Recent news about rent increases and evictions, both locally and across the nation, have me pressing again to express something about land that we consciously ignore in this culture. 

Last week’s fine article in The Sun-Gazette about evictions at Linnell and Woodville Farm Labor Camps made me sick: those camps were established to help people not only be sheltered but to become settled. Until evictions and rent increases became common there two years ago, they were serving that important purpose. Another news item, this one on NPR about two weeks ago, described the overflowing numbers of previously-homed pets in the Los Angeles animal shelters due to rent increases and evictions of their owners. Not only are people suddenly shifting their possessions, looking for some kind of shelter they can afford, but now they must exclude animals from their lives, too. The animals are paying as well as the people. 

Why do we blink? I think we (i.e., those of us who own our homes) know that our own security is dependent upon ever-increasing land values to keep up with ever-increasing inflation. Personally, I think the reality of always-rising land values contributes to inflation, though that’s rarely mentioned in the news. It’s possible to understand that relationship better, however, through the lens of California’s water issues.

In his many articles about the acreage limitation of reclamation law, Paul Taylor frequently used a quote about people versus land. The acreage limitation provisions were put into place to ensure that water supplies developed by the nation’s taxpayers would be distributed equitably, evenly, to small resident landholders, the benefits of which then trickle up and develop towns. The law also prohibited the cashing-in by large landholders on the increase in land values produced by that water (sometimes called “the unearned increment.”) With that cash cow on the table, however, the large landholders were relentless in challenging the law in every way possible.

A legal case that came from Tulare County, Ivanhoe Irrigation District v. McCracken, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958. Taylor expressed the issue this way: “Congress says that reclaimed water and the incremental values it creates shall be distributed equitably among people. Large landholders want distribution of water and incremental values according to ownership of property in land.” Although the California Supreme Court sided with the large propertied interests, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision unanimously in favor of the law. Taylor wrote repeatedly over the next two decades that “The Supreme Court of the United States said that federal reclamation is ‘designed to benefit people, not land.’”

The reason is not just charity: economic equality is critical for democracy’s survival. During one of the reclamation law debates, Oregon’s respected U.S. Senator at that time, Wayne Morse, said this in 1959:

“We talk about political democracy, but we cannot have it without economic democracy…. (I)f I were to be asked to name one thing—if I were limited to one thing only—which I think is the greatest guarantee of the perpetuity of our democratic form of government, what I would name would be private home ownership in the city and family-farm ownership in the country. On that type of ownership, I think, is dependent, more than we sometimes fully realize, our whole system of political and economic freedom of choice for the individual.”

So when I hear the news media clamoring for more “affordable housing,” I hear the applause of land speculators and the building industry in the background, not tenants. Tenants are always subject to rising rents caused by rising land values, as well as increasingly tight restrictions on how they will live. Humane living conditions and stability of tenure are as important as cost, and until we begin to advocate for something beyond the addition of more Section 8 construction, we’re all complicit in the disadvantages being inflicted on the increasing number of people on the other side of the ownership divide.

“Where will my people lay their heads?” Jesus asks in a song written by Methodist minister John Pitney, also from Oregon. The rich landed man, who can’t fit through the eye of a needle and can’t take it with him, either, could do something to answer that question. May some revelations arrive during this season of Lent.

Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate who writes. You can send her your tenanthood stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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