California’s War on Private Property Rights
On December 29, 2019, attorneys for a single mother will tell an Alameda County Superior Court that their client has a “right to possession” of a house on Magnolia Street in Oakland. It will be “a historic legal argument,” proclaimed the group that calls itself Moms 4 Housing, “that Housing is a Human Right!”
What makes their argument “historic” is that the single mom didn’t acquire the claimed “right to possession” through the mundane means of buying or leasing. The single mom moved into the house with her two children, ages 1 and 4 years old, along with three other members of Moms 4 Housing. They “entered the house without permission in November,” reported San Francisco public radio station KQED(FM) in a story the editors had corrected. “An earlier version of this article stated the women ‘broke in’ to the home. It has been edited to clarify that they entered the home without permission.”
Don’t call them squatters. They’re our neighbors who are experiencing squat. The women and the activists who are helping them are angry that thousands of properties in Oakland and the Bay Area are vacant while thousands of people are homeless. The properties are vacant, in many cases, because they are owned by investors who are keeping them vacant until they’re ready to sell. That’s what happened with the house on Magnolia Street. It was purchased by Wedgewood, a Redondo Beach company that buys distressed properties and flips them. Wedgwood bought the house in July and took possession in November with plans to fix it up and put it back on the market.
The Moms 4 Housing moved in, illegally, soon after Wedgewood officially took ownership. “We are starting a movement to reclaim vacant homes from predatory big banks and real estate speculators to house homeless mothers and children,” Moms 4 Housing says on its website, “No one should be homeless while investor-owned homes sit empty.”
This is a sad and frightening story. It’s sad because the housing crisis was caused and then worsened by a horrible mix of counterproductive policies. It’s frightening because it can always get worse, and in a courtroom in Alameda County on Monday, it might. State laws, regulations and policies have made it more difficult and expensive to build housing on open land. Suburban “sprawl” has been declared bad for the climate, so the government heavily discourages or even forbids developments in areas that would result in long commutes. “Infill” development within the “urban boundary” is encouraged, but it can result in displacement of lower-income residents as gentrification raises the value of the land under older buildings.
Another policy that results in less affordable housing is rent control. Rental housing is a business, and if there’s a cap on revenue but not on costs, it’s not a good business. Some people sell and get out. Gradually, there are fewer apartment buildings with affordable rents. California has enacted statewide rent control and many cities have stricter laws.
The other component of affordability is income, and here again the policies in California are causing the problem. California is determined to make life as miserable as possible for businesses. From enabling frivolous lawsuits to banning independent contractors, the state Legislature has rarely missed an opportunity to treat businesses like criminals. Proposition 47 virtually decriminalized the theft of items valued at less than $950. Criminals are treated a lot better than the businesses they rob.
California’s aggressive hikes in the minimum wage represent another counterproductive policy. Raising the minimum wage tends to reduce the number of hours worked and the number of new jobs. Then there’s “tenants’ rights” legislation, whether enacted or proposed, which could be one reason property owners leave homes vacant. When it becomes so costly and troublesome to have tenants that property owners prefer empty rooms, the laws are achieving the opposite of what was intended. Yet it could get even worse.
If an Alameda County Superior Court rules in favor of Moms 4 Housing and finds that people who “enter the house without permission” acquire a “right of possession,” it’s the end of property rights in the state of California. That’s what “Housing is a Human Right” really means. It’s a “right” to somebody else’s property, one way or the other. Suppose the Alameda County judge rules that Wedgewood must negotiate with Moms 4 Housing or pay relocation expenses or other compensation. The next day there will be no vacant homes. Every one of them will be occupied by an armed security guard.
The housing problem can be solved, but it won’t be easy with the state government dominated by people who are committed to the policies that are causing the problem. We could tear down their “urban boundary” and allow some well-managed “sprawl” to ease the housing crisis. We could reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), so decisions about whether and how to build are made in a reasonable amount of time. We could eliminate the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), which enables any attorney to search for technical violations by businesses and then “enforce” the law by suing. We could protect the rights of landlords so more people are willing to be in the rental housing business. We could stop raising taxes and examine what other states are doing with business incentives.
Housing is a necessity, not a right. There can’t be a right to anything that has to be provided by other people. The solution to the housing crisis is to set the incentives straight so people are once again willing to provide housing, whether as landlords or home builders, who will then compete for customers. The customers need jobs that pay enough to afford housing. That’s how it is in other states, and that’s how it used to be in California. It could be again. Breaking and entering may seem like the only option that’s left to us. It’s not.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. She was a one-time candidate for the 45th Congressional District in California and is the Vice President of Communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Ms. Shelley may be reached at at Susan@SusanShelley.com. Follow Ms. Shelley on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley. This editorial was first published by the Daily News newspaper on December 28, 2019 and was reprinted with permission of the author.
Editor’s Note: The four homeless moms who’ve been occupying an empty Oakland house since November, along with their children, have now become Bay Area folk heroes and the inspiration for a regional movement called Moms 4 Housing. The mothers had hoped not only to house themselves and their young children for the holiday season, but also to raise awareness of the fact that there are about 4,000 vacant housing units in Oakland — which is approximately the number of homeless people that are currently living in Oakland. What the four moms are doing is clearly illegal. They were served an eviction notice about 3-weeks after moving into the home in early December, but then appealed the eviction. As of the date of this writing, the eviction has not been carried out pending a ruling by the court. But in the meantime, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Patrick McKinney II has allowed the four moms and their children to remain in the home pending his ruling.