Writings, research & portfolio

“If he’s very good”

Right before I left the SF Bay, I wrote a column for the paper I worked at about housing prices. The housing crisis has pushed employees far away from where they work and has pushed high-tech job centers closer to where executives work. A possible solution, I argued, was to take pains to include employees into the conversation around housing in small cities like Palo Alto or Los Altos.

A screen cap of Redfin showing housing prices in Los Altos, CA, where I worked as a reporter.

A screen cap of Redfin showing housing prices in Los Altos, CA, where I worked as a reporter.

I also gave my own suggestion on what the city could do in order to give employees equity in a city with a $2.8 million median home price.

The people here should share the wealth we’ve built together with those of us who work here. The way to do that is not only to build affordable apartments along El Camino Real, but also to make serious commitments. Precisely 80 percent of the land area in Los Altos is set aside for single-family housing. If we can up-zone just a small portion of that and allow multifamily homes, we could have the true vibrancy that so many desire and give workers here a stake in the city they want to see thrive.

Most folks responded with some form of sympathy. One wrote in, essentially saying “no” to all that:

Los Altos may never be a community for most teachers, or service workers, or even young, upwardly mobile software engineers. Asher proposes a solution looking for a problem: Build more housing. But if you can’t afford to live in Los Altos as it currently is, that’s all right with most of us.

We wish Asher luck. If he’s very good, or very lucky, and very financially successful, we will welcome him back with open arms.

I’m not interested in picking on this dude or tending to my pride, but examining the three ways he outlines to get good housing in America:

  • Be very good
  • Be very lucky
  •  Be very financially successful.

The moral weight we attribute to where we live in this country is astounding. Especially because housing is never an individual decision but rather one made with the full weight of society bearing down, both the laws written by the dead and the cultural tastes determined by the living.

There is something very Calvinist about this view of housing, that a person must be good (or lucky, or wealthy) to live in a good place. The opposite must be true as well, in this worldview: a “bad” place full of crime, or poorly-performing schools, or lacking job opportunities, must be full of bad people. 

I think this person has a point: that if a community is not affordable, that’s alright with most of the community. It demonstrates this market-tested morality for them – or in other words, grace.

There are several reasons I left the Bay. Some of those are reasons why I’m now in Chicago. I think people, if left to their own devices, want to see themselves as good and lucky and financially successful. I want to find out how to build, and sustain, and pay for communities that reflect that desire.

Asher KohnCalifornia, housing