NEW GEOGRAPHY--SB50, the controversial Sacramento bill that would take zoning rights away from local communities, has been dubbed by its author, San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener, as the “more homes” bill, but it would be much more appropriate to title it the “More Real Estate Speculation and Free Air Rights Bill.”
The bill is so dangerous because it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing -- with the latest cosmetic changes nothing more than an added layer of wool to pull over people’s eyes. As former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky so perspicaciously said about an earlier iteration of the bill: “It’s a real estate bill, not a housing bill.”
And after recent bills that now allow up to two accessory dwelling units (ADU) within each single-family lot, it’s completely unnecessary. With 7 million single-family houses in the state, the ADU bills now have increased zoning for an additional 14 million units, way more than the 1.1 million units HCD (the California Department of Housing and Community Development) says are necessary.
SB50 supporters and Yimbys love to scapegoat cities as the cause of the state’s housing affordability issues; they paint density as a silver bullet; and they embrace the principle that the unchecked market, unconstrained by zoning or urban planning, will sort things out and create affordability.
Yet at its core, SB50 is an out-and-out war on single-family housing, which many supporters of SB50 consider to be inherently “immoral” and “racist,” rather than a lifestyle choice which cuts across all categories (as polling constantly suggests). The irony here is that these density fetishists forget that the tenements, slums and historically most oppressed parts of urban landscapes were also… yes, the densest.
Singing from the same song-sheet as Scott Wiener, the Yimbys and SB50 supporters, Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson has similarly stated that single-family housing is responsible for high housing costs in Southern California. So, the odd coupling of the Trump Administration and Scott Wiener’s solution is to force the building of more condos and transform single-family housing in a process known as blanket up zoning. Why, of course, that’s a policy our developer president endorses; he has made a career out of finagling his way to free air rights and to using government to enrich himself, even if it destroys local economies and communities in the process.
Far from addressing the root causes of homelessness and expensive housing – the jobs/housing imbalance within regions and within our state; increasing income inequality fueled by Big Tech, etc. – SB50 will instead lead to a feeding frenzy of real estate speculation, offering up another sexy way to satiate global capital’s hunger to park money.
The speculation will lead to increased income inequality, more displacement and less affordability. It also will lead to the corporatization of residential housing and put individual home-ownership even more out of reach for most living, breathing human beings, because, after all, who can compete with a Wall Street algorithm?
SB50 doesn’t focus on affordable housing; instead it embraces Reaganomic “trickle-down theories“ that building more luxury housing will eventually filter down and create more affordable housing.
Of course, that’s nonsense: building more Porsches won’t reduce the price of Priuses. Some people simply don’t understand the difference between “abundant” and “affordable.”
At a time when Governor Newsom is considering having the state get into the pharmaceutical business because the market and Big Pharma can’t be trusted, it is nothing short of Trumpian irony itself that the governor, who has praised SB50, seems to think the market will solve the state’s affordable housing issues.
Scott Wiener’s cynical Trumpian give-away to Wall Street and developers also happens to be a war on Southern California. Not only are the bill’s main supporters and gurus a tight-knight faction of Bay Area politicians, flush with Big Tech money: Wiener’s SB50 has exempted Marin and Sonoma Counties, where many of the tech oligarchs have massive estates, from the full impact of the bill.
In line with Big Tech’s priorities, the intent of the bill is to concentrate all growth within the state to the LA, San Francisco and San Jose urban areas, which are already the densest urban areas in the US (in that order). The goal of these Sacramento politicians isn’t to create livability and provide more opportunities throughout the state, but to turn these urban areas into increasingly dystopic, congested communities, divided between rich and poor with no place for a middle class, let alone any opportunities to use home ownership to help bring people into the middle class.
Wiener says he’s “not going to tell people where to live,” but by neglecting other cities in the state, where costs tend to be lower, and by not working to create alternatives and livable, attractive communities in other areas, too, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
With over 160,000 square miles, California remains a huge state with enormous potential for balanced and sustainable growth, but only if we address the jobs/housing imbalance not by forcing economic growth and densifying in areas already bursting at the seams, but by creating opportunity in the interior and other underserved parts of the state.
Perhaps we should look to Sweden and its “glesbygdspolitiken” (and other similar policies around Europe) which aims to create economic balance within the country by ensuring that smaller and mid-size cities are attractive, viable places to put down roots in. This approach has allowed most cities in Scandinavia and even Germany to avoid the kind of overinflated pricing and displacement we see widely in California.
Instead of trying to force more people into the already densest urban areas in the US --- often at the behest of Big Tech, Wall Street and real estate profiteers--- Sacramento should look to create geographic equity by using the same effort, political capital and time to invest in and encourage balanced economic growth throughout the state.
Cities throughout the state like Stockton, Fresno, Bakersfield, Visalia, San Bernardino and Barstow, etc. are struggling, but with investment and economic development could be attractive locations. Companies now decamping for Phoenix or Dallas might be persuaded, with the proper incentives, to expand or to relocate to the underserved parts of the state.
Sadly, it’s easier for Sacramento to put corporations before communities and to impose policies which take away local control and community self-determination for the benefit of Wall Street and Big Tech.
Instead of further corporatizing housing and undermining stable communities, Sacramento should look to implement anti-speculation policies, turn to non-profits to build affordable housing and limit corporate ownership of residential housing, while respecting individuals’ and communities’ unique and varied lifestyle choices.
Unique, individual communities and cities with their own DNAs are the heart and soul of our state, reflecting the individuality of the residents, and local self-determination sustains these unique identities. This wonderful diversity of place would be jeopardized by SB50 with its one-size-fits-all mandates, designed for the benefit of Wall Street and Big Tech, and their allies in the political class and the bureaucracy.
Sadly, the false narrative painted by Wiener and Trump is that cities are the problem. But cities and communities are not the problem; if anything, DC and Sacramento are the problem. Ultimately, communities, the unique, individual communities throughout California are what makes the state so remarkable and innovative. Preserving and strengthening them should be the primary goal of government at all levels.
(John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009. He is currently serving his third term as mayor. This article first appeared in the January 28, 2020 issue of New Geography. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)