Friday, June 30, 2023






        The idea of splitting California into two states is nothing new. Noplace as large as California, with its almost 170,000 square miles and its largest in the nation population of 39.2 million – even after losing 600,000 residents in the last few years – will ever be immune from people who believe smaller is better, as ex-Gov. Jerry Brown loudly proclaimed in the 1970s.


        As early as the 1940s, some in California’s most northern reaches began seeking a divorce from the rest of the state. Their proposal has never earned a legislative or popular vote above the county level.


        Since then, other splitting proposals have attempted to carve the state into seven parts, or three, or cut it in two along vertical north-south lines that would separate coastal counties from those a little bit inland.


        But until recently, all such plans called for large new states – smaller than California, but nothing like Wyoming or Alaska, whose areas are large, but support populations of 700,000 or less.


        Now, though, some folks in two counties that feel neglected want out. Last fall, voters in San Bernardino County – with the largest acreage of any American county – voted by a 50.6 percent majority to study separating from California to form a one-county state. Half a year later, that study has yet to begin in earnest.


        More recently, a separatist movement has arisen in El Dorado County, best known for containing part of the gorgeous Lake Tahoe. The El Dorado portion includes what many consider Lake Tahoe’s prettiest area, Emerald Bay, and its rocky Fannette Island, whose permanent population has never exceeded one. That was a sometime 19th Century English sea captain who built his own tomb and chapel on the peaked islet he considered a paradise.


        El Dorado County’s population is somewhat larger than that at 193,000, but South Lake Tahoe remains its biggest city, with 21,350 residents. The county seat of Placerville has half as many folks, while other towns like Grizzly Flats, Pollock Pines and Camino are far smaller.


        But that doesn’t matter to some residents of the county, who now support statehood for their large, mostly mountainous and wooded county.


        “We all know that our problem is representation,” complained one statehood supporter. “We don’t have a voice. We don’t have on representative in state or federal government that lives in El Dorado County.”


        Her sentiment echoed feelings in many Northern California counties, some of whose people have tried for decades to create a new 21-county State of Jefferson, which would putatively include everything from the Oregon state line south to the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas. The state capitol would be in Redding, largest city in the area and the Shasta County seat.


        Statehood activists in those counties long sought to ally with rural Oregon counties to make a somewhat larger state. But rural Oregon now appears more bent on trying the “Greater Idaho” concept, seeking to move the Idaho state line west to take in virtually all of Oregon east of the Cascade mountain range. Because that, like Jefferson, would probably take a statewide “yes” vote, it’s highly unlikely, but still a fun fantasy for a lot of folks.


        That’s also pretty much the situation in both San Bernardino and El Dorado counties, which lack many resources needed to sustain a state.


        Such realism, though, never dents enthusiasm for independence. That’s how it is in El Dorado, where statehood supporter Sharon Durst, 84, believes the county could appeal directly to Congress to separate it from California, even though some western parts of the county are effectively rural bedroom suburbs of the state capital of Sacramento.


        “We think we have grounds to stand on (with) the fact that El Dorado was actually a county before California was a state,” she wrote in an online essay. “It is impossible to believe that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence would be of a mind to hold a people hostage of an oppressive state any more than an oppressive king.” 


        Much of that could also have been said by Jefferson advocates and those behind all the other 40-odd state splitting plans that have been proposed for California.


        So chances are El Dorado and San Bernardino county enthusiasts won’t get any farther than their predecessors. But these days, few things are absolutely certain.



  Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is






        The results of the latest polling of the ongoing race for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by veteran Democrat Dianne Feinstein were startling – but eminently predictable.


        As early as mid-May, this column forecast that the entry of even one Republican into the contest would throw Democratic thinking about the race into a trash can. It has.


        Yes, UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies surveys often deviate somewhat from the actual election results, but they provide a general idea of what’s going on.


        And so, even as the three Democratic Congress members seeking to replace Feinstein campaigned with happy faces at their party’s springtime state convention in Los Angeles, the poll was demolishing one of their cherished presumptions – the notion that the primary election set for early next March would reduce the field from three Democrats to two, and no Republican need apply.


        Now it may be time for one or two of those congresspeople – Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland – to swallow some pride and rethink their prospects.


        For the latest Berkeley IGS polling actually had the first Republican into the field, Eric Early, in the lead. This was before retired baseball star Steve Garvey, 74, indicated interest in a GOP bid.


        Early drew support from 19 percent of likely California voters in the poll to 18 for Porter, 14 for Schiff and 9 for Lee.


        The three Democrats represent diverse constituencies in the Democratic Party, but all look quite similar when compared to Early, a Donald Trump supporter who lost handily to Schiff in a 2020 congressional contest, or the longtime conservative Garvey.


        It’s not that Early has any more appeal among Californians now than he did in his several previous futile campaigns. But his entry into this race gave loyal Republicans someone to vote for other than a Democrat, which few wanted to do.


        Now, if the three Democrats want to assure a Democrat-on-Democrat race for the Senate, like the ones California saw in 2016 and 2018, they may have to make sure Garvey runs and fractures the GOP vote.


        That would lessen the total for either Republican, much as Democrats are now splintered among their three choices. Which means there still is a chance at an all-Democratic runoff election in November 2024.


        If there should be just one GOP entrant, the primary becomes a dead serious battle between the three Democrats for what could be only remaining one slot on the general election ballot, rather than the two they’ve expected.


        Would that leave Schiff – even more of a Democratic hero now that Republicans in Congress censured him than when he was merely prominent for ramrodding two Trump impeachments through the House of Representatives –  the lone Democrat? His impeachment work won support from many Democrats and the undying enmity of Trump’s base, which remains loyal to the ex-president through his many legal troubles, including a jury finding him financially liable for sexually manhandling a woman in a department store changing room and defaming her afterward.


        Would it be Porter, who won reelection last year by a narrow margin after redistricting made her Orange County district less friendly than before to Democrats? Porter will get support from many of the women who make up the majority of Democratic voters and want the seat to go to a youthful liberal female who might serve for decades.


        Would it be Lee, who could give California a Black woman senator to essentially replace Vice President Kamala Harris, who gave up her Senate seat when she won national office? Lee, best known for her steadfast opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would likely not serve very long, as at 76, she is just 14 years younger than the apparently age-ravaged Feinstein.


        This picture could change not only if Garvey sticks around, but also if Feinstein steps down before her term ends and Gov. Gavin Newsom, as promised, names a Black woman – Lee or someone else – to replace her.


        The essence is that Early’s entry and relatively strong initial showing changed things considerably for the three major Democratic candidates, putting a question mark after one of their most cherished scenarios and proving again the folly of being guided by any kind of political assumption.


Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is








        It was déjà vu all over again when this state’s largest newspaper and three major non-profits published a study showing 40 percent of Californians are thinking of leaving the state, while 70 percent are happy here.


        Oops! How can the total of happy people and those thinking of moving top 100 percent by a big margin? Easy: Plenty of folks are ambivalent, as always; they’re happy, but wonder if things might be even better someplace else.


        That mix of feelings has been fed by a steady diet of sometimes bogus news about California’s dropping population (far less than 2 percent over the last decade), which inspires many to think that if bunches of people are leaving, maybe there’s a good reason for it.



        The purveyors of the supposedly newsworthy report never admitted their study is a virtual duplicate of one the Rand Corp. think tank conducted back in 1970.


        That was 53 years ago, when researchers found an average of one in seven Californians at the time were moving each year, some within the state, some to other points. That means 49 percent of Californians were considering moves during any typical seven-year span.


        The reason given by those long-ago researchers: Wanderlust.


        It was natural for Californians to wonder if the grass is greener someplace else and many still do.


        The same wanderlust explains why many folks from other places came to California in the first place. U.S. Census figures show 27 percent of Californians are foreign born, double the nationwide percentage, and 28 percent hail from other states.


        So more than half the populace moved here from somewhere else. That doesn’t count their children.


        Just over half of Californians, a far higher percentage than in any other state, already know what it’s like to move. They’ve demonstrated some wanderlust previously, some curiosity about what life is like in a different place.


        It comes as no shock that they can get intrigued about the idea of moving again, especially if a move offers the opportunity for big-time financial advancement.

        And it can. The same study that drew the headlines by breathlessly reporting very old news also reported that finances are the main reason Californians move to other states. That’s been reported here and elsewhere for many years; it’s stoked by the fact this state’s real estate is far higher priced than similar properties in other states.


        In fact, similar-sized homes in Texas (the No. 1 destination of migrants from California) often cost less than half what homeowners here can sell for. So for some Californians, moving is the best way to make use of equity they’ve built by living in the same house for seven years or more.


        Some, in fact, buy twice their prior acreage and floor space in Idaho or Arizona, drawing resentment from longtime local residents by driving prices up to unaffordable levels for natives. Expat Californians then often have enough left over to live sumptuously without needing a job.


        Other California emigrants, untethered from their offices by the coronavirus pandemic, live even higher, combining their old incomes with their new profits.


        It’s true, anxiety over California’s future and a feeling among some that the state is headed in the “wrong” direction was another factor showing up in the study. But economics were by far the single biggest push to leave, just as in the last three decades.


        And then there are the regrets, not measured in the new study, but well documented elsewhere. Almost half those leaving California, one 2021 study reported, find themselves in shock when their first freezing winter hits in Idaho or Minnesota, or when hurricanes begin flooding neighborhoods in Texas and Florida.


        Trouble is, once they cash out, it’s not so easy for emigrants to backtrack and return to California. The same real estate equation that convinced them to move now hinders their moving back.


        The bottom line: When you see a well-hyped story about yet another study of why people leave California, always remember the tale is not as simple as any one study can imply. Nor is a new report necessarily anything really new.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit








        California’s three-year-old Reparations Task Force might have been much better off had it taken a week or so after the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action before revealing its plan for monetary and other compensation to the descendants of African-American slaves.


        For the court’s 6-3 decision ending affirmative action in college admissions (and likely in many other areas, too) makes it very plain that if California lawmakers actually adopt many of the task force’s 100-plus recommendations, they will quickly be struck down in courts that abide by decisions of the nation’s highest judicial body.


        That’s because receiving benefits from the task force’s suggestions – and that’s all they really are – would depend mostly on ancestry and race rather than anything that has happened to any living individual.


        That’s a complete no-no, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the Supreme Court’s governing opinion eliminating race-based affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, which served as stand-ins for all the other institutions that have practiced affirmative action for decades.


        Meanwhile, the justices essentially upheld what California universities and some employers did after this state banned affirmative action via a 1996 ballot initiative.


        Roberts wrote that if individuals have demonstrably overcome handicaps, overt racial or religious bias, poverty and other serious roadblocks to success, it’s fine to give them special consideration in college admissions. But race or ancestry by itself is no longer enough to merit such treatment.


        That’s essentially what California universities have done since the late 1900s. The results have created student bodies not quite as diverse as before, but still allow for a very robust mix of races and ethnicities at this state’s colleges. Essentially, the California campus’ route around the end of affirmative action has been endorsed for use nationwide.


        The same thing should happen with the Reparations Task Force recommendations, which provide formulae for the state to award billions of dollars worth of grants to the descendants of former slaves. They would be compensated not only for slavery, but also for post-slavery discrimination including injustices perpetrated by courts, health care systems, universities, real estate agents, red-lining banks, apartment landlords and employers, among others.


        The task force recommends a blanket apology for treatment of African-American slaves, former slaves and their descendants in California, even though it was never formally a slave state. The group said nothing about other forms of slavery practiced here for many decades, including forced labor by Native Americans whose settlements were often destroyed, similar forced labor by imported Chinese workers and some other human trafficking offences.


        There is no mention of the fact that California fought to end slavery in the Civil War, although prior to that, slave owners could and sometimes did bring enslaved individuals here with them. The state’s African-American slave population rarely exceeded 10,000.


        But the distinguishing fact about the task force recommendations is that they hinge almost entirely on ancestry – only direct descendants of African-American slaves need apply for any benefits if a procedure is ever established.


        That runs directly contrary to the Supreme Court’s logic in striking down affirmative action. So it probably won’t fly in any court where a lawsuit might be filed against the restitution plan or any materially significant part of it that state lawmakers might someday pass.


        Of course, that does not rule out an official apology from the state for whatever role California played in sustaining or encouraging slavery. Nor would it rule out special grants to schools that serve predominantly minority student bodies. Such grants exist today.


        Nor does it negate the recommendation that the state Department of Justice lead an effort to root out racial bias in courts and prisons. It also does not prevent carrying out the recommendation for “listening sessions” about racial injustices, collecting personal testimonies for historic preservation and use of school curricula to help end racism.


        None of those things provide direct material benefits to any individual, even if they could lead to major improvements in the lives of many who believe they suffer discrimination today.


        But direct financial benefits to individuals based on this plan are unlikely to materialize, despite the strong sense among many African-Americans that this would be yet another injustice against them.


    Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Monday, June 26, 2023







          Not long ago, the artificial intelligence (A.I.) bot ChatGPT as a “courtesy” sent me a copy of my abbreviated biography, which it had written.


          ChatGPT, developed by the San Francisco firm OpenAI, was wrong on both my birth date and birthplace. It listed the wrong college as my alma mater. I had not won a single award it said I did, but it ignored those I actually won. Yet, it got enough facts right to assure this was no mere phishing expedition, but a version of the new real thing.


          Attempts at correction were ignored.


          All along, I knew this could be dicey, both in providing information that – had it been used to correct – could have led to identity theft or, worse, directed criminals to my door.


          The experience recalled the science fiction stories and novels of Isaac Asimov, who prophetically devised a generally recognized (in Asimov’s fictional future) set of major laws governing intelligent robots.


          In his 1942 short story “Runaround,” Asimov first put forward these three laws, which would become staples in his later works:


          “The first law is that a robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm. The second law is that a robot shall obey any instruction given to it by a human, and the third law is that a robot shall avoid actions or situations that could cause it to harm itself.”


          These fictitious laws were reminiscent of the U.S. Constitution, open to constant re-interpretation: new questions arose on what is harm and whether sentient robots should be condemned to perpetual second-class, servant status.


          It took more than 30 years, but eventually others tried to improve on Asimov’s laws. Altogether, four authors proposed more such “laws” between 1974 and 2013.


          All sought ways to prevent robots from conspiring to dominate or eliminate the human race.


          The same threat was perceived in May by more than 100 technology leaders, corporate CEOs and scientists who warned that “A.I. poses an existential threat to humanity.” Their 22-word statement warned that “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” President Biden joined in during a California trip, calling for safety regulations on A.I.


          As difficult as it has been to get international cooperation against those other serious threats of pandemics and nuclear weapons, no one can assume A.I. will ever be regulated worldwide, the only way to make such rules or laws effective.


          The upshot is that a pause – not a permanent halt – in advancement of A.I. is needed right now.


          For A.I. has already permeated essentials of human society, used in college admissions, hiring decisions, generating fake literature and art and in police work, plus driving cars and trucks.


          An old truism suggests that “Anything we can conceive of is probably occurring right now someplace in the universe.” The A.I. corollary might be that if anyone can imagine an A.I. robot doing something, then someday a robot will do it.


          And so, without active prevention someone somewhere will create a machine capable of murdering humans at its own whim. It also means that someday, without regulation, robots able to conspire against human dominance on earth will be built, maybe by other robots.


          Asimov, of course, imagined all this. His novels featured a few renegade robots, but also noble ones like R. Daneel Olivaw, who created and nurtured a (fictitious) benevolent Galactic Empire.


          In part, Asimov reacted to events of his day, which saw some humans exterminate other types of humans on a huge, industrial scale. He witnessed the rise and fall of vicious dictatorships, more despotic than any of today’s.


          Postulating that robots would advance to stages far beyond even today’s A.I., he conceived a system where they would co-exist peacefully with humans on a large scale.


          But no one is controlling A.I. development now, leaving it free to go in any direction, good or evil. Human survival demands limits on this, as Asimov foresaw. If we don’t demand it today, not even a modern Asimov could predict the possible consequences.




    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit








        Judge-shopping is commonplace in American courts, lawyers constantly trying to get their cases heard by judges they consider predisposed to rule their way.


        But it has been carried to new extremes this spring, in at least two cases with the potential to affect millions of lives and potential lives.


        When one district judge ordered the federal Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its approval of the orally-taken abortion drug mifepristone and another ruled that the drug must be kept available in 17 states that sued for this in his court, there was no doubt about the judge-shopping in play.


        Both courts lacked any semblance of the fairness and objectivity that citizens ought to be able to expect from federal judges with lifetime appointments. It was no accident these cases were brought in the legal backwaters of Amarillo, Tex. and Spokane, Wash., where the two ideologically opposed judges preside.


        But let’s first take a look at the general practice of judge shopping, which by all rights should be outlawed, as judges in all cases ideally should be chosen as randomly as possible.


                 It’s become so accepted that now judges have begun to try it on each other. During the spring, the trend reached a new extreme.


                     In March, Patrick Connolly, a conservative state court judge in Los Angeles, asked another court to disqualify fellow Judge Daniel Lowenthal from presiding over the sentencing of a convicted cop killer. The reason: A belief that Lowenthal, son of former longtime Democratic Congressman Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, is too sympathetic to criminals. Connolly, a former deputy district attorney, prosecuted killer Justin Flint in 2007 for felony murder in the death of a sheriff’s deputy gunned down in her driveway during an attempted robbery.


                          Connolly objected to a Facebook post from Lowenthal advocating for police to be trained in “civil rights, civil liberties and…(to) understand past inequities and oppression…” that allegedly influence some crimes today.


                             Lowenthal denied any prejudice in the case and ultimately fended off Connolly’s bid to disqualify him.


                         If judges can try to get colleagues disqualified because of alleged prior prejudices that affect only one person’s fate, it cannot be surprising that lawyers in wider-ranging cases carefully seek out precisely the jurist most likely to help them.


                     Lawyers for the anti-abortion, Roman Catholic aligned Alliance Defending Freedom did just this when seeking to reverse the more than 20-year-old approval of mifepristone for use in pharmaceutically-induced abortions.


                  It’s unknown if those lawyers began by speaking with Amarillo’s Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, but his background includes four years as deputy general counsel of First Liberties Institute, a conservative Christian legal group that has long opposed abortion. Kacsmaryk was among Republican ex-President Donald Trump’s first judicial appointees in early 2017.


                  So no one should have been surprised when Kacsmaryk ruled that the 1873 Comstock Act – mostly aimed against vice, but also containing a clause criminalizing the mailing of obscenity, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys and personal letters with sexual content – makes shipping mifepristone illegal no matter its record of safety or what the FDA might say about it.


               It was equally obvious to attorneys general of 17 states including Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan – but oddly not California – that they would get the opposite sort of ruling if they went before federal Judge Thomas Rice in Spokane, who tried to assure access to the abortion drug in those states and the District of Columbia.


                  Rice, a former federal prosecutor, was appointed by Democratic ex-President Barack Obama in 2011 and developed a moderately liberal reputation on the bench.


               In each venue, the plaintiffs got just what they wanted. But the American people got confusion, not justice or clarity, and it remains to be seen how this will be resolved. For sure, the Republican-controlled House shows no inclination to update the 152-year-old Comstock Act, mostly designed to limit damage from snake-oil salesmen who traveled widely during the late 19th Century.


         What’s clear from all this action, both in federal and state courts, is that judge-shopping is a dangerous practice likely to continue as long as judges are appointed for their ideology, not their legal acumen.


         It’s likely only to become more common and destructive so long as the court system stays as it is today.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, June 19, 2023







        The lines between American citizens and immigrants who live here, legally or not, just became a bit more blurred.


        The less distinct those lines, the less motivation immigrants have to learn American history and values while working toward full citizenship.


        The trend toward eliminating differences between citizens and others began in earnest in 2015, when California began giving undocumented immigrants the ability to get drivers licenses. These don’t look precisely like the ones carried by citizens, but differences are slight.


        About a year later, in late 2016, San Francisco voters passed a measure allowing non-citizens to vote in local school board elections if they are parents of pupils in the district. Since then, thousands of the undocumented, mostly Latinos and Filipinos, have used their new right and the school board took a strong turn to the left.


        Then, last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom removed more distinctions by making government-paid health care under the Medi-Cal program an entitlement for everyone living in California, no matter their immigration status.


        Yet another big move in the blurring came early this year, when a new law began allowing anyone who can legally work in California to become a police officer, regardless of citizenship.


        So green cards became even more vital and the significance of citizenship drooped a little more.


        One reason for the latest change, said Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, who carried the bill allowing non-citizen cops, was to equalize professions. “Almost every other profession – lawyers, doctors, even firefighters – are able to be part of that profession as long as they have full legal work authorization,” she told a reporter. “It was only our sworn officers we restricted.”


        Of course, only police have the authority to arrest persons and jail them, a major distinction between cops and the other professions Skinner named.


        Skinner said the University of California’s police department reached out to her for the change. She said that department’s chief testified in a legislative hearing that UC had turned away “a lot of stellar candidates” with green cards over the citizenship issue.


        It’s also true that police departments across California are finding it difficult to recruit new officers in the post-Covid era.


        Said an official of the San Diego Police Department, “(We) have lost over 500 officers since July 2020. That’s drastic. We need everyone we can to be able to be a police officer. However, we are not in favor of…reducing the standards.”


        The California moves are part of national trend playing out mostly in states led by Democratic politicians.


        Just after New York Mayor Eric Adams took office in January of last year, he endorsed a local measure letting non-citizens vote in all New York City elections. Adams, elected six months earlier, did not touch on the subject until he actually assumed office, perhaps because he won only after a tight Democratic primary election in mid-2021.


        The trend actually began just after the turn of this century, when Chicago and a few cities in Maryland began letting non-citizens vote in local elections.


        The rationale all along has been that non-citizens, regardless of immigration status, are usually taxpayers and a significant part of the fabric of the communities where they live.


        As Adams said on his inauguration day, “I believe that all New Yorkers should have a say in their government…I look forward to bringing millions more into the democratic process.”


        But so far, no non-citizens have been legally permitted to vote in presidential or other federal and statewide elections since 1926, when during a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, Arkansas became the last state to ban that practice.


        Letting non-citizens vote in some elections may be as noble an idea as Adams said, but some of the recent moves have been expensive. California is spending about $2 billion this year on expanded Medi-Cal eligibility, and there was no move to cut the practice from the deficit-ridden budget for the next fiscal year.


        Meanwhile, anything that removes incentive to seek citizenship will ultimately hinder both assimilating immigrants and helping them advance, because citizenship remains necessary for many jobs and to move forward in American society.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit







        Remember Fry’s Electronics, the warehouse-style stores that shut down completely in 2021? Those stores joined 41 California Bed, Bath & Beyond locations, 17 Disney stores in the state and more than a dozen Best Buys that shuttered just in the last year.


        They joined hundreds of locations once occupied by Borders Books & Music, KMarts, K-B Toy stores, Linens-N-Things warehouse-style stores, Mervyn’s stores, Circuit Cities, Radio Shacks, Sport Chalets and Blockbuster Video outlets.


        No one has tracked just how many of those store locations have been reoccupied by other retailers, but anyone driving around California cities can readily see that many have not.


        Big box stores and their parking lots often sit empty. So do scores of mini-malls.


        But probably not for long. Tens of millions of square feet of office space vacated during the depth of the coronavirus pandemic remain empty today, as law firms, insurance companies, stockbrokers and many other types of white collar businesses reduced their rental footprints and allowed millions of workers to keep working from home, wherever they make it.


        Fears of contagion were also part of the reason for the many store closings around the state during the last three years, as shoppers avoided crowded spaces and ordered merchandise of almost all kinds online from home instead.


        Many jilted properties are about to be reassessed at far lower tax rates than today’s, as rent reductions reduce the market value of both office towers and other types of commercial property.


        It was plain from the beginning of the pandemic that the eventual answer would have to be conversions, as all those vacancies coincided with a declared housing shortage, one variously estimated by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development at anywhere from 1.2 million to 3.5 million dwelling units. The vast differences in official state estimates of need are likely due to the sort of incompetence noted in a state auditor’s report on that department in 2021.


        It took years for legislators to realize they must remove obstacles to building conversions, making residential properties out of structures originally designed as commercial.


        But they finally acted last year, passing two measures that greatly ease conversions, which are already taking off in significant numbers, with more than 10,000 such permits issued by the end of last year. Latest example: an eight-story tower in Emeryville soon to be redeveloped near the eastern foot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, 


        Expect the 10,000 figure to grow exponentially by the end of this year, especially if the first redesigned units sell easily and quickly.


        One new law that took effect Jan. 1 makes new zoning unnecessary for remaking commercial properties. That was one big previous obstacle to conversions, as some cities took purist attitudes toward separation of residential and commercial property.


        Cities and counties will still have authority to inspect newly redesigned structures during reconstruction, just as they do with any building. But unless they find flaws that can’t be fixed, projects will proceed and new housing will result, in big numbers. New units can be of all price levels, from lower-floor apartments and condominiums exposed to street noise to penthouse units 30-plus floors above the racket.


        Emptied big box stores and their parking lots will also morph into housing, with parking lots a place where homes are built from scratch. Even excess property owned but little used by religious institutions will be available for new residences.


        Some estimates from legislative aides predict as many as 1.2 million new units to appear where formerly there were offices and stores. Two positives here are that under the new laws, not only will most projects be immune from lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but conversions will leave existing neighborhoods largely undisturbed, while avoiding most changes in the footprints of large buildings.


        In some ways, this promises to be the best of all housing worlds, letting building owners recoup their investments via rents and sales proceeds and giving neighbors little reason to be annoyed, let alone angry.


        The bottom line: The solution to some of California’s housing woes is at hand, about to become a very visible reality.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit