With blackouts, crippling taxation and unaffordable housing, the Golden State is a feudal society of super-rich and serfs
Fifty years ago, in her song California, Joni Mitchell captured the universal appeal of the eponymous state, a land of endless sunshine and golden opportunity. Contrasting her adopted home with the sheer greyness of life elsewhere, she wrote: “My heart cried out for you, California/ Oh California, I’m coming home”.
Coming home to California is not what people are crying out for these days. It may once have offered a kind of litany of platonic ideals of human happiness — opportunity, entertainment, wealth, innovation, sunshine, palm trees, movies and technology — but today, that litany would more likely be power cuts, forest fires, homelessness, crippling taxation, unaffordable housing and drought.
Up and down California this month businesses are closing early, shoppers are stocking up on non-perishable foods and smartphone users are going without their precious devices as the state’s electricity company imposes rolling power cuts to reduce the risks of forest fires.
The blackouts come on top of a homeless crisis that is among the worst in the country: almost one in four of the nation’s homeless live in California, though the state accounts for only about one eighth of the national population. A continuing drought has exacerbated California’s water shortages. The state remains perennially exposed to earthquakes and other natural perils. It has the highest petrol prices in the nation and among the very highest tax rates.
People have been voting with their feet for years. In the ten years to 2016, six million people left California to live elsewhere in the US, while five million came into the state. The population is still growing because of immigration from abroad and high birth rates — it’s now almost 40 million — but many Hispanic immigrants now choose to live in Texas.
The state’s woes are so manifold it’s hard to enumerate all the causes properly. The largest is housing, which has become almost unimaginably unaffordable for most Californians. The median home price in California is $614,000, almost three times the national average. The California Association of Realtors’ housing affordability index estimates the percentage of households that can afford to purchase the median-priced home. For California that number was 31 per cent in the third quarter of this year. For the US as a whole it was 56 per cent.
This is an entirely man-made debacle. Twin policies aimed at tackling climate change and restricting development in cities are responsible for creating a massive shortage of housing and driving up prices.
In cities such as San Francisco, where, thanks to the tech boom of the past two decades, renting a one-bedroom apartment can cost upwards of $5,000 a month, old shopping malls and warehouses sit empty awaiting redevelopment while builders fight with the bureaucracy over planning rules. Laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions from overuse of cars forbid housing construction in vast swathes of the state, and require instead concentrations of high-density development in and immediately around the big cities to encourage public transport use. But these areas are already among the most expensive and have limited development opportunities. Silicon Valley added almost 700,000 jobs in the past eight years but the various municipalities in the region have added only 160,000 units of housing.