Whose American Dream?

By John Gamboa

As a long-time community activist, I’m increasingly concerned that our current debate about “affordable housing” has skewed too far into an exclusive focus on the development of multi-family rentals, below-market rate units, and primarily serving the needs of those living in poverty — without an equal focus on creating more opportunities for homeownership across the income spectrum. In my view, this is a flawed approach.

An over-zealous focus on public housing dooms a huge swath of the population to perpetual tenancy. It also means generations of Californians, including people of color, would lose the opportunity for wealth accumulation that accompanies ownership. A balanced approach would develop more rental housing and more housing available for purchase. If we’re to craft housing policy that benefits everyone, we have to take a “both/and” approach.

So I was disturbed by a recent article in the LA Times that implied housing policy should be focused primarily on serving people living in poverty — and then suggest that people of color will be the primary beneficiaries. “The YIMBY movement has a white privilege problem,” a prominent anti-poverty advocate told the L.A. Times this week. “They don’t understand poverty.” In case you were wondering, the advocate is white.

As a non-white person, I have never been accused of having a white privilege problem. I take exception to the notion that any organization or individual, including myself, can speak for an entire community. I also find it offensive to deny the opportunity for Latinos, African Americans and other minorities who aspire to climb the ladder of opportunity to enjoy the benefits of financial prosperity.

Homeownership is the primary driver of economic wealth in our country. If California’s housing and poverty advocates really want to achieve their vision of an equitable and prosperous society, they must include not just a drive for public and subsidized housing, but also a focus on expanding opportunities for ownership to people of all incomes and backgrounds.

Our state’s Legislative Analyst Office has found that California’s housing crisis is too pervasive to be solved with subsidized housing alone; to do so would require dedicating the entire state budget, and then some. We also need to remove barriers to building, while encouraging municipalities to add their fair share of workforce housing. Increasing the state’s overall housing stock is also necessary to take demand pressure off housing units currently serving those at the lower end of the economic scale.

I’m passionate about addressing the systemic causes of poverty, and applaud anyone who spends their life working to serve those most in need. But I also believe strongly that all Americans deserve an equal shot at economic prosperity. If that means we need to change the shape and form of some of our neighborhoods, so be it; it’s a small price to pay to lift our communities toward the American dream.

I’m a proud YIMBY because I believe that California is for everyone. Let’s start a new conversation around how we can work together to ensure that, when newcomers arrive at our Golden Gate — regardless of their race, income, or economic status — we’ve got a home for them all.