Viewpoints

Could one solution to California’s housing crisis be out to sea?

Twin Lakes Beach in Santa Cruz is one area where the Nature Conservancy is recruiting drone hobbyists to map coastal damage after storms to help predict what the California coastline will look like as sea levels rise from global warming.
Twin Lakes Beach in Santa Cruz is one area where the Nature Conservancy is recruiting drone hobbyists to map coastal damage after storms to help predict what the California coastline will look like as sea levels rise from global warming. The Nature Conservancy

Why can’t we solve California’s devastating housing shortage?

Because the proposed solutions – suburban sprawl, denser construction, granny flats, affordable housing mandates, regulation exemptions – are all built on the same flawed premise that housing must exist solely on land. And California’s combination of strict rules and anti-density NIMBYism makes it impossible to build the housing our population needs.

So what if we build our housing future at sea? If you haven’t heard yet of seasteading – the ocean form of homesteading – you soon will.

Floating cities are an ancient idea, dating to the lost city of Atlantis. Communities at sea are a durable cultural trope, from the Kevin Costner film “Waterworld” to the “BioShock” video games. In this holiday season, consider that the world’s hardiest seasteader is Santa Claus himself, laboring among the North Pole ice floes. Less mythically, a half-century ago, L. Ron Hubbard and other leaders of the Church of Scientology created the Sea Organization, a training compound of ships that mostly stayed offshore, away from the prying eyes of the authorities.

More recently, seasteading has gained ground among libertarians, particularly in Silicon Valley. For a time, techies contemplated how to build cities far out to sea, in international waters, so they could live by their own laws.

At the forefront now is the nonprofit Seasteading Institute, which envisions such places enabling “the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for how to live together.” In 2008, the institute received high-profile backing from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who preached for ocean communities as an “escape from politics in all its forms.” More recently, the venture capitalist has publicly soured on the idea, and sought to escape political reality by backing Donald Trump.

Skepticism is justified. It may be too costly and complicated to build a city on the rough, open ocean. But, according to the Seasteading Institute, protected coastal waters look promising.

For California, that’s good news. We have 840 miles of coast. While seasteading may sound like science fiction, it’s no less so than median housing prices that exceed seven figures in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties, and approach $1 million for new homes in Orange County.

While previous visions of sea cities have incorporated futuristic aquafarms or energy production, more modest cities with the straightforward goal of providing housing might be more viable. One might start with boats housing the homeless population, as former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos has urged.

Of course, California’s regulators and environmentalists would raise objections to people living in coastal waters. So it’s vital to sell the idea not merely as a response to housing but as a far-sighted answer to the two problems our state’s leaders care most about: climate change and drought.

Desalination is considered costly and inefficient as a water source, but perhaps financing desalination plants with the proceeds of new offshore development, attached to the plants, could change the economics.

Seasteading also could provide a dry run – OK, a wet run – for the not-so-distant future when rising sea levels inundate California’s greatest coastal cities and force millions of us to live on the ocean. In this way, cities on the sea would further our climate change leadership.

It’s hard to overstate how much the ocean can teach us. I’ve always loved the 1960s story of California-born teenager Robin Lee Graham and his five-year sailing voyage around the world. “At sea,” Graham wrote, “I learned how little a person needs, not how much.”

That’s a lesson all of California could learn, if we’re willing to build a future just off the coast.

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

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