Berkeley Officials Reject Plan to Fast-Track New Housing

HousingAs CalWatchdog reported July 2, the city of Cupertino’s decision to stop fighting a massive mall makeover project enabled by a far-reaching 2017 state law meant to promote more housing construction could someday be seen as a milestone in state planning.

Senate Bill 35 by Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, requires cities that have not met their affordable housing requirements to approve projects that are properly zoned, pay union-scale wages to builders and have at least 10 percent of units in “affordable” ranges.

After months of objections from Cupertino elected officials and activists, in June, the city signed off on developer Sand Hill Property Company’s plan to convert the largely empty 58-acre Vallco Mall site to a huge multi-use project with 2,400 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space and 1.8 million square feet of office space

Given that 98 percent of cities have been found to have an inadequate supply of affordable housing, according to a state evaluation, the Cupertino precedent seemed potentially huge.

Two months later, new developments related to SB35 appear to point in the opposite direction.

Last week, Berkeley officials rejected a plan to use the law to fast-track approval of 260 apartments and 27,500 square feet of commercial space at 1900 4th Street just east of the Berkeley Marina despite evidence presented by developer Blake Griggs Properties that it was properly zoned and otherwise met SB35’s edicts.

City tactics in fighting project have familiar ring

The tactics that Berkeley is prepared to use mirrored the ways that construction projects have been fought in California for decades: raising a variety of legal objections that could cost developers millions of dollars because of delays, even if they have little or no validity or applicability.

Berkeley planning chief Timothy Burroughs said the project could not proceed because:

  • It would have been built on land designated as a historical landmark because of a Native American burial ground. As a city with its own charter government, it is given deference in protecting its history.
  •  It would have considerable low-income housing but not enough housing for those with very low incomes.
  •  It would have increased traffic in the area in ways not allowed by city laws.

The objections were of the sort that Weiner sought to bypass with SB35. This is why the developer warned of a lawsuit earlier in the summer after the city put up roadblocks to approval.

But in a surprising move reported last week by the San Jose Mercury-News, West Berkeley Investors – part of the group backing developer Blake Griggs Properties – has backed out of the project without explanation. The assumption of many is that it saw the hassles as outweighing the chances for success.

The Mercury-News also reported that a spokesman for Berkeley City Hall said officials would welcome it if developers chose to reactivate a previous application that had far fewer residential units – 135 – and slightly more commercial space – 33,000 square feet.

In his Sept. 4 letter rejecting the latest version of the project, the city planning chief emphasized the historical significance of the Native American burial ground. Why that significance would lose weight in planning decisions if a smaller project were being considered was not explained.

But Burroughs pushed back against the idea his city was hostile to adding housing stock. He said 910 housing units have been built since 2014, 525 are now being constructed and 1,070 are cleared and in the pipeline.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

UC Berkeley professor blames rent control for California’s housing crisis

UC BerkeleyKenneth Rosen, a UC Berkeley economist and real estate consultant, published a paper Wednesday titled The Case For Preserving Costa Hawkins, in hopes of swaying voters against Proposition 10.

Proposition 10, which will go before voters in November, would repeal the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, a state law that severely curtails rent control in California cities. For example, under Costa-Hawkins, only San Francisco apartments built before 1979 may be subject to rent control.

Passing Proposition 10 would not in and of itself create any new rent control housing, but it would allow cities to expand rent control stock for the first time in decades if they so choose.

Rosen, however, argues that turning the clock back to 1994 will stifle new housing and drain apartment stock. …

Click here to read the full article from SF Curbed

Elected Officials to Blame for California’s Homegrown Housing Problem

house-constructionWe see the headlines daily — California has an affordability problem when it comes to housing. People have to live further and further away from their jobs, and even a median-priced condo is out of reach for many. Since this affects so many of us, and since California now has about a fourth of the nation’s homeless population, compassionate people want to do something. But that something could make a bad situation even worse. As former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, says, “the best way to make something expensive is for government to make it affordable.”

After emigrating from Jamaica as a child and settling in Florida, I came to California as soon as I could. Our amazing state — with its lack of humidity and flying bugs — has always been attractive to aspiring actors, creators and entrepreneurs, so a higher cost of living was expected as a down payment on living the California Dream. What’s happening now, however, is causing sleepless nights for many.

First, we need to understand how we ended up with this problem. California has lots of people willing to build, so how did we not keep up with the clear demand for so long? For years, the state has consistently added about half the housing needed to keep pace with the population. Our elected officials shoulder much of the blame, by constraining supply due to mandates and regulations. Now, of course, they’d like to be part of the solution. Central planning, however, has never worked, even though it’s been tried in myriad ways and in many different variations.

The first hurdle that politicians enacted was the California Environmental Quality Act. Instead of being used to address real environmental concerns and protect our unique topography, it’s often used as a cudgel to enact wage and other concessions from developers. Over a third of the lawsuits filed under CEQA have to do with housing. This, of course, adds costs and delays to development, and gives pause to anyone considering building in the state. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Families earning $117,000 now qualify as “low income” in California’s Bay Area

A report out this week from the Department of Housing and Urban Development finds the median price for a single-family home in the Bay Area is now $935,000. A family earning $117,000 now qualifies as “low income” in the region.

CBS News went to see California’s red-hot housing market with realtor Larry Gallegos. He showed us a house you would think he couldn’t give away. But Gallegos says the home, complete with leaks in the roof, sold for $1.23 million. The buyer beat out six competing offers, all above the asking price.

“It’s a little mind blowing, but it is the norm around here,” Gallegos said.

That norm is fueled by thousands of well-paid tech workers who have driven up the median price of a San Francisco house to $1.6 million dollars, the highest in the country. While housing prices are rising faster than incomes nationwide, nowhere is it more evident than in the Bay Area, where home values have soared a staggering 64 percent over the last five years. …

Click here to read the full article from CBS News

California’s solar-panel mandate for new homes will keep the cost of living unaffordable.

Solar panelsCalifornia, where a modest, burned-out home in San Jose just sold for nearly $1 million, well above its asking price, is in the throes of a housing-affordability crisis. The state’s latest response to the housing crunch: a mandate that builders install solar panels on every new home in the Golden State.

It’s tough to overstate the high cost of housing in California, even relative to the state’s high incomes. In San Jose, the average home costs 10.3 times the area’s median income, according to Demographia’s International Housing Affordability Survey. This high ratio is not due to some local bubble — it’s 9.4 in Los Angeles, 9.1 in San Francisco, and 8.4 in San Diego. Elsewhere in the country — even in relatively prosperous cities with high growth — housing is more affordable. In Columbus, Ohio, and in Atlanta, for instance, home prices average only about three times the median income. Even New York City, considered “severely unaffordable,” scores just 5.7.

Regulations that stifle building are a big part of the problem. Reason illustrated the absurdity of California’s building rules when it profiled a laundromat owner in San Francisco who has spent four years and $1 million trying to develop apartments on the site of his one-story, non-historic building in a city starving for new housing. It’s so tough to find an affordable place to live in San Francisco that people in their late thirties are living in dorms.

But beyond the zoning and regulatory barriers, mandates that raise prices are an underreported part of the housing price challenge in California. The New York Times estimates that the solar-panel requirement will add $8,000 – $12,000 to the cost of a home — close to the price of a year’s in-state tuition at UC Berkeley. One local chapter of Habitat for Humanity says that the charity will have to raise an additional $80,000 to $100,000 per year just to keep building the same number of homes. Advocates insist that solar power saves money in the long run, but if it’s such a great deal, why does California have to legislate it?

The state’s rationale for imposing the directive is, of course, climate change. But as New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer tweeted, adding 10,000 new apartments in San Francisco would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the state by three times as much as the solar-panel mandate because urban apartment-dwellers use less energy than single-home occupants. California is already a green-friendly state. Building more housing that lets more people live in California, even at current energy-efficiency levels, would have a positive effect on emissions. The alternative is forcing people to move out of state and into more polluting jurisdictions.

State legislators made an attempt to expand housing availability with Senate Bill 827, which would have preempted local zoning rules by requiring cities to allow midrise construction near rail stations and major bus stops. The legislation should have pleased climate-change activists by facilitating the construction of new transit-oriented development and increasing density. But powerful environmental groups in California, including the Sierra Club, lined up against the bill, which failed in committee.

With its heavy-handed, top-down approach to zoning, SB 827 raised legitimate concerns about local control over land use—but the bill’s opponents block any plan that would materially increase housing supply in transit-accessible areas. California’s environmentalist-NIMBY axis has been highly effective in driving housing costs to unsustainable levels. The failure to build new housing in America’s most climate-friendly locales suggests that the underlying rationale for California’s rules is not climate, but exclusion.

Making the Housing Shortage Worse

Rent ControlWe have a severe housing shortage, and last week our mayor said that he’d help make matters worse.

If Eric Garcetti gets his way, rent control could be imposed on far more apartments in Los Angeles and throughout the state. That’d be great for the few folks lucky enough to get a rent-controlled unit. It’d be bad for everybody else.

That’s not a surprising statement. Studies have shown that. Let’s look at one of the latest.

A working paper published in January by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the effect of a 1994 ballot initiative in San Francisco that slapped rent control on smaller buildings constructed before 1980. Three economists followed what happened to those buildings and compared their fate to similar buildings constructed after 1980.

So what happened? First, there was a reduction in the number of rent-controlled units as landlords decided to convert their buildings to condos or otherwise redevelop their properties. In fact, rent-controlled buildings were 10 percent more likely than the non-rent-controlled buildings to convert, “representing a substantial reduction in the supply of rental housing,” the report said.

Second, there was a 25 percent reduction in the number of renters living in rent-controlled units compared to 1994, largely because of “landlords demolishing their old housing and building new rental housing,” the study said. “New construction is exempt from rent control.”

So there was a drop in the number of rental units as well as a decrease in the number of tenants who enjoyed rent control. No surprise there.

In short, rent control makes matters worse, which pretty much every informed person knows with the apparent exception of Garcetti. What was a teeny bit more surprising was the working paper’s assertion that rent control increased gentrification as well as worsened income inequality in the city.

How so? One of the authors of the working paper, Rebecca Diamond, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford University, was quoted as saying that rent control “pushed landlords to supply owner-occupied housing and new housing – both of which are really the types of housing consumed by rich people,” she said.

“So we’re creating a policy that tells landlords, ‘It’s much more profitable to cater to high-income housing taste than low-income housing tastes.’”

In other words, rent control makes matters much worse.

What’s particularly alarming about last week’s news is that the current move to impose more rent control would make matters even worse than you might expect. That’s because the proposed statewide ballot initiative that would roll back the Costa-Hawkins Rental Control Act (the initiative which Garcetti last week called a news conference to endorse), would not only give cities the green light to allow rent control to be slapped on apartments built after 1978, but it would take the extra step of limiting the ability of landlords to raise rents after one tenant leaves. The way it works now is that when one tenant leaves a rent-controlled unit, the rent can immediately catch up to market rates for the incoming tenant. Rent increases are limited thereafter, until that tenant leaves.

That provision alone is a killer. It would mean landlords would be doomed to falling further and further behind market rates. That means more apartment buildings would not pencil out, and landlords would rush to empty out their buildings, scrape the ground and construct something new – something that’s not an apartment building. We’d see declines much greater than 25 percent in tenants enjoying rent control.

Look, the yearning to do something is understandable. After all, rents have popped up alarmingly and even folks with good incomes are being priced out of homes. But imposing more rent control would only choke supply and make matters much worse.

The real issue is supply. If we had more construction, the shortage would eventually disappear. But for that to happen, developers need to feel confident that they can build with the certainty that they can earn enough income to pay their mortgage and other bills and get a reasonable return. Right now, they can’t. And mayoral endorsements of rent control make matters worse.

ditor and publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

The state’s most controversial housing bill in years just died

Housing apartmentThe most controversial state housing bill in recent memory died with a pretty resounding thud.

Senate Bill 827, which would have forced cities to allow taller, denser development around public transit, got only four votes on the 13-member Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers voted against the bill.

Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, Democrat from San Francisco, the bill would have allowed developers to build five-story apartment buildings near major public transit stops, including neighborhoods previously zoned for single family homes. The bill received a ton of media attention, including a fairly flattering write-up on the front page of the New York Times.

Urbanist “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) groups mourned the bill’s death as yet another roadblock to building the new housing the state so desperately needs. Cities and anti-gentrification groups cheered the demise of what they viewed as an unprecedented inroad on local control.

What to make of all the hubub? Some key takeaways:

Enemies, enemies, got a lot of enemies

It’s tough for anyone to take on cities and counties, who wield enormous power in Sacramento and to whom state legislators often give considerable deference. It’s tough for anyone to take on the construction trades’ union, a major source of campaign contributions for Democratic lawmakers. It’s tough for anyone to take on equity and social justice groups, who can bend the ear of progressive legislators.

It’s really tough to take on all three at the same time. That likely wasn’t Sen. Wiener’s strategy when he first introduced SB 827, but that’s ultimately what helped doom the bill. The support of realtors, developers, YIMBYs and a handful of affordable housing advocates couldn’t muster the votes he needed.

Supporters of the bill arguably made a misstep in not courting social justice groups early enough. A flurry of amendments to protect renters from being displaced and to force developers to include units reserved for lower-income tenants failed to calm their concerns.

Last year, Wiener was able to push through a bill that stripped local control over some housing developments by getting labor and affordability advocates on his side. That bill was also part of a larger package of housing legislation that had something for everyone, including a new revenue source. Gov. Jerry Brown was a driving force behind that package.

None of that that happened this time.

The bill did spark a statewide debate on whether to up density to help remedy our housing crisis

What Wiener was attempting was truly revolutionary. You can debate how dramatically the character of a city would change by building a five-story apartment building next to a single family home. But taking away the power of local governments to block those types of developments was a pretty radical step—a step that a growing number of Californians think is necessary to prevent cities from obstructing new housing.

The bill received a ton of media attention, both in California and nationally. It garnered support from prominent urban planners, environmentalists and civil rights advocates. It’s both cliche and premature to say it shifted the needle on the housing debate. But it certainly framed the conversation squarely around the state’s role in compelling cities to build.

Expect something like this to come back soon.  

Nearly every Democratic legislator who voted against SB 827 caveated their opposition by praising the bill’s vision and audacity. Sen. Jim Beall, Democrat from San Jose and chair of the housing committee, said at the hearing that while he couldn’t support the bill in its current form, he was eager to work on something like it in the months ahead.

Could SB 827 ever rise from the dead? Well for his part, Wiener has vowed to re-introduce something like it in the future. Combining his push for density around transit stations with a broader mix of tenant protections and new funding for affordable housing could make it more palatable to the interest groups Wiener needs to succeed.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Tech Oligarchs and the California Housing Crisis

Silicon ValleyLet them pay.

Silicon Valley tech oligarchs are concerned about housing in California.

Let them pay.

Housing prices in the areas of their shiny new tech campuses are skyrocketing to unaffordability for many of the longer term residents and are raising the price of housing for their employees.  As the pro-developer LA Times had to admit, “The housing crunch, particularly acute in Bay Area cities such as San Francisco and San Jose, is a problem that the tech industry helped create by attracting well-paid new workers who can outbid longtime residents.”

So let them pay.

The tech oligarchs are not interested in rent control or rent stabilization ordinances to protect the longtime residents.  They’re not funding efforts to repeal the Costa Hawkins and Ellis Acts, which restrict the ability of cities to rent-stabilize apartments.  They want the housing crisis to be solved by taking zoning control away from cities and by allowing developers to run riot without any municipal controls, under the misguided notion that by building enough luxury housing, affordability will “trickle-down” to the peons.

And so the tech oligarchs are funding “Yimby” (“Yes in my back yard”) pro-developer groups which support Sacramento-mandated levels of density, engineered to maximize profits, overriding the individually crafted General Plans of distinctive communities throughout the state.  Those who see through the true nature of these AstroTurf groups have perceptively tweaked “Yimby” to “Wimby” (“Wall St. in my back yard”).  Not surprisingly, these tech oligarchs and their Wimby/Yimby puppets are the loudest voices in support of Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB827, which would allow indiscriminate densification throughout the state, using “mass transit” as an alibi.  (“Mass transit” as defined by Wiener is a bus four times an hour during rush hour.)

One of the tech CEO’s who is a major donor to one of Yimby groups recently said, “Technology companies have such insane margins that they’re one of the few sectors that can continue to be viable in this environment.”

Of course, tech employees outbidding existing residents, who are priced out of the market, is a major cause of displacement.  Despite some cosmetic changes to the bill as an afterthought to blunt criticism, SB827 cannot avoid all the impacts of gentrification and displacement in its mission to address the needs and desires of the tech oligarchs.

Let them pay.

While one might expect Ayn Rand toting, latte quaffing tech masters-of-the-universe to thumb their noses at concepts like “Community” and “Livability,” especially if they stand in the way of their G-d given rights to profiteer, this position is not as easy to reconcile with the self-styled persona of Sen. Scott Wiener, representing some of the most liberal parts of San Francisco.  It’s downright odd that someone who by rights should be thumbing his nose at the 1% (or in this case, the 1% of the 1%) is freely regurgitating Reaganomic trickle-down talking points; but Wiener, whose largest donor base comes from developers and the real estate lobby, seems to be going the extra mile in making a fair bid to be known as Sacramento’s patron saint of crony capitalism.

Wiener and his cabal of self-styled progressives act as if the “law of supply and demand” is not a variable and disputable economic or sociological principle – or as if induced demand doesn’t exist in a flexible market – but is some kind of immutable natural law, which would put Newton and Kepler to shame.  To have those closer to Marx suddenly embracing Mundell and Laffer is the kind of cognitive dissonance which ordinarily causes heads to explode, and, quite frankly, I’m not sure that hasn’t been the case here.

And yet, considering the tech corporations’ “insane margins” and considering Sen. Wiener’s proven lack of squeamishness when it comes to taxing ordinary Californians (gas tax, anyone?), he should have no problem looking to corporations for major funding to solve the housing crisis which they, in no small part, helped to create.

But then again, the key phrase about Sen. Wiener’s lack of squeamishness when it comes to imposing taxes seems to be “ordinary Californians.”  He has demonstrated he doesn’t have a problem with that, but taxing the “insane margins” of the tech corporations is probably not regressive enough for him.  Ordinary Californians simply can’t spread money around Sacramento the way the oligarchs can.  So when Wiener says, “It’s about damn time that the tech sector started to engage in housing policy,” it sounds perforce like he’s looking towards future campaign donations rather than actual housing solutions.

It also looks like Wiener is less concerned with the implications of increasing income inequality, which plays a major role in the housing crisis.  Rather than try to deal with the problem of income inequality which the tech oligarchs are creating, Wiener and his Yimby cronies attempt to deal with a symptom of income inequality instead of its actual cause.  Let’s tackle housing, not the income inequality creating the housing crisis; and let’s put a target on single-family housing, which can generate untold profits if we upzone it, by labelling it as “racist.”

One would hope that Wiener, whatever wing of whatever party he belongs to, would be interested in dealing with the issue of income inequality, but this is the same guy who said: “I could care less how much money developers make.”  Of course not.  Should we really be surprised that the by-right upzoning of his bill represents one of the single largest wealth transfers from the public to the private sector in California history?  Should we be shocked that Wiener and his self-righteous cronies are doing nothing to address the growing income disparity of ordinary Californians with the tech oligarchs and their “insane margins”?  Is it really surprising that he won’t even begin to think about how all that money he is gifting to developers could be used to help build subsidized affordable housing, for example?

Let the developers pay, too.

One of the many built in fallacies and policy errors within SB827 is its attempt to use mass transit as an alibi to densify.  Public transportation should serve the needs of urban planning, not the other way around.  If Wiener wants to look for causes of the housing crisis to fix, then he should – as the LA Times did – draw the nexus between massive job creation and increased housing demands.  And policy should be determined accordingly.

Consequently, in addition to doing a better job taxing the “insane margins” of tech companies, no massive projects should be approved under CEQA until and unless a concurrent solution for the accompanying housing impacts are dealt with.  This would mean eliminating statements of “overriding considerations” which allow agencies to effectively not have to deal with housing impacts.  It would also mean that the tech corporations would be asked to step up and take responsibility for the problems they are creating, as they create them.

Let them pay.

If, as a result, tech companies threaten to move to Merced or Modesto or Fresno or Victorville – or out of state, for that matter – let them. Economic justice demands not caving to all the demands of the corporate oligarchs.  Economic development needs to be spread throughout the state and throughout the country and encouraging economic development in struggling areas is a good thing.  If the jobs magnet is creating the housing crisis, then part of the solution should lie in job creation in areas in which housing is abundant and affordable.  Instead of trying to cram everyone into a few megalopolises, while the tech oligarchs live in their dachas on massive landed estates, we should literally be working to spread the wealth and share in the “insane margins.”  As much as I love California, I’d also love to see new life breathed into Detroit and other rust belt cities, for example.

At some point we’re also going to have to consider the ultimate implications of the spirals of growth that Wiener and the oligarchs are assuming should be the natural state of things.  Now is as good a time as ever.  The notion of never-ending growth is the very definition of unsustainability.

My guess is that not bending over backwards to kiss the collective tochuses of the oligarchs would be bad for the collective treasuries of the reelection campaigns of a good number of Sacramento politicians, but standing up to the tech corporations and demanding a fair share of their “insane margins” is good policy which would actually make a difference in providing real solutions to our state’s housing crisis.  This is just another reason why we need to embrace the principles of subsidiarity and devolve power from the special interest puppets in Sacramento.

Additional measures to solve the housing crisis include:

  • Repealing the Costa-Hawkins and Ellis Acts, thereby untying cities’ hands and allowing them to implement more effective rent stabilization measures.
  • Bringing back redevelopment agencies, which Sacramento abolished in a massive money-grab, in order to focus on creating affordable housing.
  • Giving cities more leverage in negotiating with corporations for fair-share public benefits, including housing.
  • Empowering cities and local agencies through subsidies to create more subsidized affordable housing; solving the pension crisis (as well as wasteful Sacramento spending) and devoting the resources created in the process to housing.
  • Acknowledging that top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates are not suitable for a state as diverse and wide-ranging as California, instead encouraging regional cooperation and individualized solutions which respect the unique DNAs of California’s diverse communities.

The tech oligarchs’ dystopian vision has been brilliantly exposed by urban scholar Joel Kotkin, who has discussed the implications of densified urban living for workers and plebeians, who are regarded by the tech corporations and the politicians who serve them at best as modern-day serfs.  In attempting to deny the importance of quality-of-life issues (except for themselves) or any concept of living in a community with real community character (because they are believers in profit über alles), the oligarchs and their politicians are dehumanizing the very people they are supposed to serve and who have made them rich.  To them we are only widgets, stats or marks.

Let them pay.

Even if they’re not so good at logic or policy, Yimby groups seem to be talented at chanting.

So here’s a new one for them.  In the spirit of the classic scene in “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” the Yimbys who are truly interested in real housing solutions might want to consider a new chant, directed at the developers, the tech corporations and their “insane margins”: “Let them pay!  Let them pay!  Let them pay!”

ice-mayor of Beverly Hills

New Housing Bill Has People Freaking Out

Housing apartmentMemes of a mild-mannered California legislator photoshopped as a Star Trek villain. A San Francisco supervisor suggesting the city should sue the state, to “thunderous applause.” Wealthy Marin County homeowners and South Los Angeles tenants’ rights groups working as political bedfellows.

All inspired by a wonky state housing bill that has yet to receive a single vote — and faces tough odds of passing the Legislature.

Senate Bill 827, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, tries to force cities to build more dense housing around public transit hubs. The bill has received a remarkable level of media attention both within California and nationally, providing fodder for think pieces from Slate, Vox, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg and The New York Times — which called it a “bold, divisive plan to wean Californians from cars.”

That attention has only amplified a loud and acrimonious debate over how the bill would transform California cities. Proponents see the bill as a radical and necessary step for the state to solve its endemic housing shortage and meet its ambitious climate change goals. Opponents see it as a blunt overreach of state power that would destroy the character of local communities while displacing long-established residents so developers could build more luxury condo towers for rich people.

Here are four things you should know about California’s most controversial housing bill in decades:

1) This isn’t hype. If it becomes law, the bill could really revolutionize California cities.

As currently written, SB 827 would essentially exempt all new housing built within half a mile of a train stop or quarter mile of a frequent bus stop from most local zoning rules. So, if a city had zoned an area for single-family homes, developers could invoke the bill to build multifamily apartment buildings between four and eight stories high. It would also free those projects from parking requirements and other zoning rules frequently abused by cities to impede new development.

How much area in major California cities would fall under the bill? That’s what makes this so radical. Preliminary analysis by the San Francisco Planning Department shows that basically all — yes, all — of San Francisco and huge swaths of Los Angeles would lose their local zoning regulations. Ninety percent of San Francisco’s residential parcels would have a higher height limit for new development under the bill.

A more rigorous analysis of just how much developers would take advantage of the bill, and how it would apply to smaller California cities, has not yet been conducted. But the potential is huge.

For decades, urbanists across the state have have longed for the type of density SB 827 would bring. Despite major pushback from some quarters of his home city that San Francisco would become unrecognizable should the bill become law, Wiener has stressed that such density is good for cities like San Francisco, and the most effective way to combat the region’s astronomical housing prices.

2) Many environmentalists love this bill

Proponents of SB 827 say it has two primary goals: 1) to increase the supply of housing and thereby lower housing prices, and 2) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Urban planning academics and climate change activists argue the state can only meet its climate change goals—a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by the year 2030—if it succeeds in getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation closer to where they work. Alternative energy sources and cleaner-burning power plants can only go so far: The leading cause of emissions nationally is the tailpipe. Building tons of housing in major job centers close to good transit seems like a sensible and necessary solution, they argue.

But at least one prominent environmental group with a tradition of opposing new development has balked at the measure. Angering many climate change activists, California’s Sierra Club has argued the bill would only create more local hostility to future transportation projects and would displace low-income residents.

Anti-gentrification groups argue that communities whose residents have lower incomes are much more likely to ride a bus or take a subway to work than commuters who earn more money. If lower-income residents are exiled to the suburbs as a consequence of the bill, its success at cutting carbon emissions will be muted at best.

Anti-gentrification and tenants’ rights groups not so much

Advocates for lower-income renters and urban communities of color have greeted SB 827 with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. A group of prominent Los Angeles anti-gentrification and civil rights groups signed onto a letter opposing the bill last month on the grounds that it lacked sufficient protections for renters whose apartments could be demolished to make way for newer, bigger, market-rate projects. They also expressed the broader fear that “opening the floodgates” around transit corridors would mean rents around shiny new developments would rise out of reach of current residents.

Wiener has addressed some of those concerns by amending the bill to include fairly strict renter protections. Developers who wish to demolish a renter-occupied unit would have to pay for the moving and living expenses of tenants for more than three years, and renters would have the right to move back into the new development at their old rent.

But the changes have yet to attract broad support from major housing equity groups, who fear the larger gentrification pressures possibly unleashed from the bill. It also didn’t help that backers of SB 827 waited until after the bill’s announcement to try to court those groups’ endorsement.

The bill faces a very tough road in the Legislature — a road that goes through Marin County

Bills that override local zoning control are rarely popular in the California Legislature. Homeowners in many regions of the state are, by and large, not thrilled with the idea of new apartment complexes going up next door over their objections. Homeowners are also more likely to vote than renters—a fact state legislators are acutely aware of.

Cities and counties are stealth power players in Sacramento, and are also not fans of having their zoning power stripped away. Up and down the state, mayors, city council members and county supervisors have come out against the bill, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Last year, lawmakers passed a handful of laws that encroached on the traditional zoning power of cities. But that housing package took a herculean effort to enact after years of failure, and importantly included new funding sources for subsidized housing, as well as tenants’ protections that attracted support from a wide coalition of housing groups. And the zoning process changes brought by those laws pale in comparison to what SB 827 could do.

Nowhere has opposition to state interference in local planning decisions been as fierce as in Marin County, an affluent northern suburb in the Bay Area. If the bill is to receive a full vote of the Legislature, it will first have to clear a committee controlled by Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents Marin. McGuire could prevent the bill from moving past his desk and receiving a vote.

Who’s Really to Blame for Orange County’s Housing Affordability Crisis?

house-constructionThis past week, three separate media outlets sought my comment on Orange County’s housing affordability crisis and high-cost of living. The inquiries came on the heels of a host of news stories chronicling sky-high rents, the dismantling of homeless encampments in Anaheim, and the adequacy of wages paid by the county’s largest employers.

These were the questions news folks wanted answered: What is business doing to get more homes built? What is business doing to eliminate poverty? What is business doing to end homelessness?

Let’s get real.

Do we face a growing housing affordability and cost-of-living crisis here in Orange County and throughout California? You bet. Hardworking residents are struggling to make ends meet, and housing costs stand at the center of their paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Orange County Business Council has been arguing this for years and objective data backs it up.

A recent USC Gasden Family Forecast shows the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Orange County at a whopping $1,813 a month. For the typical renter, that’s a number that swipes more than half of their monthly take-home pay.

But the problem isn’t a lack of quality jobs or even skimpy paychecks. The problem is a lot of workers in a strong economy chasing too few available homes or apartments. That drives up housing costs and takes more of their paycheck.

Indeed, OCBC’s own Housing Scorecard reports that Orange County needs 65,000 more homes today to meet the housing needs of the people who already live and work here. But get this: Orange County has added only one new home for every 5.26 residents since 2010. And it’s not just Orange County that’s falling down on the job. Anaheim reportedly approved only 8 percent of its low-income housing needs, for example.

The crisis statewide is even more pronounced. A recent report found that more than 500 counties and cities failed to meet their mandated housing goals. So it’s no wonder that California has a housing shortage exceeding 3.5 million homes. That’s what you get when your population has increased every year since 1950, but you’ve failed every year since 1989 to build enough homes to meet the need.

So who’s to blame?

Homebuilders — in an industry that has fueled California’s economy for more than half a century — are as eager as ever to build the American Dream in the Golden State. But here’s the problem: lawmakers, regulators, local governments and anti-development activists — who already own their own home — won’t let them.

Overly restrictive land-use regulations, abuses of California’s environmental laws, local ballot box initiatives that neuter good planning, and city councils that won’t say “yes” are fueling the bottleneck in new-home delivery. Sure, some recent, minor actions were taken by the state legislature to streamline approvals, but ultimately local political leadership controls land use and housing decisions.

The systemic flaws that eat away at the paychecks of Orange County residents and threaten California’s economic prosperity are not caused by business but by the folks you elect to serve you in public office. The role of business is to offer goods and services, and thus create jobs, not to act as a substitute for local government or its elected officials who benefit from the significant tax revenue generated by business.

So here are the questions that need to be asked: What are your elected leaders doing to see that a good supply of affordable housing is built? What are your elected leaders doing to assure the end of homelessness in your community? What are your elected leaders doing to help grow good middle class jobs?

If you don’t like the answers, vote them out.

resident and CEO of the Orange County Business Council

Originally published in the Orange County Register.