Inside the Political Fight Over How to Handle California's Housing Crisis

From Sonoma to San Diego, the state faces a massive affordability crisis; across the political gradient, few residents disagree on that, even if they don't see eye to eye on how to solve it.
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New townhouses under construction in California.

New townhouses under construction in California.

In a hearing room in California's capitol recently, State Senator Scott Wiener described a widespread housing crisis in stark terms. California is short about 3.5 million homes, he said, citing a McKinsey report that projected housing demand by 2025. Buying a home at the Golden State's median price—over half a million dollars—is a fantasy for most households. Rents are soaring, homelessness is up, and displacement is refacing storied neighborhoods.

"Red or blue, all of our communities are struggling," Wiener told an audience of lobbyists, citizens, and members of the state senate housing committee, who would later have their say about how to address the housing crisis.

As they spoke, the painted figures in a Depression-era mural depicting the state's romanticized origins looked on. Flanked by a missionary, a prospector, a frontiersman, and a native Californian, Calafia, the Amazon goddess from whom the state supposedly gets its name, graced its spectacular and varied terrain. In the foreground, a white working-class couple, child in arms, surveyed their land of promise.

As the hearing made clear, rarely has California's mythic story of opportunity seemed further from reality. From Sonoma to San Diego, the state faces a massive affordability crisis; across the political gradient, few residents disagree on that, even if they don't see eye to eye on how to solve it. Investment in below-market-rate housing? Stronger tenant protections? Better city planning? They're all part of the solution, Wiener said. But what California fundamentally lacks is adequate housing supply, he said, and it needs to tear down needless barriers to market-rate construction.

That's the intention behind Wiener's Senate Bill 50, which proposes to rewrite the laws that have blocked high-volume housing construction. Like its predecessor SB 827, the transit-oriented housing bill that captured national attention last year, SB 50 faces vigorous opposition from many angles. But it cleared its first legislative hurdle recently when it passed that housing committee (which Wiener leads) with a bipartisan 9–1 vote.

The bill would set an unprecedented state standard for residential zoning codes in certain corners of California. Currently, it is illegal to build anything but single dwellings designed for single families, sometimes with an in-law unit, in roughly 80 percent of California's residential neighborhoods. SB 50 would change those laws in areas that are near high-frequency transit lines, job clusters, and good schools, prying open opportunities for developers to build to taller heights, with more units per square foot.

It's a solution to what is, in one respect, a geometry problem. Cities that cling to their coveted coastlines can expand outwardly only so far, and even in big metros like Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the share of land that's zoned for single-family housing is still about 70 percent. Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to meet that 3.5 million-unit gap by 2025. But University of California–Los Angeles urban policy experts recently showed that zoning constraints prevent cities and counties from building more than 2.8 million new homes. "If you're prohibited to build enough housing, then you're sort of stuck," Wiener said.

Unfortunately, however, the housing crisis isn't just about the math. These politics probe deep into fundamental emotional concepts about ownership, sovereignty, and identity. A diverse mix of Californians—from the richest suburbs in the country, to rent-strained neighborhoods fighting gentrification and displacement, to struggling towns from the vast farming region—have arranged themselves on either side of the bill, which has tapped a powerful strain of anxiety about who should live in this state, and how.

For its opponents, SB 50 functions as a Rorschach test that reveals the "real" housing crisis. At Tuesday's hearing, a parade of naysayers had their moment at the mic.

"This is about destroying suburban, one-home-per-lot neighborhoods ... this is discrimination," said Karen Klinger, a Sacramento real estate broker.

Jason Rhine, a legislative director with the League of California Cities, had another concern: He complained that the legislation would undermine local plans to increase housing supplies. "You tell us to plan, you approve our plan, and now the rules are going to be changed without additional input," he said.

Rene Christian Moya, the director of Housing Is a Human Right, led a group of low-income tenant-activists from L.A. and Oakland to testify at the hearing about their key objection: the fear that SB 50 would bring rent hikes and displacement. "We contest vigorously that trickle-down housing is the way to build," he said. (His organization is a subsidiary of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the global health-care and advocacy non-profit that’s become a figure for fighting density measures in Southern California.)

SB 50 is already further along than its predecessor, SB 827, ever got. That bill's premature demise (it didn't clear its first hearing) was largely due to the concerns of low-income community advocates, who justly saw transit-adjacent upzoning as a gentrification accelerator. It's hard to parse the exact reasons why people leave their neighborhoods, but rising rents are indisputably driving some poorer Californians out of their longtime neighborhoods. Highly visible examples can be found in the Mission in San Francisco, and Boyle Heights in L.A.

SB 50 contains a number of new provisions that address those criticisms. That includes a five-year carve-out for "sensitive communities" that could be at risk of displacement, which the bill is leaving up to local planners and advocates to define. It boasts stronger provisions for inclusionary requirements, and it excludes properties that have long had tenants living in them or have been recently subject to evictions. It also targets neighborhoods that are rich in jobs and great schools, in addition to transit-adjacent ones, for higher-density allowances. That way, desirable communities that have long been immune to new development pressure—high-income, high-opportunity, and zoned to be exclusionary—would have to step up too.

Wiener has drawn a broader coalition behind SB 50 than he was able to do for its predecessor. Supporters include AARP, the California Labor Federation, the California Association of Realtors, CalPIRG, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Habitat for Humanity, Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, the BART Board of Directors, and the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento. Three-quarters of residents in San Francisco—where housing affordability is the top civic concern, polls show—support SB 50, according to a survey by the SF Chamber of Commerce.

But some tenant advocacy groups and community justice organizations still fear that SB 50 could toss fuel on the fire of urban displacement. And although this draft goes further to establish affordability standards to make sure that new projects are mixed income, its focus is still principally on building market-rate apartments. That doesn't cut it for very low-income Californians, Moya said, who are struggling the most to hang on to homes. He's a native of the gentrifying, historically Latino neighborhood of Highland Park in Los Angeles, where median home prices have more than doubled since 2012. Moya has experienced housing insecurity himself, he said: "This is personal for me."

Other advocates fear that the state government pre-empting community control over zoning and planning—long authorities vested at the local level—would set a dangerous precedent, particularly for vulnerable populations who've been left out of planning processes in the past. "Sensitive communities" might also be too narrowly defined by the bill's language so far, say dozens of prominent low-income housing developers, social justice advocates, and anti-poverty legal groups from around the state who sent a long letter of concerns to Wiener's office last month. "SB 50 must accurately identify all sensitive communities and preserve meaningful self-determination in those communities so that they can plan for an inclusive future," that letter states.

But California housing politics creates strange bedfellows. Probably the loudest voices of dissent against SB 50 right now are affluent homeowners who worry that it will bulldoze local control over housing allowances and imperil "historic character"—traditional concerns of Not in My Backyard adherents. Groups like Livable California, founded last year by Marin anti-growth activist Susan Kirsch (who recently told Palo Alto Weekly that she prefers to the milder word "problem" to "crisis" when it comes to housing), have found footing up and down the state. In late March, a few dozen homeowners—mostly white, mostly older—gathered outside a church in downtown San Luis Obispo, where scarcely any building stands higher than two stories, to protest Wiener's appearance at a housing summit organized by the local chamber of commerce. (I was also on the panel.) They raised signs, passed out Livable California literature, and chanted anti-SB 50 slogans. Sample couplet: "Density is not the way!/Where is the parking, who will pay?"

"We just want to preserve our quality of life," said Allen Cooper, the secretary of Save Our Downtown, an anti-density preservation group in San Luis Obispo. "And part of that is we don't want seven-story buildings looming over our houses."

That's not what SB 50 would do; it would raise height limits gradually, dependent on the codes already on the books. Nevertheless, S.O.D.'s members join with opponents in affluent communities and their elected leaders from Marin County to Redondo Beach to Sherman Oaks (my own childhood neighborhood in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley).

Up in the Bay Area, Cupertino Mayor Steve Scharf recently joked that the city planned to build a wall around itself to tame congestion problems and would force San Jose to pay for it. In his city, the median price for a single-family home is more than $2 million, unaffordable even to well-paid Apple software engineers. Yet it failed to require that Apple build any new housing when it approved the tech giant's $1 billion, 10,000-worker new headquarters. In nearby Palo Alto, Mayor Eric Filseth railed against the bill in his recent state-of-the-city speech, complaining that targeting zoning codes would fail to hold big employers accountable for their role in the housing crunch. That's true, but SB 50 wouldn't override local housing elements that go above and beyond it.

John Mirisch, the vice mayor of Beverly Hills, also used a recent address as an anti-SB 50 tirade, likening pro-housing legislators to Haman, a villain from the Jewish holiday of Purim, who attempted to kill off the Jews. He also referred to apartment buildings as "slums," and encouraged everyone to live in single-family homes. (Median home price in Beverly Hills, the vast majority of which is zoned for single-family homes: $3.5 million.)

These pricey enclaves aren't wrong to see themselves in the bullseye of SB 50. "We are targeting places like Beverly Hills that have shirked their responsibly to contribute to fixing this crisis," said Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action, a pro-housing advocacy group. "We are targeting places like Cupertino, which have added a lot of jobs and not a lot of housing."

Considering the root of their respective concerns, it makes sense that low-income tenants rights groups concerned with displacement, and the representatives of the wealthiest neighborhoods in California, would be in the anti-SB 50 boat together. Fights against displacement in gentrifying areas generally happen in neighborhoods where it is already possible to build new, multi-family housing units with higher rents than existing tenants can afford—which is to say, in the few neighborhoods in California where that's allowed.

Part of the reason anti-gentrification battles erupt in neighborhoods like Highland Park or the Mission is that single-family zoning codes have fiercely guarded against higher-density construction in most other surrounding neighborhoods. Homeowners in affluent neighborhoods, meanwhile, can exert disproportionate influence on the local zoning and development approval processes that effectively decide which communities are subjected to neighborhood change. "All of this is a legacy of the fact that you can build multi-family housing on only a few sites," said Sonja Trauss, the co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund.

SB 50 seeks to upend that legacy by alleviating pressure on the most sensitive areas, opening up development in the areas where exclusionary zoning have put up the highest barriers to opportunity. It would rewrite the codes that have protected more suburban-style communities from physical changes to their composition, physical or demographic. "Homeowners generally benefit from scarcity," said Michael Lens, a professor of urban policy at UCLA. "So pulling some of the zoning powers away from cities seems like something to consider to reduce those negative incentives."

The drive down from San Francisco to Silicon Valley offers a visual lesson in why development pressures are so intensely concentrated in the few parts of the Bay Area where multi-unit housing is allowed. On the highway, the city quickly gives way to vast tracts of carefully preserved green fields and tiled-roof suburban sprawl that is nearly indistinguishable from the generally more politically conservative Orange and San Diego counties, hundreds of miles to the south.

The long, leafy, suburban peninsula holds many of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States, and yet is the country's poster child for the extreme cost burdens created by extreme housing scarcity. It's where county bus drivers are forced to sleep in their cars at night, and where proposals to house public school teachers spark online fundraisers to stop them by homeowners who are "distraught and concerned."

Around here, residents look at SB 50 much like an incoming meteor. Silicon Valley's Atherton, for example, is the very richest zip code in America, and is 100 percent zoned for single-family residential. It's home to moguls like Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, and Meg Whitman. It lost its weekday Caltrain commuter rail service in 2005, much to the chagrin of some residents with jobs in San Francisco or San Jose. But earlier this year, the local rail committee debated whether to petition to cancel its Caltrain service entirely, in case SB 50 might have upzoned the area around its historic train stop. In Atherton, some commuters apparently prefer to keep slogging through congestion than risk an incursion of apartment renters.

Concerns among social justice advocates about SB 50 are genuine and legitimate. Hardly all Californians who are vulnerable to rising rents and development pressures live in hotly contested urban neighborhoods. Take Vallejo, California, a still relatively affordable north Bay Area city and one of the most ethnically mixed places in the state. It has corridors rich in transit and jobs that could be upzoned under SB 50, potentially paving the way for more development, higher rents, and a more affluent demographic mix. "Some of the most diverse communities in California are made up of suburban-style, single-family homes," said Michael Storper, a scholar of regional economics at UCLA who's been a critic of the bill. It will take careful decision-making to determine what counts as a sensitive community, and eligible to protections from the new development that SB 50 is designed to accelerate.

But emerging analyses are suggesting that developers would be more likely to capitalize on new opportunities in wealthier neighborhoods anyway. A look at the potential effects of SB 50 in the Bay Area by the University of California–Berkeley researchers show developers are more likely to profit from building in well-heeled Menlo Park than poorer Fruitvale, for example. And many constraints would still stand in the way of new construction, including slow permitting processes, local rezoning, and the sheer expense of building something new in California.

Still, it is worth considering what would happen to the people in areas more likely to be affected. High-income neighborhoods near good transit, jobs, and schools could see higher densities permitted in their neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean leafy blocks of low-slung Craftsmans would be bulldozed overnight and transformed into looming mini-Manhattans. Available properties could be built, or rebuilt, to moderately taller heights. "SB 50 could thus result in a more gradual densification of housing in transit-rich neighborhoods, as underutilized sites become buildings with 10-20 units," the Berkeley analysis found. The outcome that many anti-SB 50 activists dread is that their neighbors would choose to cash in, selling their houses to a developer who wanted to do that. "That sounds like an opportunity, not a threat," Foote said.

It's not hard to understand why homeowners are so sensitive to SB 50 messing with the formula of California living. This is the place that took the post-war suburban promise to its apotheosis. As population boomed in the 30 years after World War II, the state built approximately six million housing units. More than 3.5 million of them were single-family homes. These were the houses and backyards and station-wagon-filled driveways that Americans saw on television every night in the 1960s and ‘70s; they represented the sun-kissed Golden Dream that lured so many millions of newcomers. To revive that promise, California now has to change its physical shape, and change is never easy for incumbents who've benefited. People are entitled to want to see their blue skies.

But the Golden Dream was never for everyone. Families with lower incomes and families of color were locked out of California's suburban prosperity by illegal and legal forms of discrimination—including the zoning codes that were pioneered here. A 1885 ban on washhouses (and the Chinese immigrants who mostly used them) from parts of Modesto is considered the first true zoning ordinance in the U.S. In 1925, the California Supreme Court upheld one of the country's earliest cases fighting for the "police power" of cities to allow single-family homes in certain areas and tenements in others. These practices were derived from explicitly racist attempts to segregate whites and non-whites. And as residential zoning evolved, stated rationales were rarely rational. Here's how the judges in the 1925 case glorified the single-family home, and all that it represented:

The establishment of [single family] districts is for the general welfare because it tends to promote and perpetuate the American home.... The character and quality of manhood and womanhood are in a large measure the result of home environment. The home and its intrinsic influences are the very foundation of good citizenship, and any factor contributing to the establishment of homes and the fostering of home life doubtless tends to the enhancement not only of community life but of the life of the nation as a whole....

It is needless to further analyze and enumerate all of the factors which make a single family home more desirable for the promotion and perpetuation of family life than an apartment, hotel, or flat. It will suffice to say that there is a sentiment practically universal, that this is so.

But often, that idealized model of California homeownership was a privilege reserved primarily for white people, like that pioneer couple in the mural presiding over the Sacramento hearing room. The millions of Californians who arrived after the post-war building boom ended found rising costs and narrowing opportunities. SB 50 would attempt to start pulling up these legacies, at least at one insidious root. (It does not address, for example, the effects of wage inequality.)

The bill faces long odds. Its next senate committee hearing will be led by a legislator who opposes it, rather than Wiener himself. "We're not guaranteed to pass it," Wiener told Palo Alto Weekly. "We're working hard to build support and build momentum for it. But we have a shot."

But supporters might take heart that not every resident in places like Beverly Hills or Cupertino agrees with their elected officials. Evan Goldin, a Palo Alto native in his early 30s, told the Weekly that he's been frustrated by the rhetoric of his mayor and neighbors who don't seem to want to make way for new faces.

"That makes me quite sad, as someone who grew up here and still lives here and wants to have strong bonds to the community," Goldin said. "I want my friends to be able to afford to live here. I want my teachers and janitors and baristas to afford a chance to live where they work. The world will be OK if a few more families live on your block."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.

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