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Senate Bill 827, Equity, and the Need for Coalition Building in the YIMBY Movement

Last month, State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) released a draft of his legislation, Senate Bill 827, which would upend zoning rules throughout California.

The bill, aimed at making it easier to build housing at a time when the state is suffering from a debilitating shortage, has, to put it mildly, ignited a robust debate in activist circles. Debates have focused on the role of local control, the need for more density, and how best to ensure that not only do our cities remain inclusive, but that the people who have historically been cut out of the planning process will able to guide the future direction of their cities -- and by extension, their lives.

As someone who has spent the last several years fighting for more housing, I have been wrestling with S.B. 827 since it was released in January. I’m not the only one.

It is abundantly clear that California is suffering from a dire lack of housing, which is putting increasing pressure on middle- and low-income people, squeezing them out of their homes, their neighborhoods, their city, and even out of the state. But while wealthier jurisdictions, especially on the west side of L.A. County, have often employed local control to prevent much-needed new housing, neighborhoods like South L.A. have leveraged local control over planning to ensure more equitable outcomes and to prevent displacement.

In a letter to Wiener’s office opposing the bill, the Alliance for Community Transit LA (ACT-LA), a coalition of dozens of tenant advocacy, economic justice, and affordable housing groups, explicitly noted this tension.

“There is no place for the segregationist planning that defined so much of our metropolitan history, but the antidote to segregationist low-density zoning imposed up and against communities of color is not an ‘open the flood gates’ approach,” ACT-LA’s letter reads.

Westwood, for one, Venice, Beverly Hills, and, my personal favorite, Santa Monica, have all contributed to the housing shortage by applying restrictive zoning in exactly the places that are ideal for more homes, especially since Expo Line Phase II opened in 2016. Beverly Hills City Councilmember John Mirisch recently went on an epic Twitter rant about the bill.

S.B. 827 would effectively blow up the tools those jurisdictions have been using to keep out new housing near major transit lines. In the case of Santa Monica, which has affordable housing requirements for new housing baked into its city charter, it could actually lead to a boom of mixed affordable and market-rate housing in the city’s downtown core and along its major commercial boulevards--locations where there are ample opportunities to build new housing without displacing existing residents.

But the rest of the state isn’t Santa Monica. Los Angeles, for example, recently passed Measure JJJ, which requires housing developers who are seeking zoning changes to build a certain amount of affordable housing in exchange. ACT-LA’s letter specifically calls out the fact that S.B. 827 would undermine the gains made through the passage of JJJ.

Affordable housing, meaning housing that is subsidized and rented below the market rate to people whose incomes qualify them, is not on its own a sufficient solution to California’s housing shortage, but is absolutely a necessary one, especially when planning to prevent displacement in the long term. The market alone cannot solve the housing crisis in a humane way.

Proponents of Wiener’s bill have focused largely on the fact that California simply needs more housing and they have also argued, rightly, that the bill is still in draft form and will more than likely change between now and the time it goes to the floor for a vote. The word on the street is that the next version of the bill will likely contain language designed to discourage the demolition of existing housing. Whether that and any other changes Wiener may make will alleviate the concerns of opponents remains to be seen.

It’s also important to note that S.B. 827 isn’t being proposed in a vacuum. Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) had proposed a bill to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which would have allowed local jurisdictions to expand or implement rent control laws. While that bill failed in committee earlier this year, he vowed to continue to push the issue. And a separate repeal of Costa-Hawkins may actually end up on the November ballot. Also, there is talk of finding more funding sources for affordable housing, as well as strengthening the state law that ultimately determines how much housing local jurisdictions are responsible for producing, including another bill from Senator Wiener, S.B. 828.

But perhaps the most troubling thing, as an activist for housing and someone who is also concerned about economically just outcomes, is the tenor of the conversation surrounding S.B. 827.

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, laid out many of the same concerns I have in her blog post, “If ‘no credible housing supply advocates omit renter-support policies in their advocacy for new supply’, why are there no rental protections or renter supports in SB827?

“I support S.B. 827, but I don’t expect much from it other than what I’ve seen planning and urban policy do over and over again for development and not for poor people. I love the energy and excitement of young people interested in urbanism who see S.B. 827 as ‘transformative,’ ” she wrote (I disagree with her here on only one point: I can’t support S.B. 827, at least in its current form).

“It is–it’s a big step for the infill agenda. But in other ways, it’s business as usual: Henri Lefebvre pointed out, over the course of a very distinguished career, planning is a means to stabilize urban politics and conflicts over development for capitalist development. That’s what we are doing with S.B. 827, even though lots of people are doing so for the best intentions,” she wrote.

The debate surrounding S.B. 827 has made it clear that there is a gulf between many in the new wave of housing advocates, often called YIMBYs (for “Yes in my Backyard), and those advocating on the social and economic justice side of the issue.

Many of the supporters of S.B. 827 have taken a “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead” approach. But with that has come the kind of blindness that often accompanies zealousness. A number of YIMBY activists expressed genuine surprise to see ACT-LA’s opposition to the bill (they were less surprised to see the Sierra Club’s opposition, but that’s another story for another day).

This exchange neatly sums up the disconnect.

We can’t simply interpret opposition to YIMBY ideas from communities who have been historically disenfranchised from city planning processes as wanting to keep their neighborhoods “crappy.”

Many are rightfully distrustful of the market forces housing activists want to leverage to solve the crisis because those same market forces have run roughshod over their communities for decades.

The responses to Schweitzer’s piece are illustrative.

In the fight against Measure S, we were all (mostly) on the same side (ACT-LA was also part of the larger coalition against Measure S). But opposing something as clearly regressive as Measure S is one thing. Building a coalition around a vision for the future that is a compromise between many groups is quite another.

It’s not impossible, though. Brent Gaisford from Abundant Housing L.A., perhaps the most visible YIMBY group currently on the scene in Southern California, recently wrote an opinion piece for the L.A. Times advocating the need for a “right to remain” policy to help stem displacement.

It’s definitely a good start to a conversation that bridges the gap between those advocating the “big picture” solutions to the housing shortage and those who are fighting to make sure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard in planning the future of our city and our state.

It’s a conversation we need to have if we are going to build a coalition against those who would invoke local control to preserve their privilege and keep people away from the economic opportunities in their communities.

But in some ways, YIMBYs -- and I have been guilty of this -- are discovering the housing crisis for the first time now that it has begun to impact the middle class, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Housing has always been a crisis for the poor, and there have been many activists working to address housing issues -- overcrowding, displacement, unsafe and unsanitary housing -- in low-income communities of color for decades. And we aren’t talking to them or incorporating their ideas into our solutions.

Right now, most of us aren’t even sitting at the same table. If we are going to make California an affordable place to live again and a more equitable place than it has ever been in its history, we are going to have to change that.

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