California Housing Revolution?
A pro-market proposal from a liberal state senator offers hope for solving the state’s chronic shortage and high prices.
From downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, train commuters on the Expo Line journey from asphalt to ocean through some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. Each train pulls into stations of low-slung buildings that soon fade into vast expanses of single-family homes. The view from Los Angeles is hardly unique. Commuters from San Diego to the Bay Area and Sacramento see low-rise suburbs as the norm. And everything costs a fortune.
That might begin to change if the state legislature passes a bill addressing local land-use regulations. Introduced by Scott Wiener, a Harvard-educated attorney and state senator, SB 827 would effectively abolish zoning restrictions in Wiener’s district of San Francisco and for significant portions of the state’s most populous areas—and likely produce a boom in new housing construction. SB 827 sweeps away many local limits on height, density, and design within a half-mile of a train station—such as for BART or CalTrain—and within a quarter-mile of stops on high-frequency bus routes. So-called transit-rich zones would see local height limits lifted to anywhere from 45 feet to 85 feet—roughly from four to eight stories—depending on factors such as street width and station proximity. Cities could build taller, but they could not require that buildings be shorter. New projects built near transit hubs would also be exempted from minimum parking requirements. And as long as a particular project is up to code, no municipality could introduce design standards preventing developers from including the maximum number of units possible in a building.
Wiener hopes to fight sprawl by allowing Californians more opportunities to live closer to public transit, and to address climate concerns by reducing their need to drive. To Wiener, a liberal Democrat, housing is also about social justice. He believes progressives have “lost their way on housing,” as he told Forbes recently. Young people, the poor, and the elderly are demanding shelter only to find its supply limited by stringent regulations. “Gentrification is fueled by a lack of housing,” Wiener argues. “When there isn’t enough housing and rents skyrocket, landlords have an economic incentive to push out long-term renters by raising the rent or evicting them.”
Nearly a third of households in California’s metro areas can’t afford rent, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. A majority of these rent-squeezed households—some 3.7 million—are in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In San Francisco and Oakland, even making $90,000 a year barely puts one above the affordability threshold. California’s affordability crisis is rooted in a housing crisis: not nearly enough homes are being built to keep up with demand. “We under-produce by about 100,000 housing units every year, and we have a housing debt that’s growing,” Wiener says. The most feasible way to pay off that housing debt, he believes, is to let developers build more units in concentrated areas.
Housing is the most pressing issue in California politics. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed 15 bills aimed at tackling housing affordability. Senate Bill 35, for instance, forces almost all of California’s cities to approve projects that complied with current zoning rules. Another bill placed a measure on the 2018 ballot directing nearly $1 billion a year to subsidize new low-income housing. These efforts are part of a growing trend in Sacramento to preempt local restrictions on housing. Some of these measures, such as a 2016 law easing the approval of new “accessory dwelling units” statewide, appear to be working. Los Angeles is seeing a 20-fold rise in applications for these so-called “granny flats,” built in backyards or above garages.
Transit-oriented development has assumed sacred status among Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) progressives popping up across California. The ideal scenario for lowering the barriers to housing density near transit is to get more with less: more housing and affordability with less displacement and sprawl. The result is a traditional Main Street for the twenty-first century. After all, compact, mixed-use developments, accessible by foot, were the norm until the rise of the automobile and institution of zoning laws.
Building more housing is broadly popular in California. Sixty-four percent are in favor of more housing in their cities, according to a PPIC poll of the state. In San Francisco, some 70 percent support building more housing to alleviate cost burdens. Leaders in Los Angeles have formulated a plan to add 6,000 new homes within a half-mile of Expo Line stops between Culver City and Santa Monica.
Of course, building in someone else’s backyard is always more popular than construction in your own. Most instances of transit-oriented development, such as the kind that Arlington, Virginia, has pursued, take the shape of a corridor running through—but not impinging on—preexisting tracts of single-family homes. Los Angeles’s Expo Line housing plan up-zoned 250 acres while leaving the surrounding 2,000 acres of homes untouched.
Wiener’s proposal is more aggressive: it would immediately up-zone nearly all of San Francisco, as well as South Los Angeles’s sprawling landscape of single-family homes. Transit corridors in Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento would be able to build for demand. Nearly 3 million housing units could be situated within a half-mile of transit hubs throughout California. With fewer permitting rules, units could be built faster and with a greater variety of housing types between a home and a high-rise.
Critics of SB 827 fear displacement. Los Angeles city councilman Paul Koretz has labeled SB 827 “devastating,” telling the Los Angeles Times that his Westside neighborhood of “little 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s single-family homes [would] look like Dubai 10 years later,” and without any public say in the matter. Damien Goodmon, founder of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition in Los Angeles, calls the bill a “declaration of war,” seeing it as a mask for large-scale gentrification. Laying on the hyperbole, Goodmon calls Wiener “a modern-day Andrew Jackson” pushing “a legislative agenda to enact a 21st century Trail of Tears.” Housing availability does not mean housing affordability, these critics say; only subsidies and public housing can achieve that.
Wiener acknowledges that his bill is a “heavy lift and isn’t guaranteed to pass” in its current form. There will likely be revisions as it winds its way through committee, with added provisions addressing housing displacement and demolition. Observers believe that Governor Brown, in his final year in office, would likely sign such a bill if it reached his desk. But whether it passes or not, SB 827 shifts the window of acceptable discourse dramatically in favor of market-oriented reforms of housing policy. On that basis alone, Scott Wiener has positioned himself as a visionary reformer of California’s housing crisis.
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