Sunday, October 20, 2013

This is about our homes

"This fight against rising evictions is a struggle for the soul of San Francisco," explained the speaker, Supervisor David Campos. Others on the podium: Supervisor John Avalos, tenant Jeremy Mykaels and Supervisor Scott Weiner. Learn more here.

A few days ago, when I posted about the upcoming rally outside Jeremy Mykaels' residence, an anonymous commenter left this message:

Wow! Someone who profits from rent control (on a space they have NO ownership of) has the nerve to call out owners who want thier profit. What a hypocrite!

The thoughts behind that are worth thinking through.

Anonymous is apparently asserting the absolute primacy of ownership -- property rights -- over any other community values. This is a common libertarian stance -- and one I associate with privileged adolescent myopia. The notion that "it's mine and I should be able to do with it what I want" is superficially attractive. I was once attracted to it; probably the only piece of writing of which I'm ashamed from my 20s was a silly essay denouncing building codes as unfair impediments to people who couldn't afford to build up to standards.

I was wrong then and Anonymous is wrong now. We owe much of our well-being to the collective infrastructure, legal framework, and norms that enable us to enjoy security and prosperity. We most emphatically "didn't build that" and we hold ownership only because of social guarantees. Some of us got lucky in where we find ourselves. Sometimes we are free to use our luck for our own satisfaction. Sometimes society constrains us to make the community better for all. We live with enforced trade-offs between individual autonomy and collective security and we're mostly the better for it.

The libertarian perspective that I believe Anonymous is expressing treats housing as simply another commodity to be bought and sold. This meshes with our nation's stubborn individualism, itself a product of low population density and great natural resource wealth, especially in land. For much of our history, the people of this country could often just move on to the next opportunity. The libertarian perspective fits with this: buy a property, watch its value increase, sell it for a profit and you move up the ever rising ladder of success.

All of that is possible -- but housing is more for most of us. It is home. It is home embedded in a particular community. And home, where we make our lives and make community, is more than a commodity. It is a locus of values and human interconnectedness. It is about security and dailyness. It is both prosaic and the fundament of our enjoyment of living.

So property in homes is inherently a muddled and unsettling concept -- and that's even before we factor in thinking about community values. What if a city decides that it wants to ensure that a broad economic mix of people can afford to live in it, including those who may experience disadvantage on the success ladder: new immigrants getting established by way of long hours of work in low paid jobs, the disabled, people too old to work? Rent regulation gives a leg up to such groups; if we want our cities to have places for such people, we pretty much have to give them some help. And if we're saying we don't care about having diverse cities, aren't we both becoming rather boring and trying to erase the stubborn fact that our well-being needs the web of connections to thrive?

Now rent regulations aren't perfect. They can introduce unfairness and unjustified distortions in the allocation of goods. Californians know that is possible -- or should -- because we have used our democratic system to build some colossal regulatory inequities into our property tax system. In 1978, homeowners were genuinely being pushed by escalating local taxes, so we passed Prop. 13 which fixed low rates so long as people stayed in the homes they owned. Homes could only be reassessed when they changed ownership -- the low property tax rates set by Prop. 13 became an entitlement for people who stayed put, while their new neighbors who had just moved in might pay far more. That can feel terribly unfair to the newcomers -- is it?

Prop. 13 applied the same system to commercial property which changes ownership far less frequently than homes do. Result: big tax savings have been locked in for business land owners, regardless of how they've prospered since 1978.

Rent regulations, coupled with vacancy decontrol which means that landlords are freed to raise rents to what the market will bear when tenants move out, can build in some of the same inequities. People living close to each other may be paying quite different rates depending on when they moved in as rent control prevents huge increases.

In San Francisco, we have democratically decided in repeated elections that we think that this inequity is worth it. It preserves the ability of long time residents, elders, and working class people to stay in this (sometimes) boom town. We expect our elected officials to hold the line, to legally impede landlords who have an incentive to clear tenants out in order to raise rents. That's the rules that building owners get along with valuable housing properties in San Francisco. If they don't like the rules, they can go buy somewhere else. None of this is a secret.


Rain Trueax said...

There aren't easy answers to these questions and wherever there is growth or a desirable location, they get raised and not just by individual property owners but also local government who sometimes have used eminent domain to take low cost housing from the poorer to let the richer tear them down and build fancy housing or resorts-- with the goal of getting more taxes.

I've been reading a LOT of books on George Custer and the dynamics that led to the Little Big Horn with the conflict between the Indian side which didn't see individual property ownership as a reality (can you own the sky?) and the whites who very much saw it as their right to own and control land. In our culture the one view lost out but the questions raised keep being brought up again and again as to who should control property...

janinsanfran said...

Thanks for your comment Rain. I completely agree this is a hardy perennial discussion, as it must be. We argue it out, in elections sometimes, over and over it again.

In this post, I decided to put in the effort to spell out where I stand on the balance of rights these days -- having changed my mind at least once, I certainly affirm thinking these issues through.

Hattie said...

This is excellent and is making me think about property tax structures and how they affect home ownership and community diversity. In this state (Hawaii)property taxes for elders go down as we age, so our property tax now on our primary residence is very (one might almost say, ridiculously) low. But many of our neighbors count on these low taxes.
My mother also said that although she was against Prop. 13 she could not have stayed in her home if her taxes had not gone down. Whether that was a wise decision in her case is another matter and off topic.
Very thought provoking post. Thanks.

theroadtohellispavedwithgoodintentions said...

These are very valid arguments. Maintaining people in their homes is a laudable goal.

But one could also argue that this should be the work of our local government, and that said government should have a coherent and sufficient affordable housing policy.

With current rent control laws and all subsequent legislation created to defend these laws against attacks from the private sector, our local government is standing on the shoulder of private individuals (landlords) to provide affordable housing.

This is not how government should manage its affordable housing policies. If SF wants to provide affordable housing it should be a shared effort according to the basic principles of social balancing through redistribution of wealth.

Taxpayers should be asked to pay for the subsidy of tenants who cannot pay market rate. And it should be means-tested.

Of course the bill would be enormous. today, roughly 1/2 the housing stock is rent-controlled units. Assuming each unit is rented in the range of roughly $1000 under fair market value on average, this means north of $1B/year in rent subsidy.

No taxpayer will ever vote himself such a tax hike. Therefore they are asking private owners to foot the bill. It is the easy way out and very cowardly, imho.

Tiago said...

This liberal idea of ownership is misunderstood for most of people. The worst part is that sometimes when this issue is discussed it looks like if you believe in the social responsability of owners you may be accused to be a communist or worst. I was living in a rent apartment in buenos aires in 2001 when they had an enormous crisis, then I realized that sometimes is during crisis when it shows the limits and the importance of some liberal ideals. When the right of property of someone crush with the right of having a dignify home of others.

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