I used to write about the shortage of affordable housing from the detached perspective of a journalist, including quite a few years as editor of Affordable Housing Finance. Now, I've served my time in the trenches of the struggle to provide housing for people of modest means. I had no idea how incredibly hard it is to meet this most basic of human needs.
I have spent five years as owner and operator of 22 units of workforce housing in Sonoma County, Calif. I tried to do reasonably well while doing good: Make a modest income while offering quality housing for a very diverse group of working people, including some Setion 8 tenants.
I did my best to help meet a growing need, from stretching credit standards to help young families get their first home to cutting some slack when my tenants' finances went south. I learned to cope with social and health crises, even people with PTSD and bouts of delusional psychosis.
I saw how workforce rental housing is a microcosm of urban challenges and social problems. I took pride in striving to create a community that people could call home and offer a good value.
I did not write this column to ask for any kudos or credit. I wrote it to say as clearly as possible: I quit!
I no longer have any desire to be a housing provider in California. The politicians have beat me down with their constant attacks on landlords. Because California has failed to produce enough housing to satisfy the increases in demand from the jobs created here, my fellow small property owners and I are now Public Enemy No. 1. The statewide rent control law passed last year, which comes on top of myriad local measures to regulate us, showed just how little our work is valued in this state.
Worse still, the politicians and referendum sponsors are not done yet. Rent control may be extended to new construction and to vacated units very soon. Then the lobbying will start to have governments pay legal costs for tenants to sue their landlords. It already happens in some places.
It was hard work to provide housing these last five years. Now it's impossible. It takes far too much work to be compliant, and there's too much legal and financial risk for even innocent missteps.
I'm not asking for pity. I'll sell out and redeploy capital to things other than housing and places other than California. Thousands of others will do the same thing over coming years.
The leaders of the political attack on landlords may say that's just fine. They know the votes they need for re-election come from tenants, not owners. But the illusion of victory will be short lived. Driving mom and pop owners out of the rental housing business will work against neighborhood stability and the quality of life for workforce housing tenants.
Owners of small properties put in a hell of a lot of time, effort and money to meet housing needs in California. We do far more to hold neighborhoods and communities together than anyone gives us credit for.
I am selling my apartments, and I fully expect the buyer will spend half the money I spent on upkeep and improvements. They will probably have lawyers on staff and put video cameras everywhere to have any chance of making an eviction stick in court. Cities will have to employ hundreds of new building inspectors if they hope to prevent a resurgence in the scourge of the 1960s: slum housing.
I will continue working as a real estate broker focused on finding land suitable for workforce and affordable housing development. There is nothing I'd enjoy more than seeing a nice housing tax credit community rise from the dirt. But sadly, while our politicians are adept at finding new ways to punish apartment owners, they are still dead set on obstructing development in every way possible.
Housing conditions will deteriorate, and the more rents are restricted, the worse it will get. The flight of capital away from California will bring a new era of urban decay, and years from now, people will wonder why it was allowed to happen.
I have to admit, the politicians have played a masterful game. Taken collectively, they have been working for decades to restrict opportunities for lower-income folks to live among wealthier families who own single-family homes. Now that the negative consequences of exclusionary land-use policies are seen on the tent-lined streets of our cities and parks, they have shifted blame to people like me. They still refuse to overrule the many jurisdictions that don't permit high-density housing anywhere, even near transit.
Having been in the trenches, I salute all of you who have been in them much longer than me. Providing housing IS a noble calling, and perhaps someday politicians will see providers as contributors to society instead of scapegoats and cash cows to be milked for fees and taxes. I can dream, can't I?