One reason given by California’s liberal Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein for opposing the confirmation of state Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the federal judiciary is that Justice Brown has refused to put property rights on a lower plane than other constitutional rights and has criticized the destruction of property rights in San Francisco. Mrs. Feinstein has said it is “simply untrue” that property rights have been sacrificed in San Francisco. According to Mrs. Feinstein, private property “is alive and well” in San Francisco, “with property values making it one of the highest cost-of-living cities in the United States.”
It might be humorous, if it were not so sad, that a senior United States senator has so completely missed the point of discussions about the destruction of property rights that have been going on for decades in legal and intellectual circles.
One of the main reasons for the outrageous housing prices in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay area is precisely the overriding of property rights. Endless restrictions, obstructions, and bureaucratic delays face anyone building anything on his own property in this area and have forced housing costs to astronomical levels.
The issue is not the prosperity of property owners, many of whom benefit enormously from the restrictions on building that cause the value of their own existing property to skyrocket. San Francisco property owners like Mrs. Feinstein have made out like bandits from these restrictions on property rights.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown noted pointedly during her nomination hearings that she cannot afford to live in San Francisco, but has to commute from far away for court hearings held there. That is part of the cost of politicians ignoring property rights and courts letting them get away with it.
The costs are even higher when rent-control laws override property rights and create housing shortages in the process. Homelessness is particularly acute in cities with severe rent control laws, such as San Francisco and New York.
People sleeping on the sidewalks in Manhattan during the winter can die of exposure, despite far more boarded-up apartment buildings than would be required to house them all. Yet those buildings are boarded up because rent-control laws make them uneconomical to operate.
The main victims of the politicians and courts overriding property rights are people who own no property. The main proponents of these violations of property rights are often people who do.
None of this is peculiar to San Francisco or New York. Wealthy property owners in Loudoun County, Va., have passed laws restricting the building of housing on less than a one-acre lot in some places, and five- or 10-acre lots elsewhere.
These laws destroyed plans to build tens of thousands of housing units in that county. Violations of property rights allow the affluent to keep out ordinary people. This is the ugly reality behind the sweet liberal rhetoric.
It was Page One news recently that an 18-story condominium building is to be constructed in South San Francisco. It took two decades for the builders to fight their way through all the politicians, courts, bureaucracies and environmental activists.
All this costs money, and all that money is going to come out of the hides of the people who move into that building. Meanwhile, the value of Mrs. Feinstein’s home in San Francisco will keep on rising, which she regards as proof that property rights are being protected.
Far down the income scale from Mrs. Feinstein is a nurse who, according to a local newspaper, “has finally bought her dream house” near the long-delayed condominium. This is a 2,400-square foot house selling for $850,000. High housing costs in California are not due to people living in mansions but to bungalows costing what mansions cost elsewhere.
How many members of her family will have to sacrifice how much of their paychecks to carry this crushing mortgage burden is a question that doesn’t bother most liberals. Mrs. Feinstein doesn’t seem to understand why such things bother Justice Brown.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.