How to create affordable housing

I’m referring to government-regulated affordable housing — deed restricted to keep it affordable for 55 years, rent controlled and appreciation-limited, subject to income verification. Large projects of regulated Affordable Housing are rarely built in Sonoma, and the reasons are all about money.

When the State of California eliminated funding for Redevelopment Agencies in 2012, the 20% set-aside in that funding for the creation of Affordable Housing disappeared. When it was available, the 20% set-aside was used to issue bonds for housing development; the stability of the property tax revenues from which funding was taken made bond issuance a viable option. Bonds of 20-30 years, paid-off using ongoing tax revenues, provided millions of dollars to subsidize non-profit homebuilder projects or the purchase of land that was donated to facilitate a project.

Unfortunately, the City of Sonoma did nothing to replace the lost Redevelopment Agency revenues until recently. Had the TOT tax been raised, housing impact fees levied, and other revenue-raising avenues been implemented in 2013, today the City of Sonoma would have millions to use for low-income Affordable Housing. This is important because without government subsidy, significant numbers of Affordable Housing does not and will not get built. A higher TOT and impact fees are now being imposed, but it will take many years to accumulate significant funding.

Some argue that the problem is one of land cost; the high cost of land in the city and valley does pose a hurdle to the creation of low-income housing. Similarly, the high cost of construction, now pegged at well over $500/square foot, has raised the bar. This is why government subsidy is necessary, and always has been. All real estate projects need to pencil-out for investors over a 10-year period; lower-priced housing produces a lower return on investment, and real estate investors, non-profits and otherwise, will not wait 20 or 30 years to get a sufficient return. It’s the reality of housing economics in a capitalist system, unfortunately.

Others aver that neighbors and NIMBYS object to higher-density housing; higher-density is one way of lowering development costs. But the evidence is that approval of such project applications overcomes such objections. The City of Sonoma, the Planning Commission and the City Council have all supported higher-density projects, and if proposed and funded, the city will continue to do so. This sustains a commitment to the creation of Affordable Housing that has been city policy for the past 30 years, at least. What’s changed is the availability of money.

The Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) limits the expansion of the city limits, but makes an exception for adding land for low and very-low income housing. In fact, its the only type of housing an expansion of the UGB will allow. Without government funding however, even this exception will not be utilized; again, whether it’s a non-profit or profit-based home builder, a project must pencil-out or it won’t happen.

Arguments that Affordable Housing creation in Sonoma is governed by issues of class, segregation, bigotry and greed are wrong; history shows that when government funding is available applications are approved. The problem is a lack of applications, and that’s due to a shortage of government money. When it comes to the lack of Affordable Housing, it’s not NIMBYS or class-warfare at work, it’s good old-fashioned capitalist economics.

The craziness

If you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re not alone. Many of us feel our ship of state is floundering and that its rudder’s fallen off. It’s not just the antics of our dishonest and quarrelsome President that’s troubling, but that America appears to have lost its way in a complicated world changing so quickly that none of us have time to catch up.

Every culture in human history has undergone periods of success and periods of failure, a developmental arc in time marked by social stability followed by social instability and collapse. Some thinkers credit such oscillations as the essential energetic force that propels human culture forward, and that from each collapse we emerge wiser and more resilient as a species.

Technological change forms the backdrop for our human drama; first fire, then metallurgy, then machine industry, and now digitized information have successively altered our relationship to nature. As people, our individual and collective beliefs and capabilities reflect the technology dominant during any particular age; despite this changing backdrop, human history appears largely cyclical, as does the arc of social evolution.

Historian Jacques Barzan described the past 500 years of western history as an age of increasing emancipation — of race, gender, art and ideas. Yet this progressive emancipation fuels resentment by those who prefer things not change, and we witness the effects of that resentment in the rise of authoritarian and fundamentalist movements — political, social and religious — an ongoing oscillation of reaction and counter-reaction.

Understanding human history was the favored subject of the social philosopher Giambattisa Vico (1668-1754), who proposed that each society repeatedly cycles through three primary phases. The Theological phase is tribal and embodies “poetic wisdom,” imaginative and mythical beliefs about humankind, nature and the divine. The Rational phase, embodying written language, sophisticated thought and heightened social organization, is marked by authoritarian power structures and hierarchy. This is followed by the Democratic phase during which emancipation movements as noted by Barzan occur, accompanied by increased social disorder and the chaos such movements engender. Ultimately, disorder leads to collapse from which a new Theological phase emerges and the cycle begins again. In the words of Vico, “Men first felt necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”

Thus human civilizations and societies rise and fall and rise again. China, for example, provides a 6,000-year example of the cyclical pattern described by Vico, and in our modern, sped-up times, the 240-year-old United States is moving through its own Viconian cycles rapidly. Technology distorts time itself; third-world societies like India are quickly moving through the Theological phase to the Democratic phase. If Vico is correct, the craziness we are witnessing is simply the latest chapter in a history book of cyclical change that has been written over the past 10,000 years.

When it comes to craziness, should they ever be used, nuclear weapons will break the chain of human history and perhaps all life on Planet Earth.Yet, like Vico, Hindu theology also describes phases of society, and they call our present phase the Kali Yuga, the last of four phases. Yuga means age, and Kali is the Hindu Goddess of destruction; Kali Yuga is marked by strife, disorder, conflict and chaos.

Rest assured, it’s not you that’s crazy.

Change fascinates us

Our fixation with moving screen images is perhaps the most obvious example of our fascination with change, but whether fast or slow, change unfailingly captures our attention. Change is so constant and pervasive that it is at times overwhelming, but change itself is really the only constant in our lives. We’re it not for our profoundly powerful powers of denial and delusion, inhibition and suppression, the reality’s constantly changing bombardment of our psyches would render us insane.

The universe and time itself are unfolding around and through each of us, each moment the irrevocable transition of a constantly changing present we call “now.” We can join with the moment of “now,” but cannot halt it; nor can we slow it down; our only option is to make choices.  “Now” is a moving target; the choices we make are always either in response to a change we have experienced or in anticipation of change we expect.

The ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, is also called The Book of Changes, and offers 64 hexagrams representing basic types of situations and choices we commonly face. By throwing coins or yarrow stalks and recording patterns, we place ourselves in sync with the moments of time, and the result produces an oracle of contemplation.

Some people consult the I Ching in pursuit of an answer, looking for advice on how to solve a problem or dilemma; a description of a state of mind or condition is described, and a possible way of working with it suggested. The images and metaphors of the I Ching are often obscure, and the relationship between the two trigrams that combine to create each hexagram often point to the duality of mind. Commonly, however, the oracle points to a shift to one or another hexagram for consultation through what are called “moving lines.” In this way, change itself is introduced into the process, forcing us to drop attachments and to understand our role in the universe as observer, not simply participant.

Painted scrolls from China’s classical period always feature magnificent natural scenes of mountains, clouds, forests, and rivers; the people in such paintings are always pictured as very small and almost insignificant. Such treatment indicates a philosophical view about the nature of being: that humanity is simply a tiny part of something much larger, much grander. Accordingly, the descriptive images in the I Ching are often of mountains, rivers, clouds and natural forces such as thunder. It is the antithesis of our western view of the ascendancy and importance of the individual, as amply illustrated in artist Andy Warhol’s garish, larger-than-life portraits of Hollywood celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor.

By linking human experience and choice to metaphors of nature, the I Ching reminds us of our connection to the greater natural world and seeks to unify the experience of being rather than highlight separateness. It wisely points to the patterns of nature, what emerges and changes, to suggest how we might get out of our own way. Our emotional penchant to try to stop time and make “now” last forever distracts us from the truth of change.

Thus, the I Ching is not a magic 8-ball; it does not make infallible predictions or tell the future. Rather, it is a device, a methodology intended to divert us away from preoccupations of self-absorption and deliver us gently into the arms of uncertainty.

Gaming the system

Each of us are born into The System, a social organization of rules and conventions developed and deployed by our fore bearers. Having been progressively adopted in the past, The System is always obsolete and in need of tinkering; the assumptions upon which The System was developed never quite match currently existing conditions, and impel society relentlessly forward in an attempt to catch up.

Because human organizations always reflect political imperatives, the rules and conventions of The System tend to favor particular groups or interests over others. And in our particular American system of social organization, the influence of moneyed interests historically has dominated all others. Lobbying of lawmakers, both locally and nationally, combined with campaign finance assistance, manipulates legislative will to its intended goal.

To counter such manipulation, competing groups and interests seek to “Game The System.” In order to overcome disadvantages they suffer or fear to suffer, they hire experts and consultants, lawyers and technical experts, who ferret out hidden opportunities in the language of laws allowing them to circumvent and avoid the rules of The System. This is the strategy of the business world, the public at large and even government itself. In other words, The System is about gaming The System.

In simplest terms, we create laws and then spend our time figuring out how to get around them. This is true of tax laws, where an army of finance professionals is poised to take advantage of every tax loophole, ambiguity, and opportunity. This is also true of land-use laws, as an equally impressive army of environmental consultants, traffic and soil engineers, architects and attorneys are regularly arrayed to find ways not to comply with the rules as written. At its extreme, gaming The System relies on courts and judges to sort out disputes and to clarify to what extent The System may or may not be gamed.

We expect government to assert the welfare of the citizens, not its own self interest as an institution, but are often disappointed; money has corrupted the decision-making of government. The continuous growth of the cost of government inclines it towards decisions favorable to the production of revenue – taxes, fees, and assessments – often associated with increased business activity. In this way, the citizen’s interests are frequently subordinated by government to the interests of business. The controversy surrounding federal rules governing the local deployment of 5G high-wave-frequency technology is a good example.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was created to protect the public from foreseeable harm to the environment. Accordingly, a process exists to identify projects that should be evaluated through CEQA to determine any and all significant negative impacts. Courts have held that even a possibility of significant impacts should trigger environmental review, yet too often, government sides with project applicants in ways intended to avoid CEQA. Improper granting of exemptions, inadequate environmental studies, and poor selection of consultants are just some of the means government uses to game its own rules, to game The System. Such behavior makes even the cynical blush.

An additional element of gaming The System includes attempted intimidation of lawmakers through rumor, innuendo, hit pieces and social media, but that’s politics in the 21st century. Yet, good old-fashioned cronyism, naked appeals to sentimentality and nostalgia still own their place

Passing the baton

It was recently announced that millennials now outnumber baby boomers in the United States, a milestone in the history of American demographics. For nearly all our roughly seventy-five years, baby boomers have dominated trends in fashion, economics, technology, science and environment, but this chapter is drawing to a close.

Today’s baby boomers are the world’s largest geriatric generation, seventy-five million members strong. In its youth, the post-world-war-two boomer generation led to the popularity of Dr. Spock and his theories about raising babies, the creation of the first generation of kids television, and a surge in school construction and educational reforms. And the sheer number of boomers produced a tidal wave of commercial consumerism that continues unabated today.

As teenagers, boomers created a teeny-bopper culture that supported a transformation of the music industry into a record-spinning, DJ chattering, AM radio frenzy and ultimately the rise of pop music and rock-n-roll into a full fledged, billion-dollar business. As the Vietnam War spun out of control, boomers swung into a massive anti-war movement combined with smoking pot and rejecting establishment values, though not all members of the Boomer Generation became hippies. Spaceship Earth shifted into an entirely new phase, especially when it came to consumerism; despite knowledge of impending ecological disaster, boomers joined the rush to buy, buy, buy.

As adults, boomers fueled sprawling suburban development and massive freeways; taking a cue from our parents, we became capitalist business innovators, particularly in technology. Combining business savvy with design sensitivity, over time the cars, the appliances, and the products we enjoy have become less expensive, better in quality and more widely available. But the by-products of such consumption – pollution from fossil-fuel emissions, discarded single use plastic, and dangerous toxins in the environment – were largely ignored.

The world is waking up to the consequences of Boomer self-indulgence, but perhaps too slowly. The Boomer in the White House is intent on continuing consumer consumption, and industry is addicted to continued growth at any cost. The patterns established by the Boomers so restructured culture and society that abandoning them appears to require abandoning much of the 20th century; in response, we find ourselves confronting the sorts of movements that dominated most of earlier human history, such as fervent Nationalism, Militarism, Totalitarianism, and Racism.

The aging of the Boomers does not look pretty. Unlike our parents, who grew up in a world devoid of pesticides, plastics, antibiotics, and most of the 80,000 chemicals now routinely used in manufacturing, today’s Boomers simultaneously enjoy exceptionally effective medical treatments and technology amid a startling rise in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and resistance to antibiotics. The Boomers’ parents lived longer than any in American history, but Boomers are  witness to the first decline in lifespan in one hundred years, now succumbing to the excesses of an indulgent lifestyle as they pass the baton to millennials.

Both of my parents lived to their nineties, but my prospects appear dimmer. A poster-boy for my generation, I cope with heart disease, type-2 diabetes and take a fist-full of pharmaceuticals each day. Meanwhile, we Boomers are about to overwhelm America’s medical system.

In the wise words of Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron, “If you’re lucky you’ll live to 70, if you’re very lucky 80, and if you’re not so lucky, you’ll live to 90.” Sigh.

Front Porch Fantasy

As modern life progresses and introduces new cultural forms, our tendency leans to retrieving artifacts from the past. This process of retrieval softens the shock of obsolescence; through names, shapes or designs, outdated cultural artifacts lend their comfort and familiarity to newer, less familiar ones. Automobiles provide a ready example; the Ford Mustang retrieved the heritage of the horse-drawn carriage.

As media critic Marshall McLuhan observed, society spends considerable time “in the rear view mirror,” which is to say, harkening back to the past to ease our passage into the future. The music from the 60s and 70s used widely in today’s commercial advertising appeals, no doubt, to Baby Boomers. So too it is in the field of home architecture, where the inclusion of a front porch is de rigueur, despite the rare sight of anyone sitting there.

In my daily walks about town (I barely drive my car, anymore), I’ve had occasion to wander through nearly every neighborhood, and only rarely have I seen a front porch in use. Most front porches have comfy-looking chairs or seating just right for relaxing and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of iced-tea, but they’re 95% vacant. Front porches are an idea we like, but no longer actually enjoy.

Without doubt, a front porch makes a home feel warmer and more neighborly, what the real estate business calls “curb appeal,” and the common presence of comfy furniture completes the pleasant illusion. In earlier, more relaxed times, front porches were a place where neighbors met and caught-up with each other’s lives. And a presence overlooking the street was not only inviting, but also added a sense of security and watchfulness to a neighborhood. In these hurried times, however, when street traffic is comprised almost entirely of cars and leisurely walking is in decline, the front porch has been abandoned. Sadly, in some places neighbors have been abandoned, too, replaced by Airbnb clients and vacation rental transients. Whether out of fear or preference, it seems we prefer privacy above all else.

It may be that front porches, like single family homes, are simply becoming obsolete. The housing market in Sonoma Valley is vastly overpriced, and what’s needed is multi-family developments and apartments more affordable to a wider spectrum of tenants. In some localities, laws are zoning new single family homes out of existence. But I suspect even multi-family apartment buildings will continue to incorporate front porches of some kind.

For walkers like myself, stopping to chat with folks sitting on their front porch is enjoyable. Although the conversations tend to be brief and often perfunctory, a “hello” here and a “how are you?” there, research reveals that it is the frequency of such personal interactions that is the leading indicator of longevity. The greater the number of friendly, albeit brief, contacts with others the greater the likelihood of living longer; it’s importance ranks higher than giving up smoking or even being married.

So it turns out the front porch is not simply about “curb appeal” or the sales price of a home. Although seemingly anachronistic, providing a context for positive interaction increases human lifespan and improves health. Sometimes, retrieval and appreciation of past forms is more than simply “looking in the rear view mirror”; sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.

See you around, neighbor.

The meaning of life

In the brief time we spend on earth, each of us goes about our business in whatever particular way we do, placing one foot in front of the other as the days and years roll by. “Waxing philosophical,” as my late father used to say, is something else apart, the activity of ruminating on the “why” questions that can’t easily be answered by anyone. When one gets old and organs begin to wear out, thinking about the meaning of life comes more naturally, so here’s my tentative answer: The Meaning of Life is to Eat, Shit and Reproduce; everything else is gravy.

From a biological perspective, all living things eat, shit and reproduce; it’s the essence of self-perpetuation and the perpetuation of one specific species and other species. The interdependent, synergistic system of life on earth is based upon a cycle of life and death, a “no-waste” ecology of integration and disintegration where the by-products, the shit, of all living things – plants, animals and microbes of all types – become the building blocks for the lives of other living things. Leaves on trees, for example, utilize the carbon dioxide animals discard as a by-product of using oxygen for energy, and animals utilize the oxygen discarded as the by-product of leaves’ photosynthesis. Thus it is and thus life has always been. Eat, shit and reproduce; that’s life’s system.

This brings us to the gravy part. And considering the lowliest single-celled animal to the most sophisticated, the role of gravy cannot be over-estimated. A single-celled amoeba handles life’s basics, of course; it eats, shits and reproduces, but we know nothing of how it feels to be an amoeba. In the presence of something to eat, does the amoeba feel excitement, or a rush of pleasant anticipation? Does an amoeba get gravy, too?

Emotions are essential tools of survival, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the emotions I feel evolved from the amoeba-like, simplest experiences of feeling. Perhaps the entirety of sense perception developed in service to eating, shitting and reproducing, and what we solemnly regard as thinking is simply the act of filling unattended, left-over space during a 24-hour day. Predictably, much of that thinking is about eating, shitting and reproducing. Hollywood gets it, and HBO, and Arby’s.

For the fortunate, living provides some mighty-fine gravy. The eating thing, in particular, makes people happy. Tastes vary, but when something is tasty it brings feelings of pleasure and a vast, biological cascade of chemically-induced happiness. Need I draw your attention to the newest restaurant in town? The mere prospect prompts excitement. Music produces the same effect, or enjoying the view from the Overlook Trail; this speaks to the tempting role of gravy in life and the power of feeling. Life’s motivation is gravy-centered.

Which brings us to reproduction; talk about the release of chemical happiness! Studies show that people think about sex as often as they think about food. Reproduction is what keeps the system of life going, so it delivers big ladles of gravy.

Waxing philosophically for a moment, I wonder if the arising of self-awareness – consciousness of self and other – is simply the “gravy-effect” or something more? Conversely, is the meaning of life on earth about the evolution of consciousness, and all the eating, shitting and reproducing actually in the service of gravy?