The art of the impossible

Thomas Sowell

5/31/2002 12:00:00 AM - 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.

It will of course always be possible to confuse the issue -- and the voters -- by creating little token patches of "affordable housing" here and there with government subsidies. Sometimes these token "affordable" houses or apartments can be created by imposing requirements on private builders to sell a certain percentage of their housing "below market price." Of course, the builders then recoup their losses by raising the rents or home prices on the rest of the housing that they build.

Staggering housing prices translate into major changes -- for the worse -- in people's lives. Just to support a small family at a modest standard of living can require both parents to work full-time, when housing costs alone require spending thousands of dollars a month just to make the mortgage payment.

Unless you are in a highly paid profession, even two full-time jobs will not produce enough money to cover the mortgage on astronomically priced housing in places like Palo alto, San Francisco or much of the land in between. This means that people who work in these communities have to live far inland and make long commutes.

The sheriff's department in Redwood City, California, rents a house where its deputies can sleep after they have worked long hours of overtime. That is because many of the deputies have to live so far way, because they cannot afford the housing where they work, and it would be dangerous for them to have to drive all the way home at night when they are exhausted.

Thousands of other people also have to live far from their jobs because of artificially high housing costs, due to "open space" laws. In San Mateo County, where more than half the land is off-limits to building, the black population dropped by 23 percent between the 1990 census and the 2000 census.

All this -- and more -- is the price of the impossible combination of "open space" and "affordable housing" advocated by politicians like Barbara Boxer. But what is an impossibility between friends -- especially in an election year?