CA housing market suffers as residents stay put, says Joe Matthews

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In 1985, one in five families moved each year. Now fewer than one in 10 do. Joe Mathews says that’s causing gridlock in the California housing market. Photo by Shutterstock.

Here in Southern California, we like to think of ourselves as people on the move, and part of that is literal. The place is so big that we have to pop in our cars just to get some milk or kombucha from the store down the street. 

We also stay physically active by running, walking, hiking, cycling, and swimming thanks to the mild climate, and pave new trends in technology, entertainment, and fashion. 

But Zócalo commentator Joe Mathews thinks there’s at least one way we’ve allowed ourselves to get tied down: We’re reluctant to move out of our homes.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews: 

Want to make California a better place?

Then move.

Any place in California will do. It would be great if you could relocate to a city near yours. Even better — stay in your own neighborhood and find a new place nearby.

Why am I asking you to go through the hassles and emotions of leaving one place for another? That’s because our state, which once prided itself on perpetual motion, is stuck in neutral. 

Californians have never been less mobile than they are right now. In the near term, our increasing tendency to stay in place means our housing market is gridlocked with too few vacancies. In the long term, our stasis may endanger us as our climate and economies shift. 

You might say our democracy has become a stay-ocracy with leaders devoted to keeping people right where they are. 

Our Proposition 13 system discourages homeowners and businesses from moving by keeping their taxes lower the longer they keep their properties. Californians routinely oppose new housing because it might displace existing residents. Rent control policies privilege keeping existing renters in place. Some even argue against removing homeless encampments and moving residents into more stable housing. 

Our governments routinely waste millions subsidizing rich California enterprises on the phony premise there’s an exodus of jobs and people out of the state. As Orange County Register columnist Jonathan Lansner tirelessly points out, California has the lowest outflow rate of residents of any American state. (California’s real problem: We’re terrible at attracting new residents.)

Such protections come with a high price. California’s tendency to address its problems by keeping people in their existing housing actually makes the housing shortage worse.

That’s because fewer people moving creates gridlock, according to a recent paper from USC scholars.

Moving is essential to a functional housing market. Each move creates a chain of vacancies, which allows other people to move and find housing. 

For example, older people who move to a retirement community sell their house to renters, who leave their previous apartment open for another renter — and so on.

This churn is far more important to mobility than new construction. The USC study estimates that over the course of a year, turnover of existing housing stock supplies more than 14 times as many vacancies as new construction. 

Vacancies are at a premium nationally. In 1985, one in five families moved each year. Now fewer than one in 10 do. 

There are many reasons why people are staying put. Housing construction came to a standstill during the Great Recession, creating a shortage just as large numbers of young adult Millennials entered the housing market. With more people chasing fewer homes, vacancies have plunged while housing prices keep rising.

Yes, building more housing will help solve this problem, but not fast enough. In the meantime, California should stop subsidizing people to remain in their homes and instead focus on making it possible for more Californians to move.

So, let’s end corporate subsidies and Prop 13 tax breaks, and use that money to help more people move from renting to buying with low-interest loans and down payment assistance. Let’s also subsidize the rent and moving costs of lower-income people so they have more housing options.

Creating a system that encourages more Californians to move could have benefits far beyond today’s housing needs.  

In his new book, “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us,” the international relations expert Parag Khanna foresees a future where moves aren’t a choice but a necessity. Khanna argues that, as climate change, political upheaval, economic crises and technological disruptions challenge existing communities and structures, and we all may need to move to more livable places. That will require governments to have “collective resettlement strategies” for the world population. 

“We can no longer afford to be passive observers of how human geography unfolds,” writes Khanna, adding that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be stuck in place anymore. After all, “a staggering share of our personal and professional lives hinges on mobility. Society only functions normally if we can move. Once you stop pedaling a bicycle, it quickly falls over. Our civilization is that bicycle.” 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman