Friday, February 23, 2007

How newspapers spread a Marxist ideology about California's affordable housing crisis

By Wayne Lusvardi

A local newspaper editor is out with a column which reflects the dominant journalistic paradigm of the affordable housing crisis in Southern California (see here). We might dub this paradigm the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism theory of the housing affordability crisis.

Unfortunately, housing affordability policies are typically made by local decision-makers in response to crises manufactured by newspaper editors with claims to superior insights and with a mission to "raise the consciousness" of all of us about the affordable housing crisis. To compound this problem, the public is inculcated with this paradigm and believe it to be an accurate reflection of reality. Once institutionalized in the community it becomes a nearly irrefutable ideology.

The social action committees of local liberal and even evangelical churches frequently embrace this ideology in advocating more affordable housing (see Jill Shook, Making Housing Happen: A Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models. This ideology is typically spurious and we should not believe its newspaper propagators, the pandering politicos who embrace it for political gain or the self-righteous religious leaders who legitimate it as reflecting the moral high ground.

The editor gets on his high horse to single out for special castigation those who bemoan the high cost of housing but oppose any new development in Pasadena, of which several are currently running for city council and the Board of Education on an odd housing affordability and anti-growth platform. In an attempt at understanding real estate economics, our newspaper editor writes that because the supply of newly created downtown condos and apartments in Pasadena is relatively small and demand is steady, prices remain too high to be affordable. So our editor cum housing economist reasons that developers will try to get away with building no affordable housing if they can; or only the minimum required by the Inclusionary Housing ordinance.

Where does this editor get this notion of the affordable housing crisis? Why he gets it in part from fellow journalists such as Dave Zahniser of the hard leftist LA Weekly who describes "Pasadena and other desirable parts of the West San Gabriel Valley" as "mere tiny cogs in a sprawling wheel of gentrification rolling through Southern California." This is no surprise because our newspaper editor did a prior apprenticeship as editor of the hard Leftist Pasadena Weekly where such paradigms have reached the status of an occupational ideology.

Gentrification is the buzz word for the "bourgeoisie" allegedly buying up homes that would otherwise go to the "poor" (the new term for the "proletariat"). The flip side of the negatively loaded term "gentrification" is the term "smart growth," a more positive term oddly embraced by the political Left. So "gentrification" is what the "Bourgeoisie" does and "Smart Growth" is what leftist housing activists and government Apparatchiks do; but it is the same reality.

This rather neo-Marxist view of housing affordability believes the profit motive coupled with NIMBY-ism and lack of laws mandating affordable housing is what creates the affordability problem. In this view only government can provide affordable housing to low income people by expropriation from real estate developers (i.e., the "Capitalists") and the productive class. Too little supply and incessant demand creates unaffordable housing. Friedrich Engels wrote wrote something similar in The Housing Question in 1872:

"How is the housing question to be settled then? In present-day society, it is settled just as any other social question: by the gradual economic levelling of demand and supply, a settlement which reproduces the question itself again and again and therefore is no settlement.. But one thing is certain: there is already a sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real 'housing shortage', provided they are used judiciously. This can naturally only occur through the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes."

Let's quickly take a look at what this paradigm leaves out:

* First, housing affordability is created by economic obsolescence. The more new housing that is built, the more the old housing becomes more affordable. The old neighborhood filtration process of buying a "fixer" house at the bottom of the housing affordability ladder has been subverted by the wave of immigrants (God bless them) who flood into selective neighborhoods where there is a favorable political climate and institutions to protect them (i.e., Pasadena-based Institute for Popular Education, MECHA at PCC, etc. - see here

* According to the U.S. Census, one third of Pasadena's population are low income migrants, who somehow find affordable housing in the City. How can there be an affordable housing crisis if that large a proportion of low income people can ingeniously find a way to live in upscale Pasadena? The answer is that by doubling up in old housing stock migrants inflate rental housing. This turns the Neo-Marxist view upside down, because it is the "Proletariat" that are inflating housing costs.

* By mandating that developers set aside 15% of new condos and apartments for low income persons, government inflates housing costs all the more. This is because Inclusionary Housing laws expropriate from middle-income persons to subsidize low income people through higher condo prices and apartment rents. This creates a ripple inflationary effect on market rate housing as well.

* No mention is made of all the layers of unnecessary bureaucracy that developers must vet through to get approvals to build housing in Pasadena (e.g., design, environmental, green building, historic preservation commissions, etc.). Most of these commissions are stacked with representatives of professions who benefit from more onerous regulation (e.g., architects, environmentalists, historical preservationists, engineers, and even builders). There is no way to fast track an affordable housing project in Pasadena and leap frog these special interests.

* Most of the low income migrants in Pasadena are along the Villa Street corridor in Districts 1, 3 and 5. These districts are typically comprised of smaller, older housing stock which would otherwise serve as the first rung on the ladder of housing affordability for first time buyers. Activists and politicians in these districts have used liberal eviction laws and courts, housing discrimination laws, anti-deportation laws, threats of urban riots, court decisions (Serrano vs. Priest) and the bully-pulpit of local Leftist newspapers, such as the Pasadena Weekly, to form a protected class of migrants and protected migrant neighborhoods (witness the Pasadena Weekly's recent crusade against eviction of a low income tenant in one of the upscale downtown apartment projects). First-time home buyers are thus propelled to the fringe in exurbia to find affordable housing; which only further congests our freeways.

* As migrants double up in housing everywhere they can find it, they drive the marginally poor into homelessness and out of the cheap labor force. The March issue of The Atlantic Magazine reports that between 1960 and 2000, the employment rate for low-skilled Black men plunged from 89% to 56%, attributable in part to immigration.

* Contrary to popular opinion, Pasadena's Inclusionary Housing law doesn't harm the profit motive of developers. Developer's still make the same rates of return on their projects by shifting this burden to landowners in the form of price discounts when buying land; and onto other renters who must subsidize through their inflated rents the rent of low income tenants.

* Inclusionary housing laws are not producing affordable housing for poor people. To the contrary they are producing luxury housing for low income people in upscale locations with amenities such as gyms, pools, spas, mini-movie theaters, computer suites, etc.

* Technically speaking, there is no "gentrification" in developing high density, high rise housing on former commercial sites in downtown Pasadena because there was no pre-existing affordable housing on such sites. Developers should not be subject to Inclusionary Housing laws where they have removed no existing low income housing from the community.

Local policies for affordable housing are typically made by cliques of newspaper editors and journalists, local politicians, local liberal religious leaders, and academics with claims to superior insights, knowledge, and expertise as reflecting the superior moral consensus of the community. These claims are typically spurious and we shouldn't believe any of them or embrace the dominant ideology which controls their selective perception of reality. They are all phonies, ideologues, or deluded incompetents who are making the problem worse. It is impossible to "raise the consciousness" of anyone to the affordable housing crisis because nearly all of us are stumbling around on the same dim level of consciousness by embracing a proto-Marxist ideology mostly found in newspapers that obscures the uncomfortable and politically incorrect reality of housing affordability. It is little wonder that Karl Marx made his living as a newspaper journalist.

Rational argument tends to be weak when dealing with such local power structures and cultural forces. But if we are concerned with public policy it is at least a good starting point to know not only what vested interests but what vested ideas we are up against.


Cliches often contain some truth; the well worn stereotype of the British as people who don't much like children is, sadly, just. We hardly needed last week's report from Unicef on the wellbeing of children in rich countries to tell us that we neglect our own quite shamefully. If neglect is abuse, then we are a nation of child abusers, both rich and poor. The children of the well-off suffer mildly from affluent neglect; the children of the poor suffer much more from the ordinary kind. They have no one to come home to, no one to look up to, nowhere to go except to hang out in the street.

Although I have some serious reservations about the report, the overall picture is so conclusively bleak, as far as a minority of British children goes, that we must accept some of its conclusions. In overall wellbeing, British children are the worst off in a list of 21 rich countries, and they are worst off, too, in the individual categories of relationships, behaviour and subjective wellbeing. Life is lonely, scary, unhealthy and dangerous for a large minority of British children.

Only 65% of British children eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week; thrown upon the company of other youngsters, only 42% of British children find them "kind and helpful". In a survey by Britain's National Family and Parenting Institute, quoted in the Unicef report, only 65% of children said they felt their parent(s) made them feel loved and cared for and only 76% said their parent(s) were always there when they needed them.

That makes a quarter or more of children who feel uncared for and neglected. When it comes to having an orderly, healthy breakfast before school, only about half of British secondary pupils say they get any. They may have been lying to shock the pollsters, but if not that means nearly half of all British parents cannot be bothered to ease their children into the day with breakfast.

Not surprisingly, British children are way ahead of others in the rich world in what are called risk behaviours. In plain English this means smoking, binge drinking, underage sex, eating junk food, obesity, teenage pregnancy, bullying, fighting and getting into trouble. In some cities the children are becoming feral. The recent shooting dead of two 15-year-old boys in the hellish estates of south London are the extreme manifestation of this terrible neglect.

What stands out from the Unicef report is that in this country parents either do not care enough about children to make time for them, or they cannot afford to make time for them. With high numbers of single parents and stepparents, with high numbers of irresponsible and absent fathers and full-time working mothers, that is understandable. All these things impose tremendous stresses on parents. Children get pushed out of their rightful time and place in their parents' lives, more so here than in the rest of Europe. What can be done?

It would be a start to enable - if not to force - parents to spend more time with their children. It seems blindingly obvious that this government's policy of driving as many women out to work as possible is counterproductive. The only acceptable reason for doing so is to control the welfare queens, who think having lots of babies will win them a meal ticket for decades - and that could surely be dealt with differently.

Most women want to stay home with their babies. Only 6% want to work full time and all mothers know that childcare is an expensive lottery. Yet 55% of working women are in full-time jobs. It is nonsense to shift money about to provide "affordable childcare", which is neither good nor affordable; it is less good than what most mothers provide themselves and it costs more, all in, than letting her stay at home.

The result is that working mothers are harried and tired, especially if they are single, and short of the time their children - and their wider families - need. Part of the reason for so many women working such long hours, against their real wishes, is the high cost of housing. That is the root of many social evils and there is no question that a big housebuilding programme must be a top priority for the next government.

It also seems obvious to me that fathers should be held firmly accountable for their children, as David Cameron argued on Friday. I believe that process should start with dismantling the crazy benefits system which makes a man substantially better off - cash in hand at the end of the week - if he abandons his wife or girlfriend, and which enables a feckless never-married girl to be just as well off as a respectable abandoned wife or quasi-wife. Unfortunately the government has proved quite unable to run the Child Support Agency and there seems little reason for optimism about this.

What is needed - and it is something governments cannot and should not try to engineer - is cultural change. We need a lot more of what John Stuart Mill called moral disapprobation; these days it is called stigma. It is a good thing to show disapproval, even anger. It is wrong for men to abandon their children. It is wrong for a girl to have a baby without having another parent for it. It is wrong to have children whom you cannot afford to support. It is wrong to neglect your children, to fail even to give them breakfast and make sure they get to school.

In the past 30 years there has been a general horror of being judgmental, but why? These actions, wrong in themselves because they cause suffering to children, are also wrong because they cause serious social problems for the rest of us. Society should express disapprobation, forcefully.

Governments can follow in expressing such disapproval. They could deny irresponsible single mothers the privilege of independent housing and offer them educational care hostels only. They could try punishing irresponsible fathers in their pockets. They could order schools to provide after-school exercise and clubs and hobby groups, every day, year round. They could give massive tax breaks to stay-at-home mothers and to marriage. They could support charitable mentoring schemes.

Above all, they could scrap the laws that terrify responsible adults out of trying to control other people's children. All this does, however, involve being judgmental so I don't suppose it will happen.


Let people say when to give in to minorities

IF you doubt that the fine notion of a human right is degenerating into a greasy little phrase used to hold Western mores to ransom, it’s time to return to the birthplace of multiculturalism. Canada, the country that invented multiculturalism more than 30 years ago, has been consumed with another doctrine in recent weeks. Canadians call it “reasonable accommodation of minorities”. Translated into Australian, the question becomes: at what point should we tell minorities “You’ve had a fair go, pal, now stop asking for special favours”?

To understand this fertile debate, you need to dip into Canada’s multicultural chronicles. A Montreal YMCA agrees to frost the windows of a room used for exercise classes so that teenage boys at a neighbouring synagogue will be saved the indignity of glimpsing Lycra-clad women doing Pilates and aerobics classes. An Ontario judge orders the removal of a Christmas tree from the entrance to a Toronto court to avoid offending non-Christian sensibilities.

The Supreme Court overturns a Quebec school board’s ban on Sikh students wearing a kirpan - a ceremonial metal dagger - to school because it infringes a boy’s religious freedom. Female police officers in Montreal are requested to let their male counterparts deal with Orthodox Jews who find it offensive to be touched by a female. A Filipina mother complains to the Quebec Human Rights Commission about her son being chided at school for the way he eats. The school said they were targeting bad manners. The mother said it was the traditional Filipino way of eating. And on and on it goes.

Against that background, a small town in Quebec caused quite a stir last month by issuing a set of standards so newcomers understand “the social life and habits and customs” of life in their new country.

The provocative statement issued by Herouxville says that a “woman can drive a car, vote, sign cheques, dance, decide for herself, speak her piece, dress as she sees fit ... walk alone in public places, study, have a job ... However, we consider that killing women in public beatings or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life.”

The statement explains that townsfolk listen to music, drink alcohol and decorate Christmas trees. Boys and girls play games together, men and women ski on the same hill, and “if you came to my place we would send the kids to swim together in the pool”.

“Don’t be surprised, this is normal for us,” the declaration says. It seems that Herouxville, a town with no migrants but in need of immigration, has been watching events unfold in Europe. Mayor Claude Dupont told one newspaper that the standards are “saying out loud what some people are thinking quietly but don’t have the balls to say”.

But when a small town in Quebec does the talking, it is depicted as insular, racist hicksville by Canada’s left-leaning media. When respected academics such as Francis Fukuyama say more or less the same thing, even keen multiculturalists will slowly nod their heads and concede there may be something to this argument about realigning the unruly rights debate. Writing in the Journal of Democracy last year, Fukuyama pointed out that “some contemporary Muslim communities are making demands for group rights that simply cannot be squared with liberal principles of individual equality” on which Western societies are built. The kinds of accommodation include demands for sharia law, or at least Islamic family law, the right to exclude non-Muslims from certain types of events or the right to challenge free speech in a pluralist society, he explained.

With impeccable timing the Danish cartoons are back, once again raising the issue of just how far we extend the alleged right not to be offended. Satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which published the notorious Danish cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, was in court last week defending itself against three Muslim organisations claiming “injury caused by religious slander”. French presidential candidate and Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy weighed into the case, issuing a letter supporting the newspaper for expressing “an old French tradition, that of satire, derision and disobedience”.

Sarkozy’s defence of his country’s mores was a stark contrast to the cultural cannibalism across the Channel where a 19-year-old student at Cambridge University went into hiding earlier this month after publishing an offensive cartoon of the Muslim prophet in a special edition of a student magazine on religious satire. The student is facing the prospect of disciplinary action by university authorities.

Whether you’re with Sarkozy or the Cambridge authorities on this, two things are pretty clear. No right, whether group or individual, is absolute or unconditional. Even the right to life is qualified: think abortion, killing in war or self-defence. So assertions that a prisoner has some right to be given halal meat in jail - as child sex offender Sharif Mahommed claimed and won in a Queensland court recently - is just as much poppycock as saying that in Western societies Mormons have an inalienable right to polygamy or Muslims have a right to practise female circumcision. Societies can, do and should set limits and conditions on alleged rights.

The second certainty flows from the first. Fuelled by the human rights industry, requests for accommodation are framed as rights. And because what is often claimed as a right is really no more than an individual society deciding to accommodate requests from minorities, these are essentially political, not legal, questions. Whether a municipality should pay for a women’s-only swimming pool so Muslim women are not forced to share the water with lubricious males should be decided by elected representatives of the people, not by judges.

Instead, the courts get to play umpire. Last week, the head teacher of a high-achieving grammar school in Birminghamshire was dragged into court for not allowing one of her students to wear the full-face veil - or niqab - in the classroom. The school policy allows girls to wear the hijab - or head scarf - but drew the line at the niqab.

Lawyers would have us believe these are legal questions only their learned friends on the bench can determine. It’s nothing more than a naked grab for power and a belief that their views on these matters are more educated than the great unwashed. At the hands of the legal profession and a zealous human rights industry, terms such as human rights and discrimination have fast fallen into disrepute.

Lawyers may be consciously or unconsciously blind to the dilemma. But the upshot is clear enough: accommodating minority demands for special group rights that conflict with liberal democracies is nothing short of cannibalisation of Western culture.


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