Dominant California Housing Narratives

Dominant narratives, says Dr. Tiffany Manuel of TheCaseMade, “are common explanations, beliefs, or ways of thinking that get reinforced through culture (e.g., through the stories we tell and our culture norms) that often make it more difficult for people to see their collective interest in having systems designed to produce equitable outcomes. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither.” 

Narratives of housing in California are no different — there are key narratives that dominate the definition of the problems and the discussion of the best solutions. Some of those narratives work in favor of the solutions that housing advocates propose; others against. 

Ten Dominant Narratives

In the media landscape assessment conducted as part of the formative research, researchers identified ten dominant narratives shaping California’s housing debates and how they reflect a spectrum of stances toward housing production and the role of government in addressing California’s housing crisis.

Graphic: 10 Dominant Narratives About Housing in California

Narratives Differ on Stance Toward Government Intervention and Housing Development

Media Coverage is One Way that Narratives are Shaped

Graphic: 10 Narratives About Housing in California

It’s critical to note that these narratives reflect a snapshot in time: this media landscape assessment was conducted January–June 2019, and it’s likely that narratives around housing access and affordability have grown even more urgent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For the full report — including details on which of these narratives dominate in different communities across the state — download the updated media landscape analysis report (2022). For further thinking on common housing messages — and how they backfire — see also “You Don’t Have to Live Here” from Frameworks Institute and Enterprise Community Partners authored by Dr. Tiffany Manuel.

High Saliency on the Problem, but Low Alignment on Solutions

Another thing that’s vital for housing advocates to understand is the very high salience of housing among California voters: across all mindset segments, housing and homelessness were consistently ranked among voters’ top concerns. 

This is good news for housing advocates, who don’t need to raise awareness about the problem or stoke the call for solutions — California voters already see these issues as urgent and important. Housing Affordability and Homelessness rank among the top five concerns across all mindsets. 

Personal Concerns Ranked Across Segments

Rugged Individualists (small header, orange)
  1. Homelessness*
  2. Housing Affordability
  3. Nonviolent Crime
  4. Drugs*
  5. Violent Crime
American Dreamers (small header, orange)
  1. Housing Affordability
  2. Homelessness
  3. Drugs*
  4. Violent Crime
  5. Healthcare
Pro-Government Pragmatists (small header, orange)
  1. Homelessness
  2. Housing Affordability
  3. Poverty
  4. Healthcare
  5. Violent Crime*
Dream Disruptors (small header, orange)
  1. Housing Affordability*
  2. Healthcare
  3. Poverty*
  4. Homelessness
  5. Unemployment*
Equity Enthusiasts (small header, orange)
  1. Housing Affordability*
  2. Poverty*
  3. Homelessness
  4. Healthcare
  5. Climate Change*

Numbers from December 2019
* Statistically more important that the item below
For complete chart, download the full report.

What the mindset segmentation further indicates is that while California voters can agree there’s a serious housing problem, they are not aligned on the source of the problem or on the solutions to address it. Equity Enthusiasts and Dream Disruptors see California’s housing crisis as a systemic issue demanding government solutions, whereas American Dreamers see it as an individual problem that the government can help address. Pro-Government Pragmatists are conflicted as to whether it’s a systemic or individual problem, but they believe that government is part of the solution. Rugged Individualists, meanwhile, see it as an individual problem best addressed via market solutions. 

This means that advocates have an opportunity to step in to frame the problem and pose solutions. By uniting Californians with a shared narrative on housing, advocates have an opportunity to create a winning coalition for reforms. 

Aerial view of Oakland, CA // Derick Daily /