The Next Civil Rights Battleground

September 20, 2019

By John Gamboa and Robert Apodaca

Now that the Governor has signed into law a historic rent-control measure and a bill fast-tracking local government approval for residential developments, it’s time to face a more fundamental problem that has been exposed by California’s affordable housing crisis.

That problem is not about how to put a roof over everyone’s head. It’s about how minorities are systematic excluded from owning their own roof.

The American Dream of homeownership has been part of the civil rights struggle for decades and for good reason. The opportunity to own a family home, be it ever so humble, has been the steppingstone to economic mobility and the best way for working-class families to build intergenerational wealth. 

Homeownership is so central to the notion of fairness that, along with access to public accommodations and education, it is enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights and 1968 Fair Housing Acts. It’s why we have outlawed redlining and restrictive covenants.

But now minorities are facing a barrier to homeownership just as insidious – escalating home prices.

While much is due to genuine appreciation, a lot of the escalation is artificial, fueled by misguided public policy and environmental regulations that add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of condos, townhouses and single-family homes.

These increases serve as a regressive tax, pricing lower-income African American, Latino and Asian buyers out of the market. 

They also contribute heavily to a wealth gap that continues to get worse despite the most robust economic recovery in the nation’s history.

The sad fact is that minorities bore the brunt of the 2008 recession, losing more than $370 billion in personal wealth, and they still haven’t fully recovered. 

As a result, per capita wealth for white Americans is now 10 times greater than for Latinos and 13 times greater than African Americans. Economists say the gap would shrink about 30 per cent if minorities owned homes at the same rate as whites.

Few places exemplify this problem as California, land of mind-boggling income disparity.

Faced with the urgent need for an additional 1.3 million housing units to keep up with the population, state officials and housing advocates have frantically labored to boost the inventory of rental property for low- and moderate-income families, mostly minorities.

Lost in the rush has been any serious consideration of how to stimulate affordable homeownership. As such, the Golden State is missing a golden opportunity to slow or stabilize the price of residential real estate by increasing supply in what remains the second most expensive real estate market in the country.

Meanwhile, California regulators are making it even tougher on minorities with environmental mandates that are increasing prices even more while turning workers of color into pawns in the war on climate change.

In the last two years, the California Air Resources Board has quietly adopted an expansive “scoping plan,” giving it more muscle under the California Environmental Quality Act, the landmark 1970 law intended to protect fragile ecosystems.

Under this expansive power, CARB has promulgated regulations requiring all new construction to be net-carbon neutral, a worthy aim indeed. 

But the effect is distinctively discriminatory: It will add an estimated $40,000 to every new housing unit, a molehill to the wealthy but a mountain for working-class families of color who struggle just to scrape together a down payment.

It is also counter-productive, if not perverse. By forcing families of color further out to find affordable housing, CARB is condemning wage-earners to commute even greater distances to jobs where they can’t phone it in – adding even more of the climate-killing emissions that CARB is desperate to eliminate.

Meanwhile, CARB and others are looking the other way as special interests – NIMBYs and trade unions among them – exploit CEQA loopholes to hold minority-friendly “infill” housing developments and government projects hostage for ulterior reasons.

A recent study by the Holland & Knight law firm shows how CEQA has become a tool of social exclusion. 

The law firm found that that 78% of CEQA lawsuits filed between 2013 and 2015 to block housing in the Los Angeles region were targeted for whiter and wealthier communities – like LA’s Westside, land of movie stars and upscale professionals.

What’s needed is a new approach, one that recognizes access to affordable homeownership as a civil right, not a privilege, and the best way possible to narrow a wealth gap that has reached immoral proportions. 

We need the Governor, Legislature, construction industry and affordable housing advocates to shift their attention away from the hamster wheel of rental existence to those promoting homeownership, especially by minorities. 

We need them to correct counterproductive policies and unfair regulations that are pricing working-class families out of the American Dream, fueling a wealth gap that has reached immoral proportions. And we need them to address the abuses under CEQA that render a law intended to save the Earth into a tool of social exclusion.

Anything short of this is just another form of Jim Crow.

Gamboa and Apodaca are on the leadership council of The Two Hundred, a coalition of California civil rights activists dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through homeownership.

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