At the beginning of the month, we reported on a large Town Hall meeting where more than 350 people showed up to learn more about SB50, the state-level housing bill that would do away with single-family zoning in many cities, including Los Angeles, and make it easier to build larger, denser buildings in many areas within half a mile of busy transit lines.
On May 22, there was another such meeting, this one at Holman United Methodist Church in West Adams, an area perhaps less affluent overall than the the one where the previous meeting was held, but where neighbors are no less passionate about their neighborhoods. With attendance close to that of the first meeting, this one, too, focused on reasons to oppose SB50, and each of the full dozen speakers on the agenda addressed a different aspect of the issue.
Several of the speakers, including City Council Member Paul Koretz, lawyer and P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council board member Hydee Feldstein, and P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council President Brad Kane, had also been on the agenda at the previous meeting, and largely repeated their remarks from that earlier meeting. But the other nine speakers were new to the town hall stage and added additional perspectives.
First, Diane Robertson, president of the Sutro Avenue Block Club, opened and chaired the meeting, setting the tone by defining SB 50 as an “unprecedented shift of land use policy from the local to the state level.” She also explained to the audience that while the bill was earlier that week retained in the Suspense File at the California State Senate Appropriations Committee, that does not mean the bill is dead or that opponents can stand down. “Let’s vow to do everything possible to keep it from passing,” she said, setting the stage for the rest of the evening’s speakers.
City Planning Perspectives
The first speaker of the evening, Deputy Director of LA City Planning Arthi Varma, explained the basic provisions of SB 50, and directed audience members to two reports on the bill released by the Planning Department, one anlyzing the effects the bill would be likely to have on zoning and land use regulations in the city…and the other summarizing and anylizing the effects of several amendments to the bill made later in April. Varma also explained that there are two major parts to SB 50 – one that would allow construction of up to four units, by right, in all residential zones statewide…and one that would provide additional density bonus options in areas where multi-family housing is already allowed. Amendments to SB 50 in April, Varma said, would exempt certain “sensitive” (read: low-income) areas from the bill’s provisions, but those areas would have just seven years to craft their own SB 50-friendly regulations or revert to coverage by SB 50 at the end of the 7-year period. Varma also noted that requirements for construction of low-income units would be lower than those currently in place with city-level regulations, such as our new Transit Oriented Communities policies.
Next, City Planner Matthew Glesne provided some perspective on why state legislators are pushing so hard to override local control of zoning and planning issues. According to Glesne, there has been a “dramatic decline in the production of housing in the last 20 years,” across the state, and because cities have been building at less than half the rate they used to, while population is still growing, the state is now blaming city governments for failing to keep up with the demand for housing, and pushing cities to build more.
Glesne noted, however, that the City of Los Angeles has been working hard to meet its housing demand, and has built more units in just the last year than in the 30 years previous, including many designated affordable units. The result, he said, is that we’re now starting to see some stabilization in housing prices, which had been spiraling upward before the building boom.
Glesne noted that the city of Los Angeles has also enacted new linkage fees to help fund more affordable housing, and is leading the state in promoting the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), of which 4,000 were permitted just last year.
Noting that one size does not fit all when it comes to zoning, Glesne also pointed out that the Transit Oriented Communities program does not – as SB 50 would – affect single-family neighborhoods, and applies only to multi-family areas that are already zoned for relatively high-density development. Also, the year and a half that the TOC guidelines have been in effect, Glesne said, about 16,000 new units have been permitted, with 3,000 designated “affordable,” and half of those specifically reserved for Low Income and Extremely Low Income residents. In addition, said Glesne, the city is working on building supportive housing for the homeless…and while the City of LA occupies only 40% of the land in Los Angeles County, it built more than 75% of new housing in the county in the last year.
City Council Perspectives
The next speaker was City Council President Herb Wesson, who represents the District 10 area in which the meeting was held. Wesson agreed that SB 50 “would change the face of the Mid-City area,” but said that while we do need to find solutions to the current housing crisis, they should come from those who know their neighborhoods best. “Who better to do that than the people who live here?” Wesson asked. Instead of passing statewide dictates like SB 50, Wesson said state representatives concerned about housing should come to us “with a blank sheet of paper, and we should work together on solutions,” which is not what is happening with SB 50.
Firmly taking the elder statesman position, Wesson acknowledged to the audience that housing is a very “emotional” issue, and said he respects that emotion, but it’s not enough to win or lose this battle. Instead, he said, those opposed to to SB 50 need to focus on strategy, tactics, timing and relationships…and just because the city has successfully fought off state control of other issues in the past, there’s no guarantee we’ll beat Sacramento again on this one. “I’ve been to Sacramento, and that’s where I learned to get weird,” said Wesson said. “Sacramento is weird, the dead [bills] come back to life…so we have to come up with an [effective] approach.”
In his remarks, Wesson also addressed the question of why the LA City Council waited until April to unanimously oppose SB 50, which was introduced to the state legislature in December. Wesson said that if the Council opposed the bill too quickly, it could have been interpreted as a knee-jerk reaction, but by waiting a while, and talking to legislators about it first, it helped to preserve the city’s relationship with Sacramento lawmakers.
Finally, Wesson said there are four things people can do to help fight SB 50. The first is to educate people about the bill, because the more people that know about it, the better. Second, continue to engage with state legislators in any way possible (phone calls, letters, e-mails, etc.)…and, when you do engage, do it with facts and concerns, don’t just “cuss ’em out,” he said. Third, said Wesson, propose alternate solutions. Remember, he said, that we do have a housing crisis, and as long as it exists, we’ll be exposing ourselves to the efforts of outsiders who want to solve it for us. And, fourth and finally, advised Wesson, SB 50 opponents must stay united. While different people find different parts of the issue important (some are more concerned with parking requirements than housing units, for example), it’s important to remember that we’re all in the struggle together.
“This [bill] is not dead,” Wesson concluded. “This is a vampire. It can come back to life if someone somewhere makes a deal.” So “stay engaged and come up with a strategy we can take to Sacramento to take care of our own problems.”
After Wesson’s remarks, Koretz repeated his remarks from the previous meeting, contending that building more market-rate housing does nothing to address affordability issues, and may even make them worse. Then Solomon Rivera, Chief of Staff for City Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, read a statement from Harris-Dawson, agreeing that SB 50 is “well-intentioned,” but stating Harris-Dawson’s “strenuous objection” to the loss of local control, as well as SB 50’s threats to affordable housing and its liklihood of increasing tenant displacement. Harris-Dawson’s statement also noted the 16,000 units of new housing built in LA last year, which was the highest number for any city in the state. So “we’ve been doing our work in LA,” said Rivera, suggesting that State Senator Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Bay-area representative who authored SB 50, may want to focus on his own district before trying to impose legislation on Los Angeles.
Neighborhood and Housing Activists
The next speaker at last week’s meeting was John Gonzales, a real estate builder and broker who is also vice president of the Baldwin HIlls Estates Home Owners Association.
Gonzales gave a few specifics about how SB 50 could affect building patterns, saying that a lot that might have once been developed with a 2,250-square-foot house might now be able to hold a 12,500-square-foot building, with no parking or affordable unit requirements if it’s near a rail station…and that square footage might go even higher if SB 50 bonuses are combined with other bonuses under the existing Density Bonus law. Gonzales said it is imperative that the state not allow exceptions to affordability requirements (which the current version of the bill does), and that the result would be that developers will immediately channel their investments into projects that quickly densify lower-density areas and not just commercial corridors, which are already fairly well densified. If neighbors do not want to see that happen, Gonzales said, we need to keep local planning community based…because not all lots, and not all neighborhoods, are the same, and all should not be developed in the same way.
Next up, Romerol Malveaux, representing the Cherrywood Leimert Block Club, recounted how, in the post-World War II housing crisis of the 1940s, residents were allowed to find their own solutions, with many families doubling up in existing houses and/or renting out garages. That kind of individual innovation worked, Malveaux said, and allowed neighborhoods to expand and contract as needed, without tearing down and rebuilding them in completely new configurations. Single family homes, Malveaux said, are part of the larger pattern and character of our neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and that mix of housing types, with both homeowners and renters, are what creates our sense of community – where people will help you in an emergency, where there are trees and walkable sidewalks, and which provide an aspirational goal as well, as young people grow up wanting to acquire their own homes. “It’s as American as apple pie,” said Malveaux. “Our neighborhoods are our collective soul” and “when I see an SB 50, I wonder if they’re pulling my soul out.”
Echoing the other speakers who noted the work LA has already done on housing issues, Malveaux added that neighbors have already worked very hard on efforts to revise local Community Plans in many areas, including South LA, and those locally-nuanced efforts would be in vain if the community plans are negated by SB 50. “We did a lot of creative work,” Malveaux said. “Why is the state coming in now?”
The final speaker of the night who wasn’t also on the agenda at the previous SB 50 town hall meeting was Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition For Economic Survival, a grass-roots housing, tenant rights and economic justice organization. And while some other housing advocacy groups have endorsed SB 50, Gross said – loudly and emphatically – “We say no on SB 50!”
Gross said his organizaiton is very well aware of the current housing crisis, noting that many people in Los Angeles pay more than 50% of their income for rent, and a person would need four full-time minimum wage jobs to pay the average rent in the city. But, he said, SB 50 simply mandates “more housing at any cost,” and is “a real estate bill masquerading as a housing bill.”
Gross said it is much more important to ask of the drive to build more housing, “At what cost, for whom, and who profits?” Gross said our urban environment “does not look like the suburbs here,” and SB 50 would accelerate gentrification and displacement, and destroy local neighborhoods while providing “windfall profits” to builders. As a result, he said, property values will continue to rise, and there will be even more Ellis Act evictions, as owners tear down older, rent controlled buildings to build newer, larger ones with no rent control.
Finaly, Gross noted that Los Angeles has lost more than 25,000 rent controlled units to redevelopment since 2001, and predicted that number would increase under SB 50. Also, he warned there are many small business owners in our current commercial corridors who would also be displaced by rising rents in new developments under SB 50…while many working class homeowners who worked and saved for years for the “American dream” of buying their homes would see their chreished neighborhoods forever changed by SB 50.
In closing, although Wesson had earlier cautioned the audience about not getting too carried away in the emotions surrounding SB 50, Gross finally let the audience give voice to at least some of that emotion, leading them in chanting over and over, “No on SB 50!”