Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel to Support Scott Wiener’s Anti CEQA Bill

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-It is a major achievement to politically unite Angelenos across all demographic categories: the rich, poor, and those in between; those who live in the Valley, East LA, South LA, and Westside; all major racial and ethnic groups; and finally, those who live in houses, duplexes, four-plexes, and apartments. But, hats off to Senator Scott Wiener for this impressive political feat.

None of these groups have yet to endorse his SB 827, azoning deregulation bill, even with last minute amendments intended to protect affordable housing. In fact, the greatest opposition to his bill comes from two totally different groups, residents of LA’s 30 HistoricalPreservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), and predominantly minority neighborhoods in Boyle Heights and Liemert Park. This statement from the Crenshaw Subway Coalition explains why the latter are so opposed to Wiener’s bill: 

“Like President Jackson's Indian Removal Act,  SB 827 seeks to exile low-income people of color who currently live in the urban centers of commerce, culture and community that WE have built, to far-flung places that go by the name of Victorville, Lancaster, and Palmdale, or even worse onto the street.” 

Wiener’s Concessions 

The real estate alliance behind SB 827, like the bill’s proud co-sponsor - YIMBY California, read the handwriting on the wall. They realized major concessions were necessary to salvage SB 827 in Sacramento. But, many of Wiener’s infantry remained undaunted, scraping the bottom of the barrel on his behalf. These dead-enders came up with two baffling claims to support his bill, but their arguments are so feeble, they actually give ammunition to the bill’s opponents. 

Bafflingclaim number one:Wiener’s supporters huff and puff about his opponents, smearing them as mythical NIMBY’s whose sole goal is protecting their property values

This claim is a true baffler because SB 827 automatically up-plans and up-zones vast swaths of urban California. By allowing many more uses on a property, and then removing restrictions on height to 85 feet, yards, number of units/density, building mass/FAR, number of stories, design guidelines, and parking requirements, property values would soar. Anyone whose goal is to maximize his or her bottom line through real estate schemes should embrace Wiener as a financial savior. Yet, exactly the opposite is happening. 

Angelenos, whether they live in houses, duplexes, four-plexes, or low-rise apartment buildings, like those in the Crenshaw corridor, abhor Wiener’s bill. Unlike a few Wiener groupies, few LA residents want to sell or to demolish and replace their private residences with ungainly but highly lucrative six to ten-story apartment buildings. Most Angelenos value neighborhood stability, good planning, and quality of life far more than the bag of unmarked $100 bills real estate speculators would pay them to disappear. 

Conclusion: This baffling claim from the bottom of the barrel about greedy LA residents opposing Wiener to enrich themselves makes no sense at all. If they were that mercenary, they would totally support, not totally oppose, SB 827. Anyone who is in just in it for the money should be an enthusiastic Wiener fan, like YIMBY California, not a resolute opponent. 

Baffling claim number two:By getting rid of zoning, Wiener’s bill is a mighty blow against racism. This claim’s utterly flawed logic also comes from the bottom of the barrel: 

  • Some cities have used zoning to maintain racial segregation.
  • Los Angeles has both zoning and a history of racial segregation
  • Therefore, getting rid of zoning, gets rid of racism in Los Angeles. 

This “logical” claim quickly falls apart for many reasons, a few of which I list below. 

In Los Angeles long-term residential zoning – some over a century old -- has not stopped the wide scale racial and ethnic transformation of neighborhoods all over the city, like Westlake, Koreatown, Liemert Park, and Boyle Heights. It also has not stopped the appearance of several long-term racially integrated neighborhoods, such as Pico/Fairfax. 

This animated map, produced at USC, dramatically shows how extensively Los Angeles has changed between 1940 and 2010 in terms of Anglo, Black, Asian, and Latino geographical concentrations.  When you study these maps, you quickly realize that if LA’s zoning perpetuates racial and ethnic patterns, it has been an abysmal failure, especially since the 1980s, when the city’s demography began to profoundly change. 

In fact, the only study I have found that identifiesa political agenda behind LA’s zoning was in City of Quartz. In this famous book, Mike Davis argued that single-family zones were widely promoted in Los Angeles in the WWI eraby the Chandler family, but for an entirely different political agenda. The Chandlers owned the LA Times, then an extremely conservative, anti-union newspaper that was blown up by a series of bombs in 1910. The Chandlers thought, pretty much correctly, that if the working class, which was then mostly white, owned their own homes, they would eventually abandon their pro-union, anarchist, communist, and socialist views, which were then widespread in the United States. 

Non-zoning causes of racial segregation in Los Angeles 

If zoning is not the cause of LA’s racial patterns, what other practices have maintained racial segregation in Los Angeles, at least through the 1980s? This is my list of non-zoning factors, especially different forms of discrimination. While many of these practices have been successfully opposed through Fair Housing laws, some of LA’s racist legacy remains. 

- Exclusionary zoning through large lots: Critics of zoning argue that large lots are a tool of exclusionary zoning. Since minorities have less money, they can’t afford large lots, and this keeps them out of certain neighborhoods.In the greater Los Angeles area, the San Gabriel Valley and the northern fringe of the San Fernando Valley were the location of most large lots. Their purpose, though, was to sell hobby farms to newcomers to LA from the Midwest, not segregate new arrivals by race. 

Since this pre-WW era, many of these large lots have been subdivided into smaller lots featuring expensive homes. While this subdivision of large agriculturally zoned lots has increased density, there are no studies demonstrating that these increases in density also increased diversity. 

- Small Lot Subdivisions:  It is the same for Small Lot Subdivisions, a practice of subdividing small lots into even smaller lots, that began in 2005. The new lots and houses are clearly small, but they are still expensive. As for any evidence that this increased density breaks down racial and ethnic patterns, the follow-up studies report reduced ethnic diversity in Small Lot Subdivisions. This is because existing low-income tenants in rent-stabilized units are pushed out to make way for market rate units and their wealthier occupants. 

- Racial and religious covenants were contained in most Los Angeles property deeds until the Supreme Court struck them down in 1948. But, if you have on older home, you can still often see these racist covenants in strike out form on original deeds. 

- Redlining by banks and other lenders was also widespread in Los Angeles, especially in the 1930s, according to a detailed essay by urban historian David Levitus. Redlining is now illegal, but it lingers on in subtler forms, especially real estate agents who steer potential buyers to neighborhoods that they imagine match their demographics. 

- Local banks that administered FHA and GI bill mortgages deliberately structured them to create white only suburbs, mostly after WWII. By default, this discriminatory lending also created predominantly black inner city neighborhoods that survived well past the end of these racist practices. 

- War industry employee housing constructed in Los Angeles during WW II was racially segregated, following the precedent of similar racially segregated public housing constructed by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration during the 1930s. 

- LAPD violence against minorities who ventured into white neighbors was widespread in Los Angeles through the 1960s, according to Treva Ellison and Colby Lenz in their article, “Mapping Police Violence in Los Angeles.” 

- Harassment and terror against minorities who tried to move into restrictive white neighborhoods, such as the KKK burning crosses at the houses of sympathetic white families and of a black family that crossed the color line to live in the West Slauson area during WWII. 

- Exclusive, discriminatory, members-only private clubs that reinforced racial housing patterns were common in Los Angeles until the late 1980s. In California these clubs were eventually forced to admit (token) members of excluded groups to maintain their beach facilities and to serve alcohol.  

Therefore? Los Angeles has a long and ugly history of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination that shaped residential patterns, but zoning laws are not even a minor cause.This is why it is ludicrous to claim that by allowing SB 827 to wipe out zoning in Los Angeles, it will also wipe out racism in Los Angeles. It is exactly the opposite. 

In zoning’s absence roller coaster real estate markets will fill the vacuum, and gentrification will speed up from a jog to a fast marathon. As this race unfolds, the areas most impacted by accelerated gentrification will be minority neighborhoods already leading the anti-SB 827 movement. It did not take these residents long to figure out that Wiener’s legislation will increase racism in Los Angeles, not reduce it. 

Plus, a free blowback lesson for Wiener’s increasingly harriedsupporters -- when you scrape the bottom of the barrel, take a careful look at what you dredge up before you go public with it.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com. Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.