Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004 / 18 Shevat, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Housing hurdles, Part II | It is a sad but understandable fact that 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 that they can then apply for other permits to eventually build just one house on those 18 acres.

Even "open space" zealots should have to admit that one house on 18 acres is hardly the bogeyman of "overcrowding" that 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 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 that allows them 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 those 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 of land, so as 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 concern for aesthetics is that some of the ugliest land in California is part of the "open space" that some people rhapsodize about. Part of this space is brown withered grass throughout the long rain-less summer. When you see green grass in California during the summer, that is usually where people live and have sprinklers.

The planning commission staff report commands that, while the construction is going on, "all holes shall be covered at night" so as to prevent certain frogs or garter snakes from going into those holes and being trapped there when construction resumes the next day. In addition, the builders must construct "exclusionary fencing around the entire construction area" to try to keep out these frogs and garter snakes.

In order to make sure that 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 more micro-managing.

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Neither this couple nor the San Mateo County planning commission are unique. Another couple building a home in Pebble Beach found that they were not allowed to cut down some tall trees with shallow roots which can easily blow over in the wind and fall on their house — or on them, for that matter.

No doubt there are reasons for each of the many restrictions and requirements that bureaucrats think up. But when people are spending their own money, they decide that everything that can possibly be done does not have to be done, because often it is just not worth it. No such constraint exists when bureaucrats are imposing costs on others.

So what if you have to build an extra fence, halt construction in mid-stream, or follow many other petty orders? It doesn't cost the bureaucrats a dime.

It is not just people who are building their own homes who run into these extra costs that are piled on. So do renters.

It was a cause for celebration not long ago when approval was received to start constructing an apartment building near San Francisco. Approval had been pending for two decades! Rents are going to have to cover all the costs that piled up for 20 years.

Meanwhile, the great mantra of "affordable housing" rings out across the land, often proclaimed by those who are making housing unaffordable, even by the affluent.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


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