OPINION: Texas blackouts display a problem California is all too familiar with — just look at the housing crisis

By criticizing Texas’ mismanagement during the recent winter storm, Californians overlook their own state’s severe political issues, especially those surrounding homelessness and housing. (Courtesy: Apu Gomes via Getty Images)

They say everything is bigger in Texas. I’m a California liberal, so my usual rebuttal is, “including the politicians’ stupidity.” Texas’ recent mass power outages, attributed to the fundamental flaws in the deregulated Objectivist fever dream that is its electricity market, would seem to prove my point, and indeed some might consider the Texas blackouts to vindicate the liberal-progressive governance often held to be exemplified by California.

But Texas leaders’ political ideology is only half the issue. The real problem is governance based on an idealized image of their state instead of the facts on the ground, allowing unsustainable policies to go unquestioned because that is “the way things work around here.”

And that’s why Californians shouldn’t be too proud right now: We have plenty of that, too. One just has to look at all the people sleeping on California’s streets to see that, when it comes to political dogmatism, California and Texas are just the same size.

The Texas power crisis shows the failure of the free-market fundamentalism long championed as Texas’ trademark. According to far too many Texas politicians, the idea that people serve markets, rather than the state having a duty to ensure markets efficiently serve people, is as Texan as the Alamo. 

Electricity deregulation in the 90s meant providers had no incentive to prepare the state’s infrastructure for extreme circumstances where demand dramatically outstrips supply, as occurred in this winter’s polar vortex, forcing much of the grid to shed load by cutting off power to avert a complete breakdown. Because Texas has no limits on rate increases, many customers received astronomical utility bills as the price of electricity skyrocketed during the crisis.

But California has its own unique problem — perhaps easier to ignore, but nevertheless rooted in the dogmatism of politicians who cling to an image that never existed.

That problem is housing: California has the nation’s highest median rents and second-highest median home prices — and the highest poverty rate according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which accounts for cost of living. For nearly 70 percent of low-income Californians, the local cost of housing takes over half their income. 

In 2019, 53 percent of the nation’s unsheltered homeless lived in California, compared to just 6 percent in second-place Florida; California has about 12 percent of the nation’s population overall.

According to a 2016 McKinsey & Company report, California has the second-lowest housing units per capita; McKinsey estimates California needs 3.5 million more housing units by 2025 to address the shortage.

There’s one key reason why so little housing gets built in California: Too many politicians view California through the lens of the suburban single-family home paradise that they believe existed in the 50s and 60s. 

If California was a paradise back then, it was a very exclusive one. Countless Californians were systematically prevented from entering the middle class through discriminatory housing covenants, redlining and the displacement of poor nonwhite communities to make room for highways.

Our state’s leaders’ enduring idea of California — which, even if they won’t admit it, was built on keeping “the wrong kind” of people out of middle class neighborhoods — allows regressive policies that disproportionately hinder minorities and the poor from accessing housing to be perpetuated.

This includes Proposition 13, passed in 1978, which requires property taxes be assessed based on the most recent sale price. By encouraging homeowners to stay in their homes, Prop. 13 benefits wealthier homeowners at the expense of younger and lower-income people trying to enter the housing market. California’s home turnover rate has declined dramatically in the years since its passage, while our homeownership rate is second-lowest nationwide at 55 percent. Prop. 13 also discourages cash-strapped municipalities from zoning land for housing, because they can’t collect much tax revenue from it.

On a local level, California municipalities have consistently failed to zone enough land to meet their need for housing, specifically multifamily housing that would be accessible to low-income people. A 2018 survey found that two-thirds of responding cities have less than a quarter of land zoned for multifamily housing, among them LA and San Bernardino.

Multiple legislative attempts to reform local control of zoning have failed, in large part due to opposition from legislators to more low-income housing in the communities they represent, even as no one denies the severity of California’s housing crisis. 

In recent years, this has included multiple iterations of a bill by State Senator Scott Wiener to increase housing density near mass transit. In 2019, the bill died a quiet death at the hands of Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Anthony Portantino, who happens to be Claremont’s member of the State Senate.

Portantino’s alternate proposal at the time was a “California Housing Crisis Awareness” specialty license plate. This couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of California’s elected officials failing to appreciate the real cause of the housing crisis; it’s up to Portantino’s constituents to insist Wiener’s bill gets a fair hearing this legislative session.

So, my fellow Californians, feel free to criticize Texas for the grave errors that caused power outages on such an unmitigated scale. But remember that nowhere, least of all California, is immune from dogmatic governance based on a rose-tinted image that was never really true. Let every homeless person on LA’s streets remind you of that.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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