Housing hurdles: Part II
for Washington Times
It is sad but understandably true there are many places where the
poor cannot afford to buy a house. California has the distinction
of having many places where the affluent cannot afford to buy or build
a house — and it is not necessarily a slam dunk for the rich.
A couple in San Mateo County who own 18 acres of land have spent more
than a year and a half trying to get a preliminary permit, just so
they can then apply for other permits to eventually build just one
house on those 18 acres.
Even "open space" zealots should admit one house on 18 acres
is hardly the bogeyman of "overcrowding" they invoke when
they try to stop anybody from building anything. Whether this particular
couple will be stopped only the future can tell.
If they are in good health and take care of themselves, they may yet
live long enough to actually see the house built and to move into
it. At a recent meeting of the San Mateo County Planning Commission,
a 30-page staff report showed how many hoops this couple had jumped
through thus far. And they now have only the preliminary permit to
go seek other permits.
The planning commission staff report speaks volumes about what is
wrong with the process of building even a single house in parts of
California where environmental zealots abound.
The planning commission staff has taken it upon itself to analyze
just where this one house can be allowed to be built on these 18 acres,to
reduce its "visibility" from local highways. The bureaucrats
want to "soften the visual impact of the development" —
that is, this couple's house.
The irony of this aesthetic concern is that some of the ugliest land
in California is part of the "open space" rhapsodized about.
Part of this space is brown withered grass throughout the long rainless
summer. When you see green grass in California in the summer, it is
usually where people live and have sprinklers.
The planning commission staff report orders that, during construction,
"all holes shall be covered at night" to prevent certain
frogs or garter snakes from entering them and being trapped when construction
resumes the next day. And the builders must construct "exclusionary
fencing around the entire construction area" to keep out those
frogs and garter snakes.
To esure this is done, "a trained biologist or a trained on-site
monitor should check the site daily" to see if any of these supposedly
endangered species are present — "and if any are found, construction
should be halted until they disperse naturally." In other words,
no shooing them away.
This is just scratching the surface. There are pages and pages of
Neither this couple nor the San Mateo County Planning Commission are
unique. Another couple building a home in Pebble Beach found they
were not allowed to cut down some shallow-rooted tall trees that easily
can blow over in the wind and fall on their house — or on them, for
No doubt there are reasons for each of the many restrictions and requirements
bureaucrats think up. But people who spend their own money decide
everything that can be done doesn't have to be done, because often
it just isn't worth it. There is no such constraint when bureaucrats
impose costs on others.
So what if you have to build an extra fence, halt construction in
midstream or follow many other petty orders? It doesn't cost the bureaucrats
It is not just people building their own homes who run into these
piled-on extra costs. So do renters.
It was cause for celebration not long ago when construction startup
was approved for an apartment building near San Francisco. Approval
had been pending two decades. Rents will have to cover all the costs
piled up over 20 years.
Meanwhile, the great mantra of "affordable housing" rings
out across the land, often proclaimed by those who are making housing
unaffordable, even for the affluent.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.