Dec152016

California legislators want solar panels far more than they want houses

Forcing communities to accept housing like we force them to accept solar panels could solve California’s housing crisis.

Actions speak louder than words. Politicians pontificate on many issues, and they pander to their constituents to gain reelection. However, the laws they pass reflect what they really mean and value. Based on that criteria, California politicians clearly want solar panels and green energy far more than they want sufficient housing to accommodate our growing population.

Once the cost of solar panels came down enough to be cost effective, the early installations weren’t greeted with universal acclaim. Early solar panel arrays were large, bulky, and unattractive. Solar panels generally must face south (in the Northern Hemisphere) to point at the sun. If the south side of the house faced the street, many homeowners resisted installing these ugly panels on the front of their homes (and some HOAs wouldn’t allow it). The resistance from HOAs was by far the largest factor inhibiting widespread adoption of solar energy.

Homeowners Associations brim with nimby power. HOAs are typically the smallest and most local form of governance, and as such, they most strongly reflect the not-in-my-back-yard attitude of local residents. Overcoming nimby resistance starts at the HOA level.

Ordinarily, State legislators avoid imposing planning or architectural solutions on HOAs. After all, why should a Sacramento bureaucrat or legislator even have an opinion about what happens in a specific neighborhood? Well, if nimby resistance prevents implementation of a greater good, then a regional or state governing body is the only authority with the power to act.

I outlined this problem in the post, A possible solution to California’s housing crisis.

California needs more housing. Everyone recognizes this fact, even the nimbys who oppose all new developments. California builders and developers fail to produce sufficient quantities of housing because they meet opposition at every turn. Nobody wants more housing because they associate housing developments with increased traffic congestion, pollution, and the destruction of the natural environment.

California suffers from an economic malady known as the Tragedy of the Commons. According to Wikipedia, “The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.” So how does this apply to California housing?

Each individual in California wants to be the last new resident in their neighborhood. The nimbys lobby their local politicians to block new development because they believe it will improve their quality of life. And since local governments directly control development approvals in California, politicians pander to nimbys or face defeat at the polls; thus almost no new residential developments obtain approval in California, creating a shortage of housing that adversely impacts everyone.

Most economists believe the only solutions to “tragedy of the commons” type problems is for a government entity to step in and force cooperation for the greater good because individuals acting in their best interest fail to produce a desirable result.

Legislators decided solar panels installation and the expansion of green energy was important enough to wield its power to mandate a solution.

In response to the ugliness of early solar panel arrays, many HOAs in California sought to regulate or ban them entirely. The California State Legislature passed The California Solar Rights Act, found at Civil Code Sections 714 and 714.1, which provides certain protections for homeowners seeking to install solar panels on their properties. The Solar Rights Act prohibits HOAs from banning solar energy systems for aesthetic reasons — whether through an explicit ban or through onerous architectural restrictions that greatly reduce the performance of solar energy systems, or increase their costs.

These laws worked.

Rancho Santa Fe is a wealthy suburb in San Diego County. Wealthy people with plenty of time on their hands is a recipe for out-of-control nimbyism, but rather than fight a losing battle against solar installations, the HOA followed the letter of the law and sought ways to minimize the impact. Many of the locals don’t like some of the solar arrays, but they also recognize they can’t do anything about it, so they accept these monstrosities and life goes on.

rancho-santa-fe-solar-panel

The success of the solar panel law in neutering the nimbys provides a template for approving more housing in California. What if the California Legislature took the same approach to housing?

Legislative initiative

The California State Legislature could pass The California Housing Rights Act. This act would mandate that sufficient housing is provided to meet the needs of a growing population and economic growth. If any jurisdiction denies approval of housing construction sufficient to serve the commercial office space and retail in the jurisdiction, they would be subject to fines, loss of State funds for various programs, and other “sticks” the State could beat them with.

Further, like the solar panel laws, the jurisdiction couldn’t ban or impose onerous planning architectural restrictions that greatly reduce the economic viability, or increase housing costs.

Based on the experience with providing solar panels, this law would undoubtedly work. Nimbys would no longer have the option of simply saying no. Once they know they must provide a certain number of units in their jurisdiction, the discussion changes from a “yes or no” debate to a “how do we do it” debate. Intractable nimbys would simply not be heard in the community because their position would be untenable. Locals officials would be forced to find good solutions that accommodate needed housing — which is how the system should work.

It’s time we all sent a message to the legislature: we want houses just as badly as we want solar panels, perhaps even more so.

Ballot initiative

Since the legislature would probably not have the political courage to solve the housing crisis by passing such a law — despite the proven success of the solar panel law — it may be necessary to make the law subject to a California ballot initiative. Are there enough pissed off renters and would-be homeowners to pass such a law?

Maybe not today, but at some point, people will come to recognize that solutions like this one could really work, and we owe it to our children to solve the housing crisis or they will be forced to leave the state in search of affordable housing.