Killing the California Dream need to give up on their dream of a “ranch-house lifestyle” and an “ample backyard” and the state should become “more like New York City,” writes LA Times columnist George Skelton (reprinted in the Mercury-News and East Bay Times in case you run into the LA Times paywall). After reading his article, the Antiplanner has just one question: Why?

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Skelton argues that California’s population has grown in the last 70 years and is still growing. But he doesn’t seem to realize that the vast majority of the state is still rural. The 2010 census found that urban areas covering just 5.3 percent of the state is urban and houses 95 percent of the state’s population.

In 2000, California conducted a housing supply study titled Raising the Roof. The full text of the study is no longer available on the California housing department’s web site, so I’ve posted it here. Chapter 3 assesses how much land in each county is available for development, data summarized in exhibit 13(previously cited here).

The study concluded that the four counties surrounding San Francisco — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Mateo — had 595,000 acres of developable land. Santa Clara County (San Jose) had 235,000 acres, while Los Angeles and Orange counties had 509,000 acres. Even after deducting wet lands, prime and unique farmlands, flood zones, special natural areas, and areas needed by endangered species, the San Francisco area had 245,000 acres, San Jose 80,000, and LA-Orange counties more than 280,000 acres.

If these lands are available, why aren’t they being developed? Chapter 4 of the study pointed out that “the majority of California cities and counties have adopted one or more growth control and/or growth management measures.” These measures make it impossible to build more than one house at a time on rural lands, and make even building that one house difficult.

California counties also charge developers severe impact fees to cover infrastructure costs. “The problem with this system is that it doesn’t work,” says the study, because the impact fees are so high that developments aren’t feasible. In addition, the California Environmental Quality Act has been interpreted in the courts to prevent counties from development rural land without an environmental impact report that costs around $20 million, and counties won’t pay that cost and developers can’t afford to.

As a result, the amount of land that was considered undeveloped but developable in 2000 is almost all still undeveloped today. Opening that land to development would allow California to grow out, not up, which is a lot more affordable. As the Antiplanner has noted before, both land prices and construction costs are higher for dense development than for low-density single-family homes.

Skelton is just one of many Los Angeles residents who don’t understand their region.

• Many consider it sprawl, yet it is the densest urban area in the United States: 7,000 people per square mile vs. 5,300 for the New York urban area (and a national average of 2,500), so to become more like New York it would have to add 350,000 acres to its land area.

• Many think it has been paved over with freeways, yet it has the fewest freeway miles per capita of any major urban area: about 53 miles per million residents vs. 68 in New York (and 122 for the national average urban area), so to be more like New York would require building 188 miles of new freeways.

• Many think that all it needs is to build more rail transit, yet for every new rail transit rider it has gained, it has lost five bus riders, meaning rail transit is more harmful to transit riders than even Uber and Lyft.

• Finally, many think it has run out of room, when in fact there is plenty of undeveloped land available.

Contrary to popular belief, most Millennials would rather live in the suburbs, while only 17 percent want to live in big cities. California cities and counties have effectively conspired to deny people this dream. LA Times writers such as Skelton should take a closer look before supporting that conspiracy.

Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Policy Center and author of the recent book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.

This piece originally appeared on The Antiplanner.

Cross-posted at New Geography



  1. Frank95054 says

    If the illegals return home, lots of vacancies will result. Rent prices will drop too. That being said, I believe some county’s use their zoning and planning regulations to discriminate in favor of affluent citizens. Case in point is Monterey County where thousands of new homes are under construction; but, not one home is being built for those who make the medium income of $63,876.

  2. California died this last election cycle when the Democrats corrupted the ballot box. We are just waiting for the funeral after which the debt will bury California!
    Sorry for the loss. But, I’m wondering when the trial will be for those that murdered her. We could name them all, but it is sufficient to say that it was the Democrat Party and their Progressive Left friends.

  3. Skelton hasn’t been out of his urban cubicle in more than a decade. His view of California is totally myopic.

  4. Supply and demand still rule the world. When government gets out of the way of developers there are no housing shortages. Insanely expensive and redundant environmental report requirements serve only the anti-growth tree huggers, not our citizens.

  5. Skelton was one of the reasons I quit the L.A. Times. Far left liberal POS.

  6. The things that George Skelton doesn’t understand are legion – he’s a hack: Past, present, and future. His journalism comprises copy and pasting releases from his favorite left-wing advocacy groups, and his bloviating has been an impetus driving CA from the status of a “CAN DO!” state, to one where everyone asks “What are you going to do for me”.

  7. Gimme what you earned, simply because I want it. That attitude is what killed off the California Dream. In other words, the Democrat take-over of this state – which has now made itself bullet proof due locking in their recent “vote-harvesting” scams. The California Dream is not free stuff, and it is not taking what others have earned. It is using your own talents and skill sets to get your own share. California community colleges open that door for free in this state. But only for those who walk through their doors. Sitting outside and carping is not California Dream. It is the self-inflicted California nightmare.

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