There are certain standard Los Angeles conversations. Things that people talk about, over and over. Crime, the price of real estate. Traffic on the freeways and the price of real estate. Always the price of real estate, that is, the price of the single-family house. For the middle class in Southern California, it's an obsession.
And no wonder. Ownership of land and a home is a big part of the American dream, yet locally it is soaring beyond the reach of most. In July, Orange County had the highest median home price in the state--$219,542; in Los Angeles the median price was $188,210, up 23.7% from the same period a year ago.
Even more astonishing than the numbers is the rate of their escalation. In the two years that my wife and I have owned our house, its appreciation in value has rivaled our work incomes. If we were entering the housing market for the first time now, we could not afford the house we live in.
The rapid hike in house prices sends reverberations throughout the community. It changes neighborhoods from investments in living space into fiscal investments. It hikes the hours all must work and the time spent on freeways. It means that both partners may have to work outside the home and hope they have enough time and energy left over for parenting. It may even affect the decision whether to have children and how many to have. The list goes on.
What concerns me most is less tangible. It is the way the pursuit of one ideal--a single-family home--diminishes another of our ideals--that of living together in a community.
When I was going to college in the early 1970s back East, one thing was understood about our plans for the future: Money was not important. What mattered was doing something interesting, meaningful and, if possible, socially important.
We were naive, no question about it. Part of it was being young. We thought that no one could want more than an apartment and enough money to buy records, books and take an occasional trip. Yet even then we knew that there would come a time when we might want more. We believed, and it seemed to be true, that we could live comfortably on modest means. Having grown up in single-family homes, our assumption was that, when the time came, we could have one, too.
The virtue of this assumption, whatever its failings (and ours in not living up to it), was that it encouraged work that was important but poorly paid. You were respected by peers for working in activist causes, in social service, for the government, even for academics and teaching. That made up for the lack of money. Choosing a life's work was supposed to be like getting married. You didn't do it for money--unless that was what you loved.
When I was in law school in the early '80s my classmates were surprised when I turned down a lucrative offer at a big law firm for a job in government. I was surprised at their surprise. It was what I wanted to do. Money surely couldn't be more important than that. If I were facing the same decision now, the price of real estate would make it a harder choice.
The Founding Fathers believed that a republic could survive only as long as its people were virtuous. Looking back on the experience of Greece and Rome they inveighed against the corruptions of luxury and promoted the necessity of individual sacrifices for the common good.
One danger in the real-estate boom is that the dream of home ownership will come to overshadow all else; that its seekers will not only make personal sacrifices in work and family life to pay for this dream, but will also cut back on their commitment of time and money to the community. The escalating price of houses has the potential to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in a way that extends far beyond real estate.
If there are not enough homes for everyone, the fight for home ownership becomes more personal and aggressive. Some will be left without. That is the way it has always been in this country. Yet there is a new edge to this old individualism, one borne of insecurity about the basic stuff of middle-class life. Instead of the traditional space and opportunity for the best and brightest, there is the fear that, regardless of merit the pool of resources is too small to be shared. Such insecurity is contagious.
With so much money tied up in housing, it is easy to think that there is not enough left for good public schools, public health care or effective law enforcement. The strong, i.e., the haves, can buy these services in the private sector. The rest will have to fight among themselves for a slice of the ever-diminishing public pie. The irony is that this slashes at the very source of real-estate wealth--the worth of the community as a place to live.
Los Angeles was sold as an ideal. A paradise by the sea, a community with single-family dwellings for all. Now that that ideal is fading for many, the challenge for all is to ensure that it remains a community.