The California Housing Crisis

California legislators should take a breath on housing ‘crisis.’ Looking at you, Scott Wiener

Reposted from original post at CalMatters

By Susan Kirsch, Special to CalMatters

Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial Senate Bill 50 is huffing and puffing its way back to the 2020 California legislative session. It aims to blow down formerly protected constitutional authority for cities to tackle their own planning and zoning.

Wiener’s march to Sacramento is with a choir of politicians who sing an off-key song of crisis. The tune goes like this:

“We have an affordable housing crisis. Cities are to blame. We have to do something. We’ll replace local control with top-down rezoning in the form of unfunded mandates dictated by developers and real estate investors.”

Let’s unpack these lyrics to discover why it should be stopped.

In the first verse, Wiener and some colleagues have accepted unproven assumptions about the crisis.

One is that California needs 3.5 million new housing units, but the Embarcadero Institute has shown that number is inflated. A more accurate figure is 1.5 million.

The senator overlooks two trends captured in headlines, including this one from last May in The L.A. Times:  “California’s population growth is the slowest in recorded history,” and one from December in The San Diego Union Tribune: “Boomers will be putting millions of homes on the market in the coming decades.”

The most off-key assumption is that new housing construction will meet the need for affordable housing.

Growing evidence, and long-held common sense, shows that developers reach their aspirational profit-margins when they build moderate and luxury units. Truly affordable housing, without subsidies, takes 25-30 years.

In the second verse of this irritating song, Wiener and friends claim cities are to blame for housing woes. They ignore corporate complicity.

Instead, they peddle the idea that housing and affordability will improve if they abolish long-held practices of community engagement with guidelines from elected officials, general plans, housing elements, and hard-fought provisions to protect the environment.

How did we get to this place so lacking in harmony?

San Francisco journalist and author Aaron Glantz describes the historical trends that led to the housing crisis of 2008 in his book, “Homewreckers: How A Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of their Homes and Demolished the American Dream.”

It could be that Wiener and his profit-driven chorus are laying the groundwork for a future book. It could be called “City Wreckers: How A Gang of Politicians, Global Real Estate Investors, Large Property Developers (like Blackrock), and Corporate Giants (like Amazon which paid zero federal taxes in 2018), Bankrupted Thousands of Cities, Left Millions Destitute and without Services, and Squandered Trillions of Dollars of Excessive Wealth.”

Legislators will lament, “We didn’t see it coming.”

Among Wiener’s YIMBY supporters, Minneapolis is celebrated for eliminating single-family zoning. However, Minneapolis Planning Commissioner Alissa Luepke-Pier offers a cautionary perspective in an interview published in The Planning Report.

Asked “what advice would you offer to the California legislators?” she said: “The people who should be at the table making these decisions are the people who lay their heads down on pillows in the zip codes that will be most affected.”

She expresses concern that rezoning encourages land speculation by global investment firms, a practice called the financialization of housing. The practice worsens housing affordability.

Applicable to SB 50, Luepke-Pier urges problem solving with critical thinking analyzing long-term impacts. Across the board rezoning has far-reaching, negative consequences for residents, while benefiting corporate landlords who handily extract wealth from the community.

The objections citizens registered in 2019 when SB 50 was introduced are not mitigated by new amendments.

Legislators should take a breather. They could declare a moratorium on more legislation until the impact of the 40-plus housing bills passed in the last four years take effect, and they ought to analyze and address the underlying causes of income inequity.

Additionally, they could strive to restore harmony by collaborating with cities and citizens instead of blasting the music of giant corporate interests who seek to expand their real estate empires.

And they should permanently shelve Senate Bill 50.


Susan Kirsch is a community organizer, founder and former president of Livable California, susankirsch@hotmail.com. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read her previous commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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