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During the pandemic, Lake Tahoe developed a “people problem”—or so a recent Guardian piece argues, describing an “influx of remote workers, second home buyers, traffic gridlock, and packed beaches,” a general overcrowding that has intensified over the past few years. The problem the article describes is a more extreme version of a familiar dynamic, with exploding real estate prices providing windfalls for longtime homeowners while increasing pressure on renters and pricing out prospective buyers. The median home price in Lake Tahoe has tripled between 2012 and 2021, exacerbating the basin’s labor shortage as locals relocate to nearby towns like Reno. On one hand, a “people problem”—a surplus of people—is another way of framing a housing shortage. With more people than housing, you can say there’s either too much of one or too little of the other; the default method for resolving that mismatch, the market, is supposed to balance supply and demand via pricing, eliminating shortages and surpluses altogether. Of course, housing doesn’t work that way. “There is a limit to how much housing can ever be constructed in the basin,” the article notes, in addition to height restrictions that preserve the natural landscape. As ever-rising prices indicate, the number of people who would like to have a place in Lake Tahoe exceeds that limit and is growing faster than the housing supply probably ever can.
“People problems” like Lake Tahoe’s current plight are an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly in the wake of the pandemic’s destabilizing effects. Inflation, overtourism, traffic, and urban housing crises are all people problems, from a certain perspective, but in the latter case that framing is inappropriate because housing is a fundamental human need—if there’s not enough of it, that suggests we need to somehow provide more. Luxury goods are different. Nobody thinks the difficulty of getting a reservation at Carbone means we need to build more Carbones (hopefully not, anyway) or that Rolex needs to flood the market with watches. But housing also embodies an urgent contradiction: It’s a basic human need that can be repurposed as a luxury good. One person’s second home could be another’s primary residence, and there are not always mechanisms in place to preserve housing for its more essential function. The most desirable tourist destinations, such as Lake Tahoe, are products that circulate in a global luxury market with effectively insatiable demand, which is unlikely to be met by incremental increases in housing supply. The townies can’t outbid the rest of the world.
The broader question that Lake Tahoe raises, then, concerns a particular kind of resource allocation. As the article asks: “Who is Tahoe for?” To what degree should geography be treated like a fungible commodity that trades on an unfettered global marketplace? Not only do the people who already inhabit a place have a special claim to it that is difficult to quantify, but the newcomers and visitors also benefit from their presence (otherwise, there would be no local employees to work in Lake Tahoe’s tourism industry). Urban gentrification is similar: Once a neighborhood passes a certain threshold, all the people who made it appealing are gone. The Tahoe piece describes recent efforts to develop housing that is reserved for local workers, and regulatory incentives in service of the same goal, all of which amounts to a project that will only become more important: reigning in market forces and creating or refining other systems of allocation. As a society, we have historically been good at this, but we seem to be getting worse as consumer logic suffuses every last domain, and the shortcomings of the market mechanism are becoming acute in places like Tahoe. There are limits to this, of course—the market does many things well, even if it does other things poorly. But, as I wrote in my most recent issue (paywalled for subscribers): “If everyone is competing for the same things, and money is once again our lingua franca, it seems urgent and inevitable that a new subcultural logic must emerge. But that will require a new currency and new infrastructure.” Despite its promise to offer the right amount of everything at the right price, markets don’t solve “people problems” like Lake Tahoe’s—they create them.
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Kate Wagner on NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s urban megaproject in the desert. “NEOM comes from a combination of the Greek word for new and the Arabic term for future—and what a grim future its slickly produced renderings augur, one of perpetual surveillance and consumption. No self-respecting architect should be its handmaiden.”
ChatGPT is a blurry JPEG of the web. Google quotes; OpenAI paraphrases.
For anyone who noticed/cares: In honor of hitting issue #200 I retired the numbering system. Kneeling Bus is all grown up.