California has the second highest home prices of any state, behind only Hawaii. Housing costs have increased by 10.1% in the past year, while the number of homes sold has decreased by 6.9%.

California’s government bet that they knew better than the free market. And now millions are paying the price.

The story begins in 1919, when the city of Berkley, California instituted legislation setting aside districts that would only allow the construction of single-family housing. The idea spread, and soon much of California’s urban areas had adopted the zoning policy. Today, approximately 40% of the total land in Los Angeles is set aside for single-family homes, while only 11% is reserved for multi-family residences. 

In 2021, a bill was signed which was intended to end single-family zoning in California. But politics is rarely that simple. The decision was met with widespread protests and an LA County Court recently declared the law unconstitutional, preventing its passing in 5 Southern California cities. While many celebrated the ruling, the decision has perpetuated California’s housing crisis.

The logic behind the original legislation was to preserve the “charm” of California’s neighborhoods. In the eyes of policymakers, multi-family residences such as apartment complexes or duplexes would sully the white-picket fence aesthetic which they saw as a staple of Californian life. While this may appear like a harmless notion, this idealism came with devastating consequences.

The problem with this policy is apparent to those with an understanding of supply and demand. By preventing high-capacity residences from being built, the supply of housing has been artificially constrained by the legislation. Even as demand rises for increased housing, companies cannot produce the necessary residences to meet the desire. When demand rises while supply remains fixed, prices will surge. And that’s exactly what happened.

California has the second highest home prices of any state, behind only Hawaii. Housing costs have increased by 10.1% in the past year, while the number of homes sold has decreased by 6.9%. As of March 2024, the average price of a house in LA is a staggering $974,000. In San Francisco, that figure is 1.29 million.

These soaring rates have heavily affected the citizenry. California has the 4th highest homelessness per capita rate among U.S. states. Over 180,000 Californians are homeless, which is almost a third of the nation’s entire homeless population.

While the cause of some homelessness is self-inflicted, studies have found a direct correlation between the cost of housing and rates of homelessness. With the second-highest housing costs of any state, it’s safe to say daunting housing prices are at least partially to blame for a vast number of California’s displaced citizens.

Another consequence of the legislation is an increase in class inequality. California has the fourth-most unequal income distribution of any state. The zoning law contributes to this problem by acting as a gatekeeper that excludes low-income families from better neighborhoods, sacrificing equality for community “quality.” Accompanied by the state’s stringent school choice laws, many citizens are left attending lower-caliber schools in worse neighborhoods. This harms future career opportunities and feeds the vicious generational cycle of poverty.

These issues are all either caused or exacerbated by the single-family zoning legislation which has constrained the state’s housing market for decades. The directive prevents the construction of apartment complexes, or other housing structures which would cater to a larger constituency, keeping prices too high for many to afford. From 1919 to the present, politicians have continued to turn a blind eye to single-family zoning’s detrimental effects in the pursuit of the perceived good of protecting neighborhoods.

The Fundamental Problem with Government Intervention

Government intervention always leads to unintended consequences. It’s a tale as old as government. But why does it so often result in disaster?

There’s a fatal flaw at the root of all bureaucratic intervention: a lack of information. In any centralized decision, there is an incalculable amount of pertinent decentralized information that is not available to governmental bodies.

In the absence of intervention, this information is communicated through prices. Even though all of the information will never be understood by the same person at once, we’re still able to coordinate our plans to reach a productive end. That’s the beauty of the price system. You may have no idea that a cocoa farm in Ghana had a poor yield, but you will buy less cocoa when it costs more than usual. A series of complex events can all be boiled down to a simple price hike.

Government intervention is the wrench in the works. No centralized body can know all of the variables in a given situation. While protecting Californian neighborhoods sounds good, it is a gross simplification of the actual issues at play. Restricting the supply of housing leads to a bevy of consequences, including skyrocketing prices, rampant homelessness, and pervasive inequality. The pursuit of a solution in the absence of information usually ends up hurting more people than it helps.

Economics is often regarded as a dismal science reserved for bookworms and professors. But for the homeless who are struggling to survive because of market-hampering governmental policies, economics is about life and death. When the government intervenes in the market system because it “knows best,” it far too often doesn’t, and innocent people pay the price. It’s up to us to hold our leaders accountable for the consequences of their actions and to help those harmed by their political arrogance.

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