Thomas Sowell

Politics, according to an old adage, is "the art of the possible." But, during election years especially, politics has increasingly become the art of the impossible. What politicians promise to all the various groups adds up to more than anyone can possibly deliver. Sometimes what they propose on one occasion contradicts what they proposed on a different occasion.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California provides a classic example. She is proposing federal legislation that would make more than two million additional acres of land in California off-limits to development. This is the same Senator Boxer who has repeatedly lamented California's lack of "affordable housing."

What keeps housing from being affordable? High land prices! And what makes California land so expensive? Laws reducing the amount of land on which it is legal to build housing -- that is, laws such as the one that Barbara Boxer is now pushing.

California housing prices were not always so out of line with prices in the rest of the country. Rents and home prices have skyrocketed in coastal California since the 1970s, when severe restrictions on building drove land prices out of sight.

In the college town of Palo Alto, adjacent to Stanford University, home prices nearly quadrupled during the decade of the 1970s, even though there was no increase in the town's population. Today, an ad offers a house for sale for $1,095,000 in Palo Alto -- a house built in the 1920s, three bedrooms and one bathroom, 1,300 square feet in all, with a detached "oversized 1-car garage."

Not all homes in Palo Alto cost a million dollars, but very few cost less than half a million -- and you probably would not want to live in those few. Houses costing upwards of half a million dollars are sold as fixer-uppers or tearer-downers -- that is, houses either requiring extensive repairs or houses in such bad shape that you are better off tearing them down and building a new house.

If the houses are so worthless, what is the half a million plus for? The land! And why? Because people like Senator Barbara Boxer are forever making more land legally off-limits for building, causing the price of the remaining land to skyrocket out of sight because of its artificial scarcity.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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