Housing in Santa Cruz is a rat race, homeowner Michael Levy argues, and we are passing the hurt on to our children and community by buying and selling at absurdly inflated prices. “I am guessing that most of us, given the choice, would opt for a housing system that is not inherently a scary place of winners and losers,” he writes. He supports Measure N, the empty home tax, as a way of getting funds to make housing more equal.
I’m a homeowner, and glad to be one — and I know I’ve been bribed. Let me explain.
I believe that every one of us deserves a decent place to live. And that life is better if no one is left out in the cold. And that, therefore, we have a common interest in housing everyone. Why don’t we take the necessary steps to make that happen?
Those who are wealthy are, for the moment, safely sheltered, and perhaps the least motivated for change. Those without property, who live at the whim of their landlords — or worse, in a tent — have the motivation, but the least power.
What about those of us in the middle — let’s say, the average homeowner in Santa Cruz?
Homeownership confers some security, but our housing system keeps us all awash in insecurity — just ask any stressed-out parents working two or more jobs to pay their mortgage, only to see their children move away because this area is too expensive. At the same time, this American Dream lulls us into thinking our own interests lie with the system as it now exists.
Though many of us would love to see humane reforms (that never seem to arrive), we often have little space to consider the deeper changes that could transform the situation, like reevaluating the role of “property” in our American Dream. In part, we are too busy to have a lot of energy to imagine a whole different world. But also, our property is one of the only things we can cling to to keep us from joining the growing number living in the renters’ pawnlike reality, or worse.
Many of us have worked damn hard to afford our houses. They were not handed to us. But the lion’s share of wealth from a market-based housing system does not flow to us. Real estate is big business, and homeownership is beginning to reside in fewer and fewer hands, with the big profits going to those who buy, sell and rent multiple properties. That is why really big money always pours into Santa Cruz to oppose any proposed change to the rules that might limit real estate profitability.
Essentially, we bought into a kind of rat race, wherein we had to pay absurdly inflated prices for our homes, and in turn, we expect to reap a big profit (and pass on the hurt) when we sell at even more absurdly inflated prices later. Meanwhile, many of our children will never own homes, and if we lose our jobs, we might not, either. We feel this insecurity in our bones. Under heavy threat, we accepted the bribe of ascending one ladder rung in a savage system of housing.
I am guessing that most of us, given the choice, would opt for a housing system that is not inherently a scary place of winners and losers. It is possible to imagine a system where no one has to worry about losing their home. One could start with the example of the Netherlands, where adequate housing for all is in the constitution. As a result, the government has created 32% of the total housing supply and 75% of the rental market, so the market can’t run so amok with it.
We’re not there yet.
But on the ballot in Santa Cruz, we do have a mild, yet helpful, idea for housing affordability: Measure N, the empty home tax, which in practice will mostly be a tax on second and third homes rented to no one. Proceeds go to create affordable housing.
It cuts maybe one millimeter from the bribe that this system has offered us homeowners — and I say you can take my millimeter. I’m ready for change.
Michael Levy is a Santa Cruz homeowner.