PLATKIN ON PLANNING--Fellow CityWatch columnist Casey Maddren exposed the failure of the Los Angeles Times to adequately cover highly controversial housing legislation, specifically Senate Bill 50, in Sacramento. His article, SB 50: The LA Times Just Doesn’t Get It, was totally accurate, and we now have more evidence.
I was recently contacted by the same newspaper to write a city planner’s critique of SB 50, and I submitted two alternative columns to them. They gave me basic feedback, and I precisely followed their suggestions. Next, after the State Senate’s Appropriations Committee tabled the bill, they contact me again, and I updated my column, carefully explaining why SB 50 and similar legislation based on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) would not work. I also told them, I could make further revisions or offer a new column to them.
Since then, the LAT published a series of news reports and opinion pieces supporting SB 50-type legislation, but absolutely nothing critical, like my opinion piece. My conclusion is that they are struggling to control their message, that supply-side economics can somehow fix California’s crises of housing affordability, declining transit ridership, and accelerating climate change. Unfortunately, based on their letters-to-the-editor, and the increasing number of articles in The Planning Report, CityWatchLA, and other publications, the LAT lost control of the message, despite their own tight editorial policy.
With a few corrections, this is what I submitted to them before they went incommunicado.
Transit Oriented Development will not fix California’s Housing Crisis
Senate Bill 50, legislation recently tabled until 2020, is the most sweeping state law of our generation, yet few Californians know about it. They do not realize that if the State Senate reconsiders it, SB 50.2 would ban single-family housing, end public hearings, and block community input for most real estate projects. They also have not learned that SB 50.2 would allow developers to build tall apartment towers in quiet single-family neighborhoods and replace historic buildings and existing affordable rental housing with luxury apartments.
If Sacramento eventually adopts SB 50.2, four-plexes containing small, overpriced apartments would overrun single-family neighborhoods, replacing existing homes without due process.
How did we get into this dire situation, and why have you heard so little about it? It began with Sacramento's panic over housing affordability, especially in the high-tech Bay Area. This panic made state legislators susceptible to the siren song of zoning deregulation and Transit Oriented Development (TOD). When combined, elected officials imagined them to be the state’s savior.
TOD theory claims that if it becomes easier for developers to build large, tall, dense apartments (i.e., deregulation) near bus and rail lines, new residents will give up their cars and flock to mass transit. The State would harness the short-term self-interest of private investors to solve California’s protracted housing, transit, and climate crises.
Unfortunately, these supply-side theories, no matter how many times repeated, are contradicted by reality. They do not cut housing costs, increase transit ridership, or reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.
SB 50 morphed from a TOD planning theory welcomed by developers into unprecedented legislation that would devastate thriving communities. Real estate speculation would wipe out solid housing stock and displace real people.
Along the way, SB 50 negated adopted zoning ordinances and blocked the General Plan process required by State law and the Los Angeles City Charter. It also exempted most residential projects from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), producing severe environmental consequences, adding more traffic, and decimating the urban forest.
If adopted, SB 50.2 would compound, not alleviate, homelessness, rent gouging, over-crowding, dislocation and gentrification, out-migration, and inaccessible home ownership. Despite the hype, it is shortsighted, developer-driven legislation co-authored by State Senator Scott Wiener and a developer-lobbying group.
Why SB 50.2 will fail: SB 50.2 would be a resurrected statewide "upzoning" bill that universally permits larger, taller, denser buildings, especially in larger counties, like Los Angeles County. It also severs land use controls from local planning, ignoring infrastructure capacity, population trends, and environmental conditions. It would kick ongoing gentrification processes into over-drive because it gives developers the power to unilaterally increase height, mass, and density in residential areas, including single-family and duplex zones.
This instant upzoning would generate an extraordinary financial windfall for investors. They would lead a global frenzy of buying and selling desirable California real estate, pocketing the cash or demolishing existing housing and low-rise commercial building standing in the way of their business model: constructing in-fill luxury apartments. We would witness the widespread displacement of working class and middle-class Californians in these “redevelopment” areas. SB 50.2 would usher in a new form of urban renewal, but without plans and public participation.
What these real estate developers will not do, however, is build more than a token amount of low income housing since it is a money loser for them and their financial backers.
According to LA’s Planning Department, SB 50 would have wiped out existing zoning in about half of Los Angeles. If this happened, existing apartments, often protected by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, would have experienced the greatest impacts since their parcels are more suitable for redevelopment than single-family lots. As for the vulnerable tenants in these buildings, SB 50 only gives them theoretical protection because it does not contain any enforcement mechanisms.
SB 50.2 would also finish-off “sensitive communities,” such as East LA, Boyle Heights, and Liemert Park, that it purports to protect. The legislation offers these working-class neighborhoods two paths to annihilation: rewrite your Community Plan within five years to adopt much higher densities or the State of California will do it for you.
The TOD and deregulation concepts that continue to drive SB 50 and similar legislation are fatally flawed. The Act does not itself build affordable housing, and the tenants who could afford the rents in new, expensive SB 50.2 apartments mostly own and drive cars. That's why transit ridership has plummeted in Los Angeles since 1985. TOD replaces transit riders with LA’s automobile culture.
As an alternative to SB 50.2, California must pursue genuine solutions to its housing affordability crisis. This includes restoring HUD and Community Redevelopment Agency low-income housing programs, imposing taxes on investors who hold thousands of vacant units, cracking down on short-term rentals, strengthening rent control, reforming the Ellis Act, and inspecting affordable units to assure they are reserved for low-income renters.
(Dick Platkin is a city planner who writes a weekly planning column for CityWatchLA. He worked as a Los Angeles city planner from 1987 to 2007 and has also been an Adjunct faculty member at USC and CSUN.)