For many of us in California, the election of Donald Trump came as a sobering reminder that, despite our state’s status as the 7th largest economy in the world and our commitments to environmental stewardship, inclusion, justice, and equity, we still represent just 1/8th of America’s population. Many of our fellow countrymen do not share these Californian values, or they feel shut out from the opportunity we enjoy here. In response, they’re sending us all down very different path than the one we’ve outlined for ourselves.
In response, a hashtag-able solution has been proposed: the #CalExit. If California and the rest of the country can’t agree on anything, we will simply start our own nation-state: an amicable separation from the rest of the United States that allows us to chart our own progressive course. California could easily support itself economically, after all, and we would no longer be hamstrung by a do-nothing federal government and convoluted, counterproductive national policies. We could really get things done.
Secession doesn’t sit well with many Californians though. It’s a seductive idea, but also a selfish one. Yes, we might accomplish more of our own goals: maintaining a woman’s right to choose, continuing to welcome immigrants, decreasing our environmental impact over time. But it would be just 40 million of us—only half the population of Germany. We’d be leaving behind nearly 300 million Americans, many of whom share the principles and values embedded in our great state, and all of whom would be subject to increased environmental degradation, voter suppression, and corporate kleptocracy in what was left of our (less) United States.
We at Abundant Housing LA have a counter-proposal, one we think is both more hopeful and more plausible: Instead of leaving America behind, we should bring America to us. Our state attracts people of all races and ethnicities, genders and sexual identities, faiths and cultures. It’s something we’ve long celebrated, and rightly so. Rather than parting ways with the United States, let’s dial that welcoming attitude into overdrive. Let’s be radically inclusive. Let us be a refuge, a 21st century Ellis Island, for internal and external refugees alike.
A globalizing world economy has created more wealth and economic growth than the world has ever seen, but it has also led to hardship in the areas left behind. And as we saw in this year’s election, the decline of working- and middle-class employment opportunities has consequences for us all. Manufacturing has been automated or shifted overseas, and most of those jobs are never coming back. Farming is on a similar trajectory. Rural life may have much to commend it, but there is no denying that urban towns and cities have a much greater breadth and depth of opportunities to offer their residents, and nowhere moreso than in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the Bay Area. What are we, as Californians and Americans, doing to extend those opportunities to all who would seize them, regardless of color, creed, or origin?
There are millions of people throughout this country who would love to move here: to enjoy all California has to offer, to participate in our economy and rich cultural life, to find and create opportunity in the creative capital of the world. What is happening now, though, is the reverse: a worsening housing crisis has made our state too expensive for many to migrate (or immigrate) to and is forcing tens of thousands of residents out every year. We are becoming the victims of our own success.
Lamentably, our president-elect has campaigned on the promise to deport many of our friends and neighbors, and to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Right here at home, though, a self-inflicted housing shortage has walled off millions of current and future Californians from joining our ranks and contributing to our communities. We must grapple with the reality that if constructing a wall along our southern border is morally repugnant, so too are the insurmountable economic barriers we’ve erected around our cities. Sanctuary cities hold no value if none but the privileged can afford to live in them.
So what can we do to change course, grow our state’s economy and political power, and offer an alternative to those left behind in the Midwest, South, and elsewhere? First and foremost we must make room. We must welcome new residents to our cities with the same graciousness and geniality with which we—in California, at least—have long sought to welcome new immigrants. We will need more Koreatowns and Emeryvilles, and fewer Brentwoods and Mountain Views. As we grow and reconfigure to accommodate these new residents, we must also adopt policies and safeguards that reduce displacement and protect our most vulnerable neighbors, as well as investing in support systems to help everyone—especially our aging Baby Boomer population—lean in to the transition and come out ahead.
To be clear, this need not be a sacrifice. California has spent decades fighting the rising tide of population growth, and it shows in the disconnected, haphazard development patterns that characterize many of our cities. Imagine how much more livable present-day Los Angeles might be had we sought to comprehensively plan for that growth rather than take every opportunity to close ourselves off to it. Even without appropriate planning, the people still came—now they’re just living in more crowded conditions, more dependent on driving to each and every destination, more likely to overpay for their rent or mortgage. Taking a proactive approach to growth will not only allow millions more people to join in the economic and cultural dynamism of California, it will also create better communities in which to live.
Planned well, growth can also create more of the amenities that make life in California so wonderful: more open space and parks to share with our neighbors, healthier and more efficient transportation options to connect us, and more jobs and educational opportunities closer to home. Governor Brown’s own Office of Planning and Research projects a state population of 50 million residents by the year 2050, whether we plan for it or not. Growth can bring the kind of investment and social capital—and political power—that bolsters us in the fight against regressive national policies, and it will allow us to open our doors to those struggling to find their place in the ailing economies of other states and nations. It will also achieve the primary goal of Abundant Housing LA: eliminating the shortage of housing in our region and throughout our state, and increasing affordability for all.
The country’s borders may be tightening in the months and years to come. In the cities of California our response shouldn’t be to turn our backs, but to open our arms wider. For many years now the U.S. has grown faster than California, and as a result we’ve ceded political power to less progressive states, places with a smaller and less hopeful vision for the future of America. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. It’s time we reverse course and re-establish ourselves as the political powerhouse we deserve to be, and that our country needs us to be. It’s time to open California back up to the rest of America, and the world—and to once again blaze the trail toward a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable future.
Abundant Housing LA is a volunteer-run organization committed to advocating for more housing. We want lower rents and a more sustainable and prosperous region, where everyone has more choices of where to live and how to pursue their dreams. We show support for projects and policies that advance this mission in many ways, but all of them are dependent on people power: the influence and advocacy of our members. We send out a weekly newsletter with information and actions you can take to support more housing choices, and we host a monthly meeting with members to strategize how best to achieve our goals. If you're interested in joining AHLA and building the coalition for a more open, inclusive city, you can sign-up here.