The good book tells us that a prophet is without honor in his own country, but he is still a prophet. A prime example of that verity can be found in the aftermath of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Agins v. City of Tiburon, 24 Cal.3d 266 (1979). There, the court’s majority held that (notwithstanding the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier decisions to the contrary), there would now be no such thing as a regulatory taking of property in California. An aggrieved owner’s remedy for confiscatory regulations would no longer be the just compensation specified in the Fifth Amendment. The only remedy would now be a petition for a writ of mandate invalidating the offending regulation, or perhaps declaratory relief where the unconstitutionality of the regulation appeared on its face. But no compensation. Needless to say, that message of extremism in land regulation was received in city halls across the state: would-be builders were now fair game.
The Agins holding was at first upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on other grounds (lack of ripeness), but in 1978 it was expressly overruled in First English etc. Church v. County of Los Angeles, 482 U.S. 304 (1987) which held that the California Supreme Court had decided Agins incorrectly. That much is no news for takings law mavens. But in addition to the Agins majority opinion, there was a dissent by Justice William P. Clark, Jr.. In addition to disagreeing with the majority’s substantive holding on remedies, he also gave us a glimpse of the future. He predicted that if judicially tolerated, the kind of extreme land-use regulations exemplified by Agins would lead to a housing disaster in California.
As Clark put it, “Perhaps of greater concern is the consequence that Tiburon — and many other governmental agencies enacting similar land use plans — will price properties within their control out of reach of most people. Only the most wealthy will be able to afford purchase of and construction on lands in such areas. The environment which Tiburon seeks to preserve will disproportionately benefit that wealthy landowner, whose home will be surrounded by open space, unobstructed view and unpolluted atmosphere.” 24 Cal. 3d 283-284.
Justice Clark wrote in 1979, and the passage of time has proven him right – the California Agins majority holding was expressly overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 – and Clark’s economic prediction has come true as well. According to Zillow, during the elapsed time, even with the 2008 recession, the median price of a California home soared to $585,000. And housing prices in disfavored inland areas are also moving up dramatically – as I write, the Los Angeles Times reports that in Stockton, home prices have risen by 92% in the past five years. Median homes in San Francisco have gone over the top — literally and figuratively — and now go for over $1,000,000. And remember, “median” means that half the homes in “Baghdad-by-the Bay” now go for more than a million dollars apiece.
Two Presidential Commissions on Housing studied the problem and concluded that excessive cost of regulation and selfish demands of NIMBY suburbanites, in which local regulators acquiesce, lie at the root of California’s dizzying housing costs. Things have come to such a state that even the proposed construction of as few as three small, single-family houses in a residential area can become a protracted litigational nightmare; Conor Dougherty, Getting to Yes on Nimby Street, N.Y. Times, Dec. 1, 2017, Sunday Business Sec. p.1. And it took 30 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in municipal fees for the unfortunate Bonnie Agins to get permission to build three homes on her 5-acre parcel.
But what about the legislature? Oh, it passes seemingly pertinent laws said to address the problem, but actually do not accomplish much. Land-use and housing regulations are administrated locally, and as a practical matter state legislation does not carry much weight there. The latest batch of legislation is advertised as a solution to our housing crisis; it imposes new taxes on real estate transactions, which will inevitably increase overall housing costs. In other words, the legislature cannot repeal the law of supply and demand. Michael M. Berger said it all in one of his columns in this newspaper when he characterized such legislative efforts as All Yak, No Shack. Daily Journal, March 2, 2005.
What is unfolding in California are the harsh effects of the laws of economics, and of an unspoken policy choice by local governments and courts to limit population growth by using harshly restrictive land-use regulations that drive housing prices above most people’s ability to buy. One result is a growing homeless population. All this fattens the home equities of existing home owners (read, local voters), and increasingly drives ordinary folks to migrate to other states. In North Carolina, for example, to which members of my family have migrated, you can buy a 3000 square foot, four-bedroom suburban home on a sizable plot of land, for about $250,000. So you can sell your half-million dollar California shack, move to a nice Charlotte suburb, buy a home free and clear, and still stash a quarter million dollars as a kitty for your retirement. Sounds like an economic no-brainer, and many departing Californians agree.
But be careful. For if you like living in the California foreshadowed by Justice Clark almost 40 years ago, where home price trends are set by appetites of conspicuously consuming, big-buck techies and movie folks, you may get what you wish for. Actually, you are in the process of getting it, ready or not, so enjoy it if you can.
This post appeared as a column in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on 12/6/17