination–geography, geology, local Indians, Baja, the Sierra Nevada, impossible treks and distances … Donnie’s been approached by several publishers to write books about Baja, a place he’s been traveling to since the late 1940s (he declines, he says, because he wouldn’t want to keep them updated). He led tours there on behalf of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

So I went.

But I didn’t just go for Baja and to profit from Donnie’s hard-earned experience there. I had ulterior motives, as they say.

We had, my brother and cousins and I, grown up with a vague sense of a grim story. The name Bays Locker was the story: he had died. Donnie, as a teenager, had recovered the body. Bays was revered–by my father and uncle and by my grandfather, who had been Scout Master of Troop 36 in Pacific Beach, Calif., and then district commissioner of Boy Scouts for the region. My uncle and grandfather attended Bays’ funeral. My father fought to go, but was deemed too young at 12 years old. I wanted to hear from Donnie what really happened.

Me, Uncle Bob, and Donnie eating lunch in a converted house in downtown Santa Rosalia. Photo Dennis Coates

Over the course of our trip down the peninsula the story unfolded like the Arabian Nights, around campfires and desert wilderness. When we got back to the United States at the end of the week, I immediately wrote down what Donnie had told me: about how he and Bays and two other boys were hell-bent on first ascents and had ventured up the rugged Black Divided of the Sierra Nevada in July of 1952 to get their share. Bays fell from a rock. Died. Three boys, ages 13, 15, and 17, were left to pick up the pieces.

But the story, like any story I suppose, got complicated quickly. Strange coincidences. I had 25,000 words and no real theme! Years passed. New characters emerged. Others passed away. I chipped at it, spending time in libraries and archives and in the Sierras and on the phone … Spending time in my head trying to imagine that world: Post-war San Diego, a city growing at a breakneck pace in a time obsessed with progress: freeways, rockets to the moon, Mt. Everest, the “memex” machine, and a Baby Boom.

It’s finally done and due in June. I only hope I have done the story justice.