Can the Housing Crisis Be Solved?

Can the Housing Crisis Be Solved?

Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

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If you read California Today (or just The Times) with any regularity, you’ll probably recognize Conor Dougherty’s name.

He is, as they say, a friend of the newsletter, who sends us frequent dispatches from the Bay Area about homelessness and the housing crisis.

He is also the author of a new book on that subject, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”

Recently, we talked about the book and about what it might take to fix housing. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:

So I figured I’d start by asking, for anyone who hasn’t read this excerpt: What’s your elevator pitch for the book? What is it?

When you think about why America was considered the richest country on earth, people often think of housing.

Throughout the past many, many decades, when foreigners came to America, they would remark how big our houses were, how full of creature comforts they were. So it has been a symbol of American prosperity that so many people — and especially a wide swath of the society — were able to live in a nice, roomy home.

You look at America today, and we have the housing crisis. We have a huge homeless problem. We have a huge rent burden problem. A quarter of renters spend more than half their income on rent. And so this uniquely American indicator of wealth has gone totally wrong.

This book uses California as a lens into what is happening now nationwide, and this diverse range of people fighting back against it.

I think such an important point that often gets lost is the idea that housing went from being a place for somebody to live to an investment and a primary wealth builder.

The book kind of talks about how that began in the 1970s, during the Great Inflation. It is a huge piece, because housing has kind of become our pension program, kind of become our inheritance program.

Property has always had a lot of wealth and inheritance tied up in it. So that’s not exactly new.

But in the Great Recession, there was a lot of talk about how people were using their home equity as an A.T.M. And so it’s really become this financial instrument. Not surprisingly, people defend that financial instrument the same way they defend themselves from higher taxes or whatnot.

What do you think is the most vexing takeaway from the book?

Whenever we think about a problem in America, for better or for worse, we always ask: What is the government doing about this or how can they help? And if the problem gets big enough, it starts to be talked about by presidential campaigns, schooling, health care — these pretty intimate things.

A lot of our housing policy is determined not at the federal level, but by a million city councils that, together, determine where, how and how much our shelter costs.

And this becomes something that resists solutions.

Many people who are interested in these big solutions don’t want to get involved in these very micro fights. Because you either have to pass laws that take power away from cities — which is upending a system that we’ve used since the beginning — or it’s getting involved in a fight one city council at a time, which resists any kind of dramatic solution.

So that kind of leads me to my last question: Do you have any hope for a broader fix?

What’s promising to me is that we are now having this conversation. Like all the Democratic presidential candidates have housing plans.

On top of that, there have been some moves. Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to essentially get rid of all single-family zoning. Oregon became the first state to do the same.

And we’ve seen a huge ascendance of tenants rights movements. Sometimes those movements are in opposition to each other.

But they’re all fighting for mixed solutions that we need. So I think there’s never been as much action and there’s never been as much conversation about housing as there is now.

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One woman, the artist Bonnie MacLean, helped define the psychedelic scene — though she said she never took hallucinogens — with her colorful posters for rock shows in San Francisco.

Another, Alice Schenker, helped spread the counterculture by selling posters, comics and art prints at the Telegraph Avenue Print Mint, which she founded in 1965 with her late husband, Don Schenker.

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In any case, I took it as a chance to learn about their legacies. Maybe you will, too.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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