With housing and homelessness the number one and two issues on almost every local and statewide poll these days, it’s not surprising that a discussion of a sweeping new housing bill – SB 827 – now making its way through the state legislature – would stir up a spirited dialogue in the first major local discussion of the bill and the issues it aims to tackle.
As currently proposed, SB 827 would accelerate the rate of new housing construction across the state by removing most height, density and parking requirements for parcels “either within a 1/2 mile radius of a major transit stop or a 1/4 mile radius of a stop on a high-quality transit corridor” (defined as “a corridor with fixed route bus service that has service intervals of no more than 15 minutes during peak commute hours”). Under those definitions, new, larger, multifamily buildings could be built in almost all residential areas in Los Angeles, including most current R1 single-family neighborhoods, as shown by the green areas on the following map developed by https://transitrichhousing.org (note that the map may change slightly, based on new amendments to SB 827 introduced last week).
A panel discussion on SB 827, called “The Future of Los Angeles: Building a Better Tomorrow,” was held on Saturday, March 3, at Los Angeles City College. It was hosted by California State Assembly Member Laura Friedman, with a panel including Michael Manville, an assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, California State Senator Scott Wiener (author of SB 827) and Cynthia Strathmann, Ph.D., Executive Director of SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy), a Los Angeles non-profit economic justice and housing advocacy group.
Introducing the panel, Friedman acknowledged the urgency of the housing crisis in California, and said the Legislature has been trying to address the problem…but even though it has passed “hundreds” of bills dealing with housing, she said, it’s still not enough and the state needs to do more.
History of the housing problem
Providing some historical context, Manville noted that throughout the state, there are many low income residents struggling to pay their rent, and there are huge backlogs and waiting lists for low-income housing, vouchers and other forms of support. He said low income residents are also often further victimized by unscrupulous landlords, lack of knowledge about tenants’ rights, lack of enforcement of heath and safety rules and, of course, ever-rising rents.
Manville also said that these pressures on low-income residents are even more critical these days, because housing construction has slowed (severely limiting the overall supply) in recent decades. In the post-World War II years, from 1940 to 1960, Manville said, most housing construction in California was of single family homes and sprawling suburbs. However, from 1960 to 1980, Manville said, the focus shifted to more medium-density development, and – at the same time — down-zoning to help prevent over-building in single-family and other low density areas. That down-zoning, however, said Manville, effectively made building more multifamily housing “illegal” (by severely limiting the areas where it could be built)…and while new residents continued to flock to California, it became impossible to build new housing for the growing population.
In addtion, Manville said, while new zoning protected single family neighborhoods from the encroachment of denser development, it also made what little land was left and available for future development a lot scarcer and more expensive…so prices for all kinds of housing kept skyrocketing, and continue to do so. Which means that now people have to be “very rich” to either afford a single family home, or – on a bigger scale – to build new multi-family housing. Also, he said, the construction price goes up even further with the extensive permitting and review processes that are now required for building…which means developers who do want to build new multi-family projects are encouraged make new developments as big as possible, and to price them at the maximum rate, so that almost all the housing being built is aimed at the luxury market instead of the more affordable end of the housing spectrum, where it’s needed most. Or, to put it more bluntly, Manville said, the current housing market is definitely “broken.”
SB 827 as a possible solution
Sen. Wiener also confirmed that housing is the number one issue in California these days, especially in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where a one-bedroom apartment now averages $3,600/month. Furthermore, he said, “everyone agrees that what we’re doing today and what we’ve been doing for a while [about the housing problems] doesn’t work,” especially for those with low and middle-range incomes. And it’s not just about housing, Wiener said – we also can’t address climate change and other environmental issues, such as carbon emissions, effectively if we continue to encourage sprawl and long commutes in automobiles.
Wiener said state legislators have been “nipping and tucking…around the edges” of the housing problems for a while, but it will take a new and different approach to create real change. Which is why he proposed the much more radical steps taken in SB 827.
When Wiener described bill to the crowd on Saturday, he was met with both cheers and jeers – some loud and frequent – from the audience, which contained large factions both adamantly in favor of and opposed to the proposed changes.
Anticipating at least some of the criticisms to the bill, Wiener said that while he understands that many people see increasing densification, especially in historically low-density neighborhoods, to be a bad thing, it would also be quite negative to have no housing for our increasing population. “You can’t pretend that if you don’t build it, they won’t come,” he said, noting that California has “amazing cities” that will continue to attract newcomers, even with a shortage of housing.
Another argument Wiener anticipated in his introductory remarks was the contention that SB 827, if passed into law, would usurp local control and deprive individual cities of the right to govern their own growth and development. (This has been a big criticism of the bill, especially in Los Angeles, where City Council Members Herb Wesson, David Ryu and Paul Koretz have publicly opposed it, and Ryu recently proposed a resolution calling for the full City Council to formally oppose it.)
Wiener said, however, that most cities accept state involvement with issues like health care and education, so housing should be no different. In fact, he said, local control of housing policies has “led to the mess” we’re in now, and he’d like to help create a better balance of local and state controls.
Wiener contended that maintaining single-family zones near transit-heavy streets – like Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles – effectively make it “illegal” for large numbers of people to live near public transit, which is exactly where they should be living to help reduce traffic, gridlock, carbon emissions, and long commutes.
To help make his point, Wiener showed an aerial photo of the Wilshire Corridor near Westwood, where a slender strip of large apartments lines Wilshire Blvd., but extends no further from Wilshire because it’s abutted on either side by extsensive single family neighborhoods. He said this kind of development pattern results in people only being able to afford housing if they can afford to buy the large amount of land needed for a single-family home. Instead, he said, it would be much more equitable to put more homes on those lots – in the form of more apartment units and condominimums – so each family would be be able to purchas a smaller, more affordable, portion of the overall space.
Wiener also said SB 827 is aimed not so much at creating more skyscrapers as it is at creating more medium-density, 4-6 story buildings, such as the large number of which were built in the Miracle Mile and other mid-town Los Angeles neighborhoods in the 1920s and ’30s. He said many of those still-beloved buildings could no longer be built today under modern zoning restructions.
Wiener closed his presentation by saying he is definitely interested in continuing discussions to further shape the bill, and wants to address opponents’ concerns about things like tenant displacement and affordability, which he said should improve under SB 827 because it opens up more opportunities to build residential housing, and that will make it less expensive, in the long run, to buy or rent.
Objections to SB 827
On Saturday’s panel, Strathmann, who works with low-income residents struggling with housing insecurity in Los Angeles, represented the voice of those who remain to be sold on the idea that simply opening the door to more construction will solve the state’s housing woes.
For example, Strathmann noted, there has been a huge building boom in and near downtown Los Angeles in recent years, but it hasn’t helped her low-income clients in adjacent neighborhoods…mostly for two reasons. First, she said, historic housing covenants had the effect of concentrating low-income residents in certain areas of the city, and developers are not building in those areas, or for those residents. And then, she said, most new construction has been of luxury-level units, with only a very few low-income units included.
To really fix the city’s housing problems, Strathmann said, we need to build housing that ordinary working people can afford, especially along transit corridors, since lower-income residents are the ones most likely to use public transit…unlike the tenants of new luxury buildings, who are more likely to still drive their luxury cars.
Strathmann said fixing the housing crisis will also require a more broad-based approach, in which more construction is definitely part of the mix…but which also includes more requirements to mandate inclusive housing, the preservation of older, more affordable buildings, making sure there is no net loss of units when new buildings replace old ones, putting the brakes on converting housing units from full-time to short-term rentals, completing the current cycle of community plan revisions, making sure new affordable housing is also healthy (by addressing things like urban oil drilling sites and pollution), and making sure that new transit-oriented development is affordable for those who will actually use the transit.
Strathmann said she is concerned that, as currently written, SB 827 will drive up housing costs near transit, that it could accelerate the process (which she said is big in South L.A. and other low-income neighborhoods) of existing single-family houses being purchased by large companies instead of individual families, and that it could jeopardize beneficial local programs like Los Angeles’ new density bonus and Transit-Oriented Development initiatives.
Strathmann agreed with the other panelists that there is an overall lack of housing in Los Angeles, but she said that in addition to building more houses, we can only achieve better equity by targeting restrictions that continue to concentrate low income residents in certain areas, and to make sure that people use our public transit. She said that there are actually lots of things the state can do to help with those goals, including reducing restrictions for building permanent supportive housing (and making it “by right” in most areas), not restricting low-income housing to currently low income neighborhoods, reforming the Ellis Act (which allows owners to evict tenants if they want to tear down a building), and repealing the Costa-Hawkins law, which provides rent control only in older buildings.
In other words, Strathmann said, we do need more housing construction, but it is only part of the solution, and it “should be done in a thoughtful way. Build the right things, at the right time, in the right places.”
Questions and Concerns
After the panelists’ formal remarks on Saturday, there was limited time for audience questions, but Friedman collected questions from the audience members and voiced some of their major concerns to the speakers.
One major objection voiced quite strongly (and loudly) by the audience was how homes and districts currently designated as historic would fare under SB 827. Wiener insisted that the law would not supercede any local restrictions on demolitions or design, such as you find in historic areas or with specific landmarked properties, but several very vocal audience members said they didn’t think that goes far enough…and the bill must specifically address historic areas like Los Angeles’ HPOZs, which it currently does not. The audience members also requested that the bill specifically address the issue of historic compatibility of new construction (not just demolition of existing properties) in historic areas, which is also not mentioned in the current draft.
In response to some of the criticisms, Friedman asked Strathmann what kinds of amendments or changes in the current version of SB 827 might turn her into a supporter, but Strathmann demurred, saying she believes in creating the right tool for the job, and she’s not sure SB 827 could be modified to do what really needs to be done. Strathmann said what we need at the moment is an “ambulance,” but SB 827 is more like a “bulldozer,” and no matter how extensively you modify the bulldozer, it could never be as effective as starting with something originally designed to be an ambulance.
Finally, Friedman thanked everyone for the “robust” discussion, and Wiener noted that most of the future discussion and amendments to the bill will take place as it moves through the committee process in the state legislature…where it will very likely see very extensive revisions. (Since this is a legislative bill, however, and not a ballot measure – like last year’s Measure S – it won’t be voted on directly by the public.) But Wiener said he is still very open to comments and suggestions, which can be submitted to him directly and/or to residents’ own representatives in Sacramento.
Below is a video of the entire Town Hall, posted on YouTube by Assemblymember Friedman.
[This story was updated after publication to revise the description of areas SB 827 would cover, and to add the map showing areas that would be covered under the bill’s proposed new rules.]