A Tear-Jerker About the Housing Saga of Some Rich Jerks

Warning: You might need an entire box of tissues to get through this sad saga of the rich, as it is a real tear-jerker.

Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, buckaroos, and let Ol’ Cactus Jim here tell you about some of today’s hardy, hardworking cowboys. Yes, those pals of the saddle, manly men who live free-spirited, yippy-ti-yi-yo cowboy lives out in the rustic ranch country of the Rocky Mountain West.

Oh, wait — that was a century ago. The “cowboys” who’re now humming “Home on the Range” across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are multimillionaire and billionaire corporate titans and celebrities like Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and Bruce Willis. They don’t live here or mix with locals, nor do they actually “ranch” their spectacular 300,000-acre spreads, since they aren’t cowboys and don’t know how.

So, they hire some real ranching outfits to bring in some cattle, sheep and other ranching accoutrements, then they occasionally fly in on private jets to strut around like some combination of John Wayne and Hoss Cartwright. They are, in a word, pathetic.

But they surely are land barons, spending up to $200 million each for their vast spreads. Indeed, these rich dilettantes rule the availability of ranch land and scenic wilderness, pricing out people who really want to ranch and locking out families who want to experience some of nature’s most majestic rivers and mountains. Fifteen years ago, the biggest private landowners held 27 million acres; now they’ve grabbed 42 million acres for themselves… and climbing.

Well, say apologists for wealth concentration, they bought the land with their money, so it’s fair and square. But hold on, slick. These latter-day mountain men don’t come just for the views, hunting and exclusivity: The ranches entitle them to generous land subsidies, plus, in states like Wyoming, huge ranches amount to no-tax hideaways for the wealth of the rich.

So, even though you and I are shut out of these gated land baronies, at least we can take pride in knowing that it’s our tax dollars that help the rich buy them… and lock the gates.

The “old homeplace” is a classic piece of Americana, expressed in everything from Norman Rockwell paintings to such powerful folk laments as Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore.”

But for a heart-rending, modern-day version of the emotional pull of home, you can’t beat the poignant wail of a new song entitled: “The Low-down, Down-home Atherton Rich Man Blues.” Warning: You might need an entire box of tissues to get through this sad saga, a real tear-jerker.

The setting is Atherton, California, a very small town of some 7,500 souls who face a dreadful housing crisis. Unlike most situations, though, the problem that these residents face is not a critical shortage of decent shelter, but the threat of too much housing! It seems that a recent California law requires cities to provide a bit of affordable, multifamily housing to help cope with a growing statewide shortage of homes, meaning Atherton needs to put in about 350 townhouse units.

“Townhouses!” shrieked the locals. “This can’t be! Un-rich people live in townhouses! Make them go away!”

You see, Atherton is a precious enclave in the heart of Silicon Valley, where only tech CEOs, venture capitalists and other gigabillionaires are allowed. The prices of their bejeweled mansions average about $8 million, with each one secluded on at least an acre of land. So… townhouse people? No way. As one affordable housing advocate put it, “Atherton talks about multifamily housing as if it was a Martian invasion.” In a letter to the city council, the uber-uber-rich Andreessen family wailed that allowing more than one residence per acre in Atherton “will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors,” I’m sure you weep for them, so grab a tissue.

Yet, some Athertonians are at least trying to find solutions. One denizen suggests that all of the residents’ swimming pool cabanas should count toward the town’s affordable housing requirements.

If that won’t make you cry, nothing will.

Jim Hightower