CA Senator Wiener’s Resurrection Program Falling Flat

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-The first efforts to prime the media pumps for a giant real estate giveaway program, California Senator Scott Wiener’s proposed Senate Bill 50, also dubbed the Son of SB 827 or SB 827 2.0, are out of the gate. So far, the arguments marshalled to bolster Wiener’s legislation fall flat, as I explain below. 

The most prominent recent article promoting SB 50 was Bill Boyarsky’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. He praised the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) real estate lobbying group that drafted Senator Wiener’s bill, and he called the bill’s community critics NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard), an epithet coined by developers to disparage their detractors without addressing their arguments. For those who want to understand how the proposed SB 50 bill, which Mr. Boyarsky supported, will backfire, Casey Maddren, elegantly laid out the case in his February 17, 2019, CityWatchLA article

The second article praising SB 50 was Josh Stephens call in Planetizen for Californians to recognize their common destiny, which he equated with large, private sector apartment buildings built where developers can maximize their profits, such as near transit. While “common destiny” could (and should) apply to California’s imminent cataclysmic earthquakes, social and economic inequality, mega-droughts and mega-floods, heat waves, sea level rise, wild fires, mediocre public education, and the collapse of public services and infrastructure, Stephens ignores them all. For him common destiny only means one thing, high density, high-end private sector apartment buildings.  

To be clear, when Stephens zeros in on high density, he does not mean adding more water, electricity, parks, trees, community centers, schools, libraries, bike paths, storm drains, high speed internet, 5G cellular, or medical clinics and hospitals to existing urban neighborhoods. 

Instead, like other WIMBYs (Wall Street in My Backyard), Stephens glibly presents a lofty, common-destiny goal: solve the housing crisis by supporting Senator Wiener’s SB 50. If Sacramento forces California cities to allow private investors to build tall, pricey, lucrative, high density, and currently illegal apartments up to a half-mile from subway lines, bus stops, and in communities with good jobs and schools, those beloved real estate developers will have saved the day. Their pursuit of 15 to 20 percent annual rates of return will flood housing markets with so many vacancies that prices will fall, become affordable, while subway cars and buses will fill up with passengers. 

Stevens’ wonderful solution, however, does not include any data supporting Wiener’s up-zoning scheme or an assessment of competing programs to address the housing crisis, such as: 

  • Restoring eliminated and gutted HUD and CRA affordable housing programs. 
  • Reducing economic inequality, an important driver of the housing crisis, by increasing wages and benefits and plugging tax loopholes for the 1%. 
  • Protecting existing affordable and rent stabilized housing, including reforms of the Ellis Act to stop sham evictions. 
  • Most importantly, pursuing the State of California’s legally required process for determining and achieving common destinies: the preparation, updating, and monitoring of municipal and county General Plans. These plans would address the housing crisis by identifying the location of under-utilized existing residential zoning capacity, where the greatest needs for affordable housing existed, and which approaches actually worked. 

In his hurry to promote SB 50, Mr. Stephens also neglects to include any monitoring programs.  With these monitoring program, cities could determine if the statewide, top-down residential up-zoning approach the YIMBYs campaign for through Senator Wiener’s SB 50 would -- or would not -- result the following: 

 

  • New mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings popping-up near bus lines, subways, and yet to be identified neighborhoods rich in jobs and good schools. 
  • Existing and new tenants abandoning their cars to become bus and subway riders. 
  • Housing prices and apartment rents falling to become affordable. 
  • Declining levels of the Green House Gases responsible for global warming and climate disruption. 
  • Failing public services and infrastructure resulting from an un-planned building boom. 

If cities had this monitoring information, they could make mid-course corrections, such as revoking zone changes, if -- as I predict -- SB 50 fails to achieve its goals. But it is not a random accident that the proposed Stephens-Wiener legislation fails to consider alternatives to up-zoning privately owned parcels or include monitoring once its statewide up-zones are imposed. For these density hawks, coerced up-zoning should be permanent, even if the common destiny goals invoked to justify them turn out to be political marketing ploys. 

Furthermore, many more things are likely to go belly-up if SB 50 becomes law, and a monitoring program would soon reveal the following: 

  1. There is no guarantee that statewide laws, like SB 50, that force cities to involuntarily increase the height, mass, density, and other zoning provisions of privately-owned parcels up to a half mile from subway and bus lines, or in neighborhoods with good jobs and schools, will attract private investment money to build market rate apartments. This is because most cities already have vast amounts of un-tapped zoning capacity which developers ignore. California cities, like LA, also have bonus density programs, such as SB 1818 and TOC Guidelines, that already allow existing privately-owned parcels to easily bust through zoning restrictions on height, mass, density, parking, and yards. 
  1. In some cities, especially LA, nearly every discretionary zoning request, such as zone changes and variances, get rubber-stamp approvals. f these existing gifts to developers have not induced them to build new transit, job, and school-adjacent market-rate apartments, there is no reason why SB 50 will do the trick. In many areas, especially where developers know they cannot attract tenants ponying up $3,000 or more per month for a small apartment, we will not see additional market housing, even if SB 50 manages to deregulate California cities’ zoning codes. 
  1. As explained by Casey Maddren, SB 50’s upzoning will often result in real estate speculation instead of new construction. Parcels up-zoned by SB 50 become much more valuable, and some property owners will flip their old properties to pocket their instant profits.  If a future owner eventually decides to build on these sites, he or she might opt for an office, medical, or retail project, instead of an apartment building. In these cases, Wiener’s upzoning scheme could result in new commercial buildings, but there is no guarantee that their shoppers, employees, or patients will travel by bus or subway, especially if they must walk a half mile over broken, treeless sidewalks, in the midst of harried drivers, air and sound pollution, blazing sun, heat waves, and storms. 
  1. Most importantly, as also explained by Casey Maddren, the entire rationale for the Wiener/YIMBY upzoning scheme, increasing transit ridership, would be revealed as a sham. As clearly demonstrated in Downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, Miracle Mile, and Hollywood, the construction of new, expensive, transit-adjacent apartments has consistently reduced, not increased, transit ridership. This is because the new housing is lavish, and those who can afford its stratospheric rents largely own and drive cars, while displacing transit dependent residents. 

Let me close with a modest suggestion. SB 50, which is actually worse than SB 827, deserves its same fate: a quick dispatch to the round file.

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA.  He also serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA).  Please send any comments, corrections, or article suggestions to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.