The Ghost of Malthus in OC

Only four days after OC was named the third wealthiest county in the country (with 113,299 millionaire households), news comes that Irvine is taking measures to ensure low-cost housing remains available. Given the state of low-cost housing in OC (mostly nonexistent), and the fact that the LA Times article is dated April 1, at first I thought it might just be an April Fool's Day prank. But no, Irvine is serious, in the way that only a master-planned city can be. The city intends, in six weeks, to create the Irvine Community Land Trust, a non-profit corporation that, by 2025, should own 9,700 homes, condos and apartments.

To me, one of the more intriguing bits of this grand scheme is the location of the new housing.

The land has yet to be earmarked, city officials said, but much of the low-cost housing would probably be built in the planned Great Park development on the former El Toro Marine base.

Low income housing, El Toro– I immediately thought of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Anglican priest and political economist. Like Jesus, Malthus was concerned with the poor. Though unlike Jesus, Malthus was more concerned with thinning their ranks not through charity or social justice, but through attrition. Malthus was worried that there were more mouths to feed than food. And among his suggestions for correcting this situation was housing the surplus poor near unhealthy marshes, and letting disease lessen the burden on society.

Readers of the Times may recall that earlier this week the paper had a long, detailed story on trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent widely believed to be a potent cancer-causing agent.

If the EPA's 2001 draft risk assessment was correct, then possibly thousands of the nation's birth defects and cancers every year are due in part to TCE exposure, according to several academic experts.

"It is a World Trade Center in slow motion," said Boston University epidemiologist David Ozonoff, a TCE expert. "You would never notice it."

The story is largely dedicated to chronicling the Bush administration's effort to ignore the TCE problem, and thwart clean-up efforts, but it does contain a list of some most contaminated site in the nation, including:

El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine, Calif.:

TCE contaminated the groundwater under the base, now closed, which long ago complicated plans to reuse the property for private housing and a public park. The government will retain about 900 contaminated acres to continue cleanup for the indefinite future.

Of course, I'm sure that Irvine won't house the low-income anywhere near those 900 acres. I suppose I just had Malthus on the mind after reading a story in yesterday's Register, which definitely does have Malthusian overtones.

The Reg reports that the Orange County Transportation Authority will be removing 582 emergency call boxes from the county's freeways and toll roads. This will leave, for the moment at least, about 700 call boxes– though that won't be of much comfort if your emergency isn't near one of them. The OCTA says the boxes aren't cost effective anymore since so many of us have cell phones. And what if you're one those whose budget is already stretched too far by the county's lack of pre-2025 affordable housing to pay for a cell phone each month? What do you do in an emergency? Just try to make your way down the side of the freeway to help the best you can, and know as the cars scream past you, that the Reverend Malthus would approve of the OCTA's bright idea as sound political economy.

Of course, relying on cell phones like the OCTA wants might be doing its own part to reduce the surplus population, only on the upper end of the income scale as well. A new study by the Swedish National Institute for Working Life has concluded "that heavy users of mobile phones had a 240 percent increased risk of a malignant tumor on the side of the head the phone is used." The increase, while dramatic, still represents a fairly low overall risk. Like TCE, it's nothing the Bush administration would want you to worry over. Still, between cell phones and no emergency call boxes, maybe there will be a lot more housing available in 2025 than is currently projected.


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