San Diego Business Journal

Conservatives like to say the best anti-poverty program is a job. But that's not really true, is it?

Because a job is just a temporary solution, something that can come and go with each rise and fall of the economic cycle, leaving each of us just one paycheck from poverty.

Unless, of course, we have something better. And for most people, that "something better" is savings in the form of a house.

For generations, Americans have depended on the equity in their homes to send their kids to college, fund their retirement and guard against economic catastrophe. Owning a home is the single most dramatic indicator of how someone will treat their neighborhood, their schools, even their own family.

But home ownership in California is endangered. Today, more people in eastern Europe own their own homes than in California. Our home ownership rates are dropping below 50 percent, among the lowest in the country. And we all know why: The so-called environmental rules and regulations that kill new housing.

But we cannot forget this: When the dream of owning a home dies in California, so will the dream of California.

And nowhere is the obituary for home ownership being written in bolder headlines than Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach.

Thirty years ago, the owners of Bolsa Chica looked out over an industrial wasteland of oil fields, polluted swamps and heavy equipment and saw something better: 1,200 acres of wetlands, parks, a marina, homes, a school, trails, and other amenities.

Blocked By Lawsuits

Soon, a plan was born and approved at the California Coastal Commission, but only after dozens of hearings and approvals at a myriad of local, state and federal agencies. Only after every newspaper in the area supported the plans; only after national planning associations gave the landowner its top award for excellence.

Then the environmental lawsuits began and the housing stopped. Over the last 30 years, plans for Bolsa Chica were changed to add more wetlands, more parks and more trails. The marina was dropped and the number of homes reduced from 5,000 to 1,200. The Coastal Commission approved it twice more, but only after more lawsuits, hundreds of meetings, extra revisions, and more approvals at every level of government , and every local newspaper editorial board.

Today, the project sits on less than 10 percent of its original land, the result of several deals with environmentalists and their lawyers, which they broke before the ink was dry on their agreements.

30 Years Of Greed

The homes, the parks, the schools and the trails are still unbuilt at Bolsa Chica. The oil wells, degraded wetlands and heavy equipment remain: a monument to the death of our dream of home ownership. It's also a monument to 30 years of greed and unfairness from attorneys who, almost unnoticed, destroy housing and job opportunities in California as if by carpet bombing.

Thirty years! To be fair, it must be said that most housing projects today only take 15 years. They should take 15 months, but frivolous lawsuits make sure that never happens.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse says Bolsa Chica is the greatest example of lawsuit abuse in California. The tragedy is they might not be right, because the destruction of housing is happening all over the state. Maybe not as dramatically as at Bolsa Chica, and maybe not as large. But we are losing housing and jobs that no one ever even hears about because of a system that declares our greatest good is somehow now our greatest evil.

I am not totally unbiased in this. A group I founded, the San Diego Black Contractors Association, trains young men and women to work as carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters and in other jobs in the building trades.

So we see first-hand another side of the housing crisis: How without plans like Bolsa Chica, fewer homes mean fewer jobs in places that used to be the best training ground for the unskilled and under-educated.

As these shrink, our permanent underclass grows. And no one seems to notice, let alone care.

Later this month, Bolsa Chica returns to the California Coastal Commission. Our workers may be young and often uneducated, but they see the connection between new homes and hope at places like Bolsa Chica because their lives depend on it. Their last best hope is that California housing regulators at the Coastal Commission and elsewhere see it, too.

Hameed, of San Diego, is president and executive director of the Black Contractors Association.