The biggest policy issue in Sacramento this spring, aside from health care, was almost certainly housing, and with good reason: San Francisco is not the only city that has an affordability crisis. Housing prices are out of control in many of the biggest cities in the state.
The Democrats, who run state government, have offered a modest one-time $3 billion affordable housing bond, which wouldn’t even cover the needs of one city. There has been no plan to offer a permanent, reliable source of money for affordable housing, or limit the loss of existing affordable housing by protecting rent control and stopping evictions.
Instead, it’s mostly been about market-based solutions, about streamlining housing approvals and making it harder for local communities to regulate development.
The state Assembly just passed a bill that would restrict citizen initiatives seek to limit development (including, oddly, commercial development that does nothing to help the housing problem and typically makes it worse.)
But the biggest change may come from Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 35, which just cleared the Senate. The bill represents the latest stage in the effort to create what is known as “by-right” housing – a system that would turn the approval of many developments into a simple ministerial matter, much like getting a permit to renovate a kitchen or put on a new roof. Under the by-right approach, no Planning Commission would ever consider housing development that meets certain standards. A planner would just stamp a permit, and construction could begin.
It sounds so simple: The state needs a lot of new housing, and building anything in some cities is complicated and time-consuming. That drives up the cost of construction, and thus the cost of housing. Some cities refuse to allow much of any new housing, particularly multi-family housing. Build more and build fast and the problem will get better.
But like the idea we have heard from the oil industry and its fans – drill baby drill– build baby build has some serious drawbacks.
The market-lovers and I will always have a big philosophical divide. Like the energy industry, the developers and their allies argue that constant growth is not only good but fundamental to a capitalist society, that we all servants to a force that disrupts and demolished and builds and consumes over and over so fast that we have wrecked the planet and created the greatest unsustainable economic inequality in the modern history of this country.
When I first arrived in this city, a group called San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth, made up of some of the smartest land-use activists around, argued that building too many highrise office buildings and expanding the finance, insurance, real-estate and Pacific Trade industries too fast would wreak havoc on the city’s transportation infrastructure and drive up housing costs, which it did. (The city’s economy would have suffered far more than it did in the late 1980s crash if Prop. M in 1986 hadn’t restored a bit of balance.)
My old friend Sim Van Der Ryn, the legendary architect and planner, once asked me: “Why do we have to have a perpetually adolescent economy?” Why is more always better?
Nobody talk about that much these days.
But back to reality: This city and this state have gone out of their way to attract high-paid workers in tech industry, and there’s not enough housing for all of those workers and the rest of us, so the lower-paid folks (who also do critical jobs, like teaching kids and driving ambulances and fixing the streets, and who make the city’s two biggest industries, health care and hospitality, function every day) have to leave town.
That doesn’t work either.
Wiener argues that
“California’s housing shortage is harming our state’s economy, environment, and quality of life. By not building enough housing, we are driving up evictions and homelessness, pushing people out of our state, and jeopardizing the success of young people.”
So what do we do about it?
It’s hard to argue that cities on the Peninsula can just build tech offices and attract tens of thousands of new workers – and build no housing for them, in essence outsourcing the problem to San Francisco. Wiener’s bill doesn’t bar new office construction until there’s housing available. He didn’t take my suggestion:
Maybe the state Legislature ought to create a process where cities in a dense region that accept giant corporate campuses have to reimburse their neighbors for the housing and traffic impacts that spill over the borders. Then every city that attracts thousands of jobs (for people who don’t already live here) will have no choice but to charge developers and corporations a reasonable fee for their housing and transit impacts.
Instead, his bill assumes there is going to be more office growth and more high-paying jobs that go to people who move here, and that cities won’t force developers to pay for the impacts, so he puts increased pressure on cities to provide market-based solutions.
A loose coalition of social justice, environmental, and affordable housing groups has been meeting for months to talk about the issue. The working group came up with an eight-point framework for thinking about housing policy in California, and much of what’s in that platform is pretty basic and not at all radical.
Among the elements: Link state transportation funding to the construction of affordable housing (not market-rate housing; affordable housing). Provide a permanent source of affordable housing funding to replace what was lost when Gov. Brown abolished redevelopment agencies. Make sure that inclusionary housing policies are legal and enforceable statewide. And:
The stakeholders further agree that, in considering an expedited permitting procedure, the Legislature should discuss the appropriateness and applicability of a safe harbor provision for jurisdictions which make significant progress toward their fair share of affordable housing. Consideration should include whether the project has a significant percentage set aside for deed restricted workforce and affordable housing above and beyond any existing underlying local requirements already in place, such as inclusionary requirement or impact fee.
Then they asked Wiener to amend his bill to include a few modest but important changes. The bill, they suggested, should make clear that cities have the right to impose higher affordable housing rules than the (tiny) ten percent that’s in the legislation. The bill should make it clear that “by right” doesn’t include the right to demolish existing rent-controlled housing or existing affordable housing to build something new and bigger.
Weiner declined most of the suggested amendments.
So now it’s off to the Assembly, where the affordable housing advocates will continue to work for a better bill. Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, notes:
We expected this bill to get through its first house — there is a lot of exuberance in Sacramento for By-Right development. But the details absolutely matter aside from the rhetoric. Several very sensible amendments to SB35 have been proposed by various affordable housing, tenant and environmental organizations to make this streamlining bill reasonable and effective policy. So far most substantive suggestions have been rejected but we look forward to further efforts as the bill goes through the upcoming Assembly process. The stakes are high, and we remain committed to working persistently to get this right.
Meanwhile, Assemblymember Phil Ting managed to get through (with just a two-vote margin) a measure that requires San Francisco to apply its existing affordable-housing requirements to developers who want to use the state’s (far more lenient) density bonus law. That’s a bit technical but a big deal – Sup. Katy Tang and Mayor Ed Lee pushed a local density-bonus law in part to make sure developers didn’t take an end run and apply for the right to build more and bigger under the state law.
It’s the opposite of what Wiener is doing. Ting’s bill preserves the right of local communities to demand more affordable housing. Wiener’s is based on the idea that eventually, the market will solve the problem.
I’ve known Scott Wiener for years, and while he of course gets campaign donations from the real-estate industry, I think he really, sincerely, believes that we can build enough market-rate housing to solve the problem and bring down prices. So do some of the Yimby Party folks.
I think our fundamental disagreement is that they have far more faith in late-stage American capitalism than I do.