You’ve heard the story about frogs who don’t leap out of a kettle of water that is slowly brought to a boil. The story illustrates how people, like frogs, will succumb to slow changes without taking action. The story is a myth, but the principle holds true for California’s single-family homeowners, neighborhoods and communities.

Having passed over 64 housing bills in the past four years, the state legislature is misguidedly turning up the heat to eliminate single-family zoning. In 2021, for example, they are likely to pass a bill that will allow duplexes to be built on most single-family lots, regardless of local zoning. Legislators repeatedly attack cities’ rights to self-determination, which opens the door to marauding real estate speculators.  

The reasons change but the objective stays the same.

First high-density housing was proposed as a solution to climate change: build multi-family units near transit to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. That motto was abandoned.

Then high-density housing was marketed as the solution to “affordable” housing. But the housing frenzy was based on the exaggerated claimthat California faced a 3.5M housing unit shortage. 

Now legislators are saying that zoning for single-family homes should be eliminated because it is racist. They assume eliminating local control will solve historic inequities and corporate developers and landlords will increase affordability.  

Our single-family home neighborhoods are at risk along with the middle class. What’s going on?

A New York Times (8/31/20) headline offers an answer. “A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street—Hundreds of thousands of single-family homes are now in the hands of giant companies—squeezing renters for revenue and putting the American dream even further out of reach.”  

Who is turning up the heat to eliminate local authority and replace single-family home ownership with corporate landlords? Who benefits from legislation that gives developers the upper hand?

Economist Joel Kotkin, fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, offers a perspective.  Kotkin’s book is called The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.”   

Kotkin describes three economic levels: the small one percent of uber-wealthy he calls Oligarchs; a broader, educated, elite he calls the Clerisy; and a growing multitude of disenfranchised Yeoman, known as peasants in Medieval Times.   

The 21st century Oligarchs are the top echelon in technology at Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Kotkin reports that in 2018 these firms had a combined net worth equal to the GDP of France. Nine of the 13 richest people under age 40 are in tech and live in California. 

The Clerisy is made up of elected officials, staff in government agencies, universities, and some professional organizations. The Clerisy does the work for Oligarchs. Examples of the Clerisy include UC Berkeley Terner Center, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the California Housing and Community Development Agency (HCD).

Members of the Clerisy are likely to have health care and a pension. They take vacations and view themselves as smarter than others. They conduct studies, write reports, draft legislation, set agendas, control the clock, and shape the housing narrative. To Oligarchs and Clerisy, paying $350/person at The French Laundry is no big deal.

The Yeoman class is the expanding disenfranchised majority. Yeoman pay taxes, support the PTA, participate in homeowner or neighborhood associations, and advocate for fair wages and taxes, justice, and the environment. The Yeoman class includes the burgeoning impoverished and homeless.

YIMBYs carry water for the Clerisy who serve the Oligarchs. Their influence is expanding. They have introduced a national YIMBY Act, modeled after California’s housing bills. The YIMBYs also sue cities that strive to protect infrastructure. They denigrate community stewards who represent accountability, quality of life, and financial well-being 

Homeowners and community leaders, take note: the water is coming to a boil. Heed Kotkin’s warning.  Organize to stop the elimination of local control in order to move community wealth into the hands of the Oligarchs.

Susan Kirsch, political advisor and community organizer, chaired the Nix-the-Nine Campaign in 2020 and started Livable California in 2018.