HOUSING POLITICS--Early this year State Senator Scott Wiener held a press conference to present an amended version of his controversial bill, SB 50. Wiener's proposed legislation would override local planning authority to allow residential projects up to a half mile away from a major transit stop to receive waivers from limits on density and height.
It would also allow qualifying projects to be approved through a streamlined process, i.e., no environmental review and no public hearings.
Housing costs are really high in California, as they are in major cities throughout the nation, and Wiener attributes this to lack of housing production. He claims that if we unleash the free market by removing controls on height and density, developers will solve our housing problem for us. He also argues that by incentivizing housing construction near transit, SB 50 will be good for the environment by encouraging transit ridership.
If you take these arguments at face value, they seem to make perfect sense. The problem is, when you start digging deeper, they fall apart pretty quickly. It’s not surprising that many people, on hearing Wiener’s promises regarding SB 50, are ready to jump on board immediately. What is surprising is that a lot of people who should know better are accepting Wiener’s claims without asking important questions.
Take the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has endorsed SB 50. This is a major environmental organization that has been working to protect our natural resources for decades. The folks at the NRDC can be forgiven for accepting Wiener's claims about solving the housing problem, because they're not housing advocates. Many people accept the simplistic supply/demand view of housing because it sounds like it makes sense. They don't realize that the entrance of massive corporate players and the flood of global investment capital has changed the market radically, turning it into a complex speculative game. You could use the supply/demand model to talk about housing back in the 20th century, when mom and pop landlords were hands-on owners who worked hard to offer decent apartments at competitive rents. But those days are gone. In the 21st century housing is merely an asset that's manipulated to produce the greatest possible profit in the shortest period of time.
But the NRDC isn't a housing advocacy group, so it's not surprising that they're willing to accept Wiener’s claim that solving the housing problem is just a matter of increasing supply. On the other hand, the NRDC is an environmental advocacy group, so you'd think they'd take a long, hard look at a piece of legislation that has the potential to remake the landscapes of California's cities. Amazingly, the NRDC seems to have jumped on Scott Wiener's bandwagon without asking basic questions about the Senator's environmental claims, and also without investigating the bill's long-term environmental impacts.
It's widely accepted among planners and policymakers these days that we need to focus new development in urban centers instead of building more suburbs, and there are good reasons to embrace that view. We should be building more compact cities to conserve water and energy, and also to reduce carbon emissions. But any new initiatives we undertake to build more sustainable cities should be based on sound planning and real data. In making his case for SB 50, Wiener ignores both.
Wiener claims that simply building high-density housing near transit hubs will encourage people to let go of their cars. There is research that shows a relationship between high population density and high transit ridership, but recent data does not support the notion that just up-zoning near transit will increase ridership. For years the LA City Council and Department of City Planning have been pushing high-density residential near transit, arguing incessantly that they’re doing what’s necessary to get Angelenos out of their cars. How has this worked out?
It’s been a disaster. In spite of the City’s repeated claims that they’re promoting transit-oriented development, transit ridership has been declining for years. According to the LA Department of Building and Safety, the City has issued permits for over 190,000 residential units since the beginning of this century, and many thousands of those new units have been built near major transit hubs. Large new apartment buildings have risen near Red/Purple Line stops in Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood, but instead of increasing boardings the numbers have gone down.
Ridership on the Red/Purple Line went from 47,434,969 in 2010 to 43,301,200 in 2018. In Central Hollywood, a transit hub, over 2,000 new units have been constructed over the last decade, but ridership on bus lines that serve the area is in steep decline. Overall Metro ridership is lower now than it was 30 years ago, despite the fact that City and County population numbers have grown substantially during that period. At the same time, a 2018 report from UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies shows that per capita car ownership has soared since the year 2000. This makes it pretty clear that LA City Planning's claim that they've been promoting transit ridership by up-zoning near transit hubs has no basis in reality.
The numbers for San Francisco aren't as bad as they are in LA, but they don't show any evidence that dense new housing near rail and bus lines has boosted transit ridership. Since 2000, San Francisco's population has grown by more than 10% and, according to U.S. Census data, the City has built over 33,000 new housing units. San Francisco is already a fairly compact urban area which is well served by bus and rail. But according to the SFMTA's 2018 Mobility Trends Report, the number of average weekday transit trips on Muni, BART and Caltrain have declined during that same period. In fact, per capita transit ridership is lower than it was in the early 90s. And while car ownership has not grown at the same rate as the population has, this has not led to a decrease in car trips. The same SFMTA report says the growing popularity of transit network companies like Uber and Lyft has helped make congestion in San Francisco much worse than it was at the beginning of this century.
But aside from its doubtful claims about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there are reasons to believe that SB 50 will cause significant environmental damage. It should be clear to anyone who’s lived in California for more than a decade that the ecosystems we rely on are facing grave threats. Two of the most pressing issues are shrinking water resources and warming urban areas. Both of these problems are directly related to development.
One of the advantages of dense urban infill development is that it uses less water than tracts of single-family homes. With no lawns to maintain, apartments and condos are less of a drain on water resources. If we just focus on this one aspect of urban infill, SB 50 seems like a no-brainer. California's two largest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are both dependent on systems that transfer massive amounts of water from faraway places to urban centers. Both LA and San Francisco have grown beyond what their local water resources can support, so reducing consumption is absolutely necessary.
But a simple fix like getting rid of lawns won’t do the trick. It’s not just that development has increased water consumption beyond what local resources can supply. Development has also covered most of our urban spaces with impermeable surfaces, which means that precious rainfall is being flushed into storm drains instead of percolating down through soil to recharge aquifers. In LA it's become commonplace to see single-family homes, small multi-family buildings and bungalow courts get bulldozed to make way for high-density complexes. With density bonus provisions like those offered by SB 50, developers are allowed to reduce setbacks and often don’t have to meet open space requirements, which means lawns, gardens and other green space are replaced with hardscape.
We're also losing our trees, and while there are a number of factors causing this, new development is definitely taking a toll. San Francisco is one of the few California cities that has a robust program to protect its urban forest. Most have little or nothing in place, and SB 50 will only encourage the removal of more trees as developers try to maximize square footage. Trees are vital to keeping our cities cool, keeping the air clean, and recharging groundwater. Passing a bill like SB 50 essentially gives developers carte blanche to cut down trees and get rid of open space in order to increase square footage. With streamlined approvals that skip environmental review, there won’t even be an opportunity to raise questions about how new projects will affect our biological resources.
Loss of tree canopy aggravates the urban heat island (UHI) effect, and California cities are growing hotter. In a survey of urban temperatures [[[ https://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/2019-wrapped-up-the-warmest-decade-on-record ]]] over the past five decades, Climate Central found that between 2010 and 2020 Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco had their highest average temperatures since the 70s. While LA didn’t hit the highs it did in the 80s and 90s, this last decade was still substantially hotter than the previous one. Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, and soaring temperatures are also associated with increased ozone levels which can lead to heart attacks and other serious health impacts.
The point of this is not that we should abandon urban infill development. The lesson we need to learn is that in trying to create more compact cities we need to carefully manage the conflict between new development and green space. But SB 50 has no provisions at all aimed at preserving or promoting sustainability, aside from the mistaken assumption that simply up-zoning near transit will make people abandon their cars. In fact, SB 50 states plainly that qualifying projects would be exempt from environmental review. At a time when California's cities are facing numerous serious threats to their ecosystems, the idea of allowing developers to ramp up new housing construction with no thought given to environmental impacts seems pretty insane.
You have to wonder why an environmental group with a record as impressive as the NRDC would throw its weight behind a poorly conceived and potentially dangerous bill like SB 50. It's understandable that someone with little understanding of environmental issues would back Wiener's bill, but the NRDC should know better. As others have pointed out, if it was possible to lower housing prices and reduce congestion just by up-zoning, then New York City would be the most affordable, least congested city in the nation. In recent years New York has been building tens of thousands of new units annually, but housing prices are sky high and it's one of the most congested cities in the United States. Instead of accepting Wiener's questionable claims and falling in line behind SB 50, the NRDC should be taking a long look at the bill and asking tough questions.
While California is experiencing a housing affordability crisis, it's also facing a range of environmental crises that include shrinking water resources and warming temperatures. As the folks at the NRDC surely know, both of those problems are the result of the reckless pro-development policies of the past. If the State legislature approves SB 50, it will show that we've learned absolutely nothing from our past mistakes. And we can't afford to make any more mistakes.
(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA [www.un4la.com]), a community group advocating for better planning, and a CityWatch contributor.)