Review: Golden Gates, by Conor Dougherty
eagle at eyrie.org
Sat May 9 21:26:21 PDT 2020
by Conor Dougherty
This review, for reasons that will hopefully become clear later, starts
with a personal digression.
I have been interested in political theory my entire life. That sounds
like something admirable, or at least neutral. It's not. "Interested"
means that I have opinions that are generally stronger than my depth of
knowledge warrants. "Interested" means that I like thinking about and
casting judgment on how politics should be done without doing the work
of politics myself. And "political theory" is different than politics
in important ways, not the least of which is that political actions
have rarely been a direct danger to me or my family. I have the luxury
of arguing about politics as a theory.
In short, I'm at high risk of being one of those people who has an
opinion about everything and shares it on Twitter.
I'm still in the process (to be honest, near the beginning of the
process) of making something useful out of that interest. I've had some
success when I become enough a part of a community that I can do some
of the political work, understand the arguments at a level deeper than
theory, and have to deal with the consequences of my own opinions. But
those communities have been on-line and relatively low stakes. For the
big political problems, the ones that involve governments and taxes and
laws, those that decide who gets medical treatment and income support
and who doesn't, to ever improve, more people like me need to learn
enough about the practical details that we can do the real work of
fixing them, rather than only making our native (and generally
privileged) communities better for ourselves.
I haven't found my path helping with that work yet. But I do have a
concrete, challenging, local political question that makes me coldly
furious: housing policy. Hence this book.
Golden Gates is about housing policy in the notoriously underbuilt and
therefore incredibly expensive San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I
wanted to deepen that emotional reaction to the failures of housing
policy with facts and analysis. Golden Gates does provide some of that.
But this also turns out to be a book about the translation of political
theory into practice, about the messiness and conflict that results,
and about the difficult process of measuring success. It's also a book
about how substantial agreement on the basics of necessary political
change can still founder on the shoals of prioritization, tribalism,
and people who are interested in political theory.
In short, it's a book about the difficulty of changing the world
instead of arguing about how to change it.
This is not a direct analysis of housing policy, although Dougherty
provides the basics as background. Rather, it's the story of the
political fight over housing told primarily through two lenses: Sonja
Trauss, founder of BARF (the Bay Area Renters' Federation); and a
Redwood City apartment complex, the people who fought its rent
increases, and the nun who eventually purchased it. Around that
framework, Dougherty writes about the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers
Association and the history of California's Proposition 13, a fight
over a development in Lafayette, the logistics challenge of
constructing sufficient housing even when approved, and the political
career of Scott Wiener, the hated opponent of every city fighting for
the continued ability to arbitrarily veto any new housing.
One of the things Golden Gates helped clarify for me is that there are
three core interest groups that have to be part of any discussion of
Bay Area housing: homeowners who want to limit or eliminate local
change, renters who are vulnerable to gentrification and redevelopment,
and the people who want to live in that area and can't (which includes
people who want to move there, but more sympathetically includes all
the people who work there but can't afford to live locally, such as
teachers, day care workers, food service workers, and, well, just about
anyone who doesn't work in tech). (As with any political
classification, statements about collectives may not apply to
individuals; there are numerous people who appear to fall into one
group but who vote in alignment with another.) Dougherty makes it clear
that housing policy is intractable in part because the policies that
most clearly help one of those three groups hurt the other two.
As advertised by the subtitle, Dougherty's focus is on the fight for
more housing. Those who already own homes whose values have been
inflated by artificial scarcity, or who want to preserve such
stratified living conditions as low-density, large-lot single-family
dwellings within short mass-transit commute of one of the densest
cities in the United States, don't get a lot of sympathy or focus here
except as opponents. I understand this choice; I also don't have much
sympathy. But I do wish that Dougherty had spent more time discussing
the unsustainable promise that California has implicitly made to
homeowners: housing may be impossibly expensive, but if you can manage
to reach that pinnacle of financial success, the ongoing value of your
home is guaranteed. He does mention this in passing, but I don't think
he puts enough emphasis on the impact that a single huge, illiquid
investment that is heavily encouraged by government policy has on
people's attitude towards anything that jeopardizes that investment.
The bulk of this book focuses on the two factions trying to make
housing cheaper: Sonja Trauss and others who are pushing for
construction of more housing, and tenant groups trying to manage the
price of existing housing for those who have to rent. The tragedy of
Bay Area housing is that even the faintest connection of housing to the
economic principle of supply and demand implies that the long-term
goals of those two groups align. Building more housing will decrease
the cost of housing, at least if you build enough of it over a long
enough period of time. But in the short term, particularly given the
amount of Bay Area land pre-emptively excluded from housing by
environmental protection and the actions of the existing homeowners,
building more housing usually means tearing down cheap lower-density
housing and replacing it with expensive higher-density housing. And
that destroys people's lives.
I'll admit my natural sympathy is with Trauss on pure economic grounds.
There simply aren't enough places to live in the Bay Area, and the
number of people in the area will not decrease. To the marginal extent
that growth even slows, that's another tale of misery involving "super
commutes" of over 90 minutes each way. But the most affecting part of
this book was the detailed look at what redevelopment looks like for
the people who thought they had housing, and how it disrupts and
destroys existing communities. It's impossible to read those stories
and not be moved. But it's equally impossible to not be moved by the
stories of people who live in their cars during the week, going home
only on weekends because they have to live too far away from their jobs
This is exactly the kind of politics that I lose when I take a
superficial interest in political theory. Even when I feel confident in
a guiding principle, the hard part of real-world politics is bringing
real people with you in the implementation and mitigating the damage
that any choice of implementation will cause. There are a lot of
details, and those details matter. Without the right balance between
addressing a long-term deficit and providing short-term protection and
relief, an attempt to alleviate unsustainable long-term misery creates
more short-term misery for those least able to afford it. And while I
personally may have less sympathy for the relatively well-off who have
clawed their way into their own mortgage, being cavalier with their
goals and their financial needs is both poor ethics and poor politics.
Mobilizing political opponents who have resources and vote locally
isn't a winning strategy.
Dougherty is a reporter, not a housing or public policy expert, so
Golden Gates poses problems and tells stories rather than describes
solutions. This book didn't lead me to a brilliant plan for fixing the
Bay Area housing crunch, or hand me a roadmap for how to get
effectively involved in local politics. What it did do is tell stories
about what political approaches have worked, how they've worked, what
change they've created, and the limitations of that change. Solving
political problems is work. That work requires understanding people and
balancing concerns, which in turn requires a lot of empathy, a lot of
communication, and sometimes finding a way to make unlikely allies.
I'm not sure how broad the appeal of this book will be outside of those
who live in the region. Some aspects of the fight for housing
generalize, but the Bay Area (and I suspect every region) has
properties specific to it or to the state of California. It has also
reached an extreme of housing shortage that is rivaled in the United
States only by New York City, which changes the nature of the
solutions. But if you want to seriously engage with Bay Area housing
policy, knowing the background explained here is nearly mandatory.
There are some flaws — I wish Dougherty would have talked more about
traffic and transit policy, although I realize that could be another
book — but this is an important story told well.
If this somewhat narrow topic is within your interests, highly
Rating: 8 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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