California Forum

California housing is such a surreal nightmare, even Kafka would find it Kafkaesque

A homeless man sits at his street side tent on May 10, 2018, along the Interstate 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, file)
A homeless man sits at his street side tent on May 10, 2018, along the Interstate 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, file) AP

To: Joe Mathews

From: Franz Kafka

I keep hearing Californians calling your state’s housing crisis Kafkaesque.

You are far too kind. I never imagined a nightmare this cruel, absurd, and surreal.

I don’t know how I got to California. But I appeared here some weeks ago, in the form of an insect, like my protagonist in “The Metamorphosis.” And I’m glad I did. If I’d known weather like this in my lifetime, I might not have died of tuberculosis in Prague in 1924, at age 40.

In my prime, I was a master of conveying oppressive and intangible systems that trap humans. But I couldn’t have conceived of a wealthy and beautiful place of 40 million people that claims it is welcoming to the whole world, while refusing to house people.

In my prime, I was a master of conveying oppressive and intangible systems that trap humans. California, and its housing markets, do indeed fit that bill. But I couldn’t have conceived of a wealthy and beautiful place of 40 million people that claims it is welcoming to the whole world, while refusing to house people.

You Californians talk a big game about your environment. But by a surreal trick, the laws that supposedly protect the environment also make it so difficult to build housing – especially near your transit hubs – that housing is pushed to the periphery. While I am proud of my ability to create nightmares of labyrinthine illogic, I never managed to dream of anything so diabolical as your California Environmental Quality Act, which allows for the endless legal delays that were the staples of my stories.

You Californians have forgotten just how fundamental housing is – as shelter from life’s cruelties and as space to rest and think. I once wrote, “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen .… The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.”

I portrayed the paradoxical isolation of an overcrowded city in “The Trial.” Your state is reminiscent of that, but at an overwhelming scale, with escalating homelessness and a shortage of 2.5 million homes.

And oh, the terrible price you pay! And not just in rent. I had some health problems – migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and clinical depression. But your housing crisis is making you sicker than I ever was. Millions of you have moved so far from your jobs to find housing that your massive commutes are ruining your health.

All these pressures can put households in, well, Kafkaesque predicaments. I know about families – my father was a tyrant. In my story, “The Judgment,” a father won’t make any room in the world for his son, who jumps off a bridge. But many younger Californians can’t have a child in the first place. So many of you delay marriage and child-rearing because you can’t afford a home that your state’s birth rate is at a record low.

And good luck educating the kids you do have. Your schools don’t capture the full value of today’s sky-high housing prices because you have limited your property taxes.

Now, I portrayed an apartment as a prison in my novel “Amerika.” But, by not building enough housing, most of you have become prisoners in your own homes. You simply couldn’t afford the place where you currently live if it came on the market. More absurdly, the housing ideas that state officials propose (Mandatory solar! Rent control!) would make housing more costly.

If you don’t address the crisis more forcefully, I fear you will lose your taste for your sweet state, just as the salesman-turned-insect in “The Metamorphosis” loses his taste for his favorite foods: bread and milk.

Californians should read my novel “The Castle,” in which the protagonist arrives in a village but can’t get the permission to live there. I never finished the book, but I planned to have the village grant him the right to a home only when he was on his death bed.

California, do you really want an ending as Kafkaesque as that?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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