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

The YIMBY movement needs to work on coalition building if we're going to solve the housing crisis

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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.

  • Jason

    If I may copy-paste a tweet I made in response to this on Twitter:

    I feel like this boils down to YIMBYs getting shit for the gentrification/displacement pressure created by NIMBY policies.

  • Stvr

    “Blind” “zealots”

    You’re going to have more success being heard without resorting to name calling. Come on, SB. Let’s be better.

  • Kevin Withers

    The articles makes note of Yimbys being divisive, and that their theory/ideology has numerous holes in it… acknowledging ones problems is indeed half the battle.

    While being a fairly recently formed group, the sanctimosity and smugness often on display, that their position trumps others concerns, the “us vs them” framework, often including generational attacks… it won’t be surprising if solutions become more difficult.

    Consensus is what moves things forward, not molotov cocktails.

  • waveCollapse

    Reading through ACT-LA’s letter, it seems the primary concern expressed is that SB 287 would remove developer incentives for low income housing. However, wouldn’t these incentives still be available for up-zones above the 287 mandated minimums? It seems like 287 would just create a new baseline density around transit, and increases above that could continue to promote inclusionary zoning .

  • Steven Falk

    Nicely written article.

    The thing about #SB827 as drafted is that it pits people who care about their community’s immediate now against those who care about California’s broad future.

    Regarding the former: the POC and SJWs who advocate for the protection of their communities are essentially making the same argument as the people in affluent suburbs, i.e., leave us alone.

    Regarding the latter: change may in fact be, as the cliche goes, gorgeous at the end but if the futurists can’t build a coalition that will deliver the votes, they’ll never get to that gorgeous endpoint.

    An absolutist approach to #SB827 that fails to recognize and incorporate some broad set of displacement and localist concerns may wind up being a waste of time and counterproductive over the longer term.

  • calwatch

    I think we need to be sympathetic to those interests who have been trying to get a seat at the table for decades, and have finally achieved programs such as Measure JJJ and the inclusionary ordinance, only to be told there will be no more table.

    The fact that SB 827 showed up as a fully formed bill, worked through private negotiation and drafting between the legislator and the sponsor of the bill, instead of through a normal hearing and subcommittee process or even a spot bill (like SB 828, on the more technical topic of RHNA reform) also engendered mistrust among those who didn’t participate in the initial drafting of SB 827. It was a political decision by Scott Wiener to head off both legitimate opposition and concern trolling in bill development, but it merely delayed all of that until now. Generally speaking I am in favor of more freedom for private property owners and more of a free market solution, and the ACT-LA writers hold up “deregulation” as if it is a bad thing. But the people for whom the regulations are (finally) protecting should be listened to.

  • Eric

    Honestly, while there are definitely those arguing against sb827 in bad faith (Mirisch et al), I don’t doubt that many critics have genuine concerns, and its very true that zoning variances often are the only tools otherwise voiceless communities have to get concessions. There is a reflexive response to view the worst of a group as the entirety of a movement, be it the ugly libertarian YIMBY elements, or socialists who fight housing growth on environmental grounds, so It might help to start with the goals that we all have in common; housing for all who need it, Prop 13 repeal, etc, and build solutions from there rather than risking punching left.

  • I support SB 827. Getting rid of zoning regulations that make housing more expensive is an affordable housing strategy in and of itself. Density bonus programs are essentially deregulation in exchange for affordable units and are voluntary for developers. They’re both valid strategies, but ultimately, we have to end cities being able to zone for single-family homes around good transit. Something like SB 827 is probably the only way to end that phenomenally wasteful and exclusionary practice.

  • There are still empty lots all around transit around the state, especially outside of the big cities, that will likely remain that way if the cities where they located are not forced into allowing development to occur on them. SB 827 is the best shot to change that and while there certainly could be room to ask questions, the outright aversion to the proposal is a great way to ensure that the housing crisis not just continues, but spreads. The LA-centric groups really need to think beyond their own little bubbles on this one.

    As an example, consider this proposal (link: http://www.sbsun.com/2018/02/13/eight-developers-submit-plans-for-5th-street-gateway-project-in-san-bernardino/). Under SB 827, all of the parcels in question would be immediately upzoned to the eight story level due to how wide the streets are. (Actually, basically the entire picture at the top of that article would be upzoned to that level.) That could provide hundreds of new units that are critical for keeping prices affordable for both existing San Bernardino residents, but also is a place where people displaced from LA move to. Without SB 827, the City of San Bernardino likely won’t get out of its own way to do any good and the people displaced from LA become the agents of displacement here in San Bernardino.

  • xplosneer

    I think it’s pretty clear that there will be changes to 827. Wiener has said this.

    Let’s see that draft, and go from there.

    -A YIMBY

  • Richard

    Yes existing density bonus programs would still stack on top of whatever maximums/minimums a post 827 world created.

    But SB827 eliminates parking minimums completely, so no developer is going to include AH to reduce the amount of parking they need to create.
    SB 872 grants unlimited density, so no developer is going to include AH to get more units.

    AH would only be useful for open height, FAR, open space etc.

    It’s the same way Affordable Housing advocates lobby to keep density limits, low FAR, and high parking minimums. They want to make it expensive and difficult to build a project that doesnt include subsidized housing, forcing all developers to go through the bonus programs. This kind of thinking eliminates the creation of “missing middle” housing as even a 5% AH mandate rounded up on a duplex would turn into a 50% requirement.

  • Seeking consensus – with residents who have no interest beyond their own financial gain – is arguably one of the biggest contributors to the housing crisis.

  • Edward

    Yes xplosneer, and I think the purpose of the bill as written is to get people to *do* something about the problem. The reaction of too many city councils has been, “Fine, you solve that problem in some other city.”

    And in reply to some other comments: Last year there were a double handful of bills about housing. All needed features were not in one bill, and I don’t expect all needed features to be in this one. The legislature likes to work on one thing at a time. The advantage of that is separability as it hits the governor’s desk.

  • Kevin Withers

    “residents who have no interest beyond their own financial gain”

    I suspect this is where you went off course. That’s the knee-jerk, tar everything with one brush, boogeyman stereotype.

    More likely, people simply trying to maintain an established lifestyle.

  • Eric

    Too often though “established lifestyle” simply means trying to limit the number of neighbors you have.

  • AndreL

    So are you advocating leaving in place a convoluted system where parking is mandated and densification prohibited by default, unless a very abuse and graft-prone system allows otherwise, just to create the opportunity to extract concessions from developers?

    What happens is well known: a small amount of heavily subsidized housing is created, most poor people still don’t get affordable houses and most middle income younger (below 40) adults have no realistically shot at owning at all near transit.

    So the position of the author is to send a big f%%# you for people who were not even born when the original sins of CA housing crisis happened in the 1970s and stick to them for trying to, democratically, blow up a cumbersome system full of perverse incentives that create 150min one way commutes and make living with flatmates at age 30 the only option for many.

    At the end of the day most US metros, where almost all economic dynamism is, need to build, build, build.

    The Sierra Club has long stopped being a serious environmental organization and it is just a shill for people who don’t want any sort of change in their lives. Fighting against transit, fighting against mobile cell towers, fighting against high speed rail and what not…

  • AndreL

    The planning system in California is so out of synch with modern needs that blowing the whole thing up in one swoop and in the process inflicting fatal political wounds onnfhe status quo accomodation of activists, neighborhood activists skewed retired age, and pseudo environmentalists would be a very welcoming thing.

  • xplosneer

    Definitely. I love that this hill is on the table too – it keeps the focus on modifying the whole system and the scale of the problem.

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