We are living in a world where inequality predominates, the top ten percent of income earners have only gotten richer, while the rest of us are scraping by. Houselessness has proliferated, and in many areas, people are sleeping in cars, RVs, in parkways, along the Santa Ana River, sometimes wherever there is a bank of trees. The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem, as housing values in rental and ownership markets continue to soar, and cash-flush pension funds, investment firms, and Wall Street banks keep bidding up the prices. While the housing market in Coastal California is tight, and many studies point to a lack of housing supply, the problem is really a lack of affordable places to live.
Thus, the latest push is to create more housing supply with Senate Bills 9 and 10 that would increase density in single-family zones and transit-accessible areas across the board – no affordability or environmental requirements included. These have already been making the rounds in the state senate and assembly and will be coming to a vote soon. They both should be rejected, immediately.
But first, to clarify, from an environmental sustainability standpoint, we need to build housing density into the urban and suburban fabric of our landscape to reduce dependency on driving, spewing carbon into the atmosphere, and warming the climate. We must facilitate transit and bicycling and the ability to walk to shopping, restaurants, work, or the post office, which frankly makes a better place to live than when you drive three miles for the pleasure. But increasing the number of market-rate homes in your neighborhood, wherever your neighborhood might be, will not achieve affordability nor walkability.
Here are the facts of the bills: SB 9 allows four market-rate homes where one now stands, and six units when developers and investors add a “granny flat” in the backyard. SB 10 would allow a city council to override zoning and environmental impacts, to allow 10-unit projects with four granny flats, with again no commitment to affordability. These 14-unit projects would be allowed in almost all neighborhoods with access to a bus line and voter-approved land protections would be at risk.
Keep in mind, these bills serve as a punitive measure to wealthier, exclusive communities that have not done their share to build a wide variety of housing types, which might feel just to some. Unfortunately, the BlackRock investing machine, with the SB9 and 10 densification stamps of approval, will be headed to dismantle neighborhoods that already have a significant stock of affordable housing, like in Buena Park, Stanton, Garden Grove, Anaheim, Santa Ana, and beyond.
With no price or rent controls, inclusionary requirements, or housing subsidies connected to up-zoning, expect bidding wars, certain gentrification, and cost escalation. New residents will be richer, whiter, and younger. So, how does this help the affordability gap? Sounds like a gift to corporate landlords, Wall Street real estate investors, and major developers. In the end, residents of those neighborhoods, often communities of color building generational wealth by owning their own homes, will pay the price, literally.
Let’s face it, how much housing would we have to build to make housing affordable to the majority? That number is infinite and would push us far past the carrying capacity of streets, water, and quality of life. With Sacramento agencies as overseers of development rules in your neighborhood, will they consider parks, schools, vehicle miles traveled in traffic, parking availability, design codes, any of this? Well, no.
We need affordable housing trusts to be mega-funded to provide subsidies for affordable housing developers and tenants. Cities should institute fair rent stabilization programs, with eviction protections. We need a commitment to local planning agencies to determine where we could properly encourage building up instead of out. We should redevelop underutilized commercial, institutional, and office areas to include clustered housing types for multiple demographics and income levels, to create interesting and functional urban places to live and work.
Making exceptions to California’s environmental rules, like waiving height and density restrictions, as well as minimum parking requirements, without serious affordability requirements, should be a non-starter. Combining transit access with affordability will further reduce car usage, and this housing model would preclude the paving over the rapidly disappearing wild spaces at the edges of our cities.
Make no mistake about me writing from the standpoint of someone trying to protect their neighborhood, a Not-In-My-Backyard-type. I have advocated for rethinking single-family zoning in favor of mixed density neighborhoods that is the big idea of these bills, but it should be a community-led decision. If one wants to improve outdated zoning code, we should look to Form-Based Codes. These consider building form over land use (single family homes only), conditioned by housing equity, traffic, design, affordability, and walkability. On-site affordability requirements and anti-displacement provisions should be mandatory.
Thus, cities can create a range of living accommodations in better neighborhoods for people, the ecosystem, and the planet. How about Sacramento push a bill to mandate and fund upgrades to zoning codes across the state that would involve the community stakeholders to create meaningful opportunities for affordable housing construction?
Let’s be real, runaway supply gambits should be tossed in favor of us coming together to support public-private partnerships to build housing where it makes sense and stop this one-size-fits-all mentality. One must keep in mind the old saying: the gridlocked road to overpriced cluttered neighborhoods is paved with Sacramento-lawmaker good intentions.
Jack Eidt is an urban land use planner and environmental analyst, director of Wild Heritage Planners, and editor of WilderUtopia.com. He is Executive Producer of the show EcoJustice Radio on KPFK Los Angeles.
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