Housing is Organic

Mammals need shelter. In this respect, humans are no different. Although there is a tendency to make a distinction between the needs of humans from other mammals, our fundamental needs are the same. It can be reasonably argued that human life is a more sophisticated process, but over emphasizing this notion often leads to the kind of hubris that is detrimental to society. A major source of the aforementioned detriment is the false belief that humans have the capacity to control complex systems. We must accept that there are forces beyond our control. Accordingly, we must learn to respond to these forces in an appropriate manner. The following is a brief exploration of the conflict that exists between the nature of human housing and jurisdictional policy.

Housing is essential to human life. Human life is an organic process with a number of continuous changes and adjustments that are made rapidly from one moment to the next in response to changes that occur within the mental and or environmental circumstances in which humans find themselves. The previously mentioned adjustment process also applies to housing, in that a family needs to modify their housing, in order to accommodate changes to its circumstances, such as; a death in the family, the addition of a family member, or a change to its finances. Conflict arises when jurisdictional policy is too rigid to properly deal with the dynamic nature of human life in general and housing in particular.

A number of people inhabit unpermitted buildings, or construction improvements that suit their needs, but are unable to bring these improvements into compliance, because local jurisdictional policy inhibits the process. There are buildings with a current use that is unapproved, even though the current use is better for all stakeholders, including the owner, the neighborhood and the city. In some cases even city employees will unofficially concede that a project is an asset to the community and as such, is very likely to be approved, yet the official process for doing so can be so costly, that bringing the building into compliance is unfeasible.

A major reason for jurisdictional inflexibility is due to their ignorance regarding the principles of economies of scale. There are many natural reasons why large firms have lower unit costs than small firms, but jurisdictional policy often places additional pressure on smaller firms, families or entities. A manifestation of said pressure can be observed in some jurisdictions, where the threshold fees charged for a zoning adjustment are not proportional to the scope of the project.  When an owner of a 2 unit building is compelled to pay fees comparable to those required of a developer looking to attain a similar zoning adjustment for a 20 unit building, this places an unfair economic burden on small operators. Should a retiree that owns a duplex and lives in one unit, while using the rent from the additional unit to get by, be kept in non-compliance because they don’t have the same economic resources as a big developer? The aforementioned scenario would indicate that at times the policy is substandard, not the building.

Most people would find it absurd to have a jurisdictional policy that regulates; when, where and how a bird should build its nest. This kind of top down management doesn’t work for birds, because a bird is privy to information regarding its needs, to which policy makers are unaware. The same scenario applies to people. Jurisdictional zoning policy that ignores the needs of families and individuals will lead to conflict. When good people break arbitrary laws to accommodate their needs it’s probably time to reexamine the policy. There are many millions of dollars worth of buildings in California that are not properly permitted due to toxic jurisdictional policy. Clearly some unapproved buildings and construction modifications simply need to be demolished, but there is a substantial stock of buildings that are both well built and good for the community. Local jurisdictions need to be open to assisting owners in bringing good buildings into compliance.