PERSPECTIVE-On Tuesday, March 2, SPUR hosted an hourlong online conversation with Assembly members Phil Ting and David Chiu (above right) and State Senator Scott Wiener (above left).
(Link to tape here.) My state senator, Nancy Skinner, was also on the program; but as is so often her wont on such occasions, she didn’t show up. The legislators covered a lot of territory: COVID, the state budget, homelessness, the Newsom recall, and housing. Most of the talk was unremarkable. It was only when they got to housing that the knives came out.
Scott Wiener and David Chiu at SF City Hall
Their target was the allegedly illegitimate opposition to Toni Atkins’ so-called duplex bill, SB 9. Identical to Atkins’ SB 1120, which died in the 2020 Legislature at the midnight hour, SB 9 has no provisions for affordable housing. That lack has elicited some harsh criticism. Chiu and Wiener attacked the critics in terms that occasionally verged on the ludicrous. I read their tirades as a sign of political vulnerability.
Chiu led off:
“Let’s talk about the Nimbys, and by that I mean folks who tend to be upper middle-class, tend to be white, tend to be in suburban communities. They often are very clever at finding and building alliances with progressive activists of color who are legitimately concerned about gentrification—and what is typically a left-right pincer can be very challenging for the housing conversation. So I think it’s important to separate what the opposition is…and addressing what is legitimate. . .but also calling out the opposition that really isn’t based on anything but fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of changing the status quo.”
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to growth-machine operatives that people who own their homes are not all old, white, right-wing, and/or rich.
For example, San Francisco Sup. Shamann Walton, who represents a district with a high number of Black and Asian homeowners, has consistently opposed this sort of market-rate up-zoning because he fears it will lead to displacement.
Chiu’s “left-right” characterization is itself bogus -- a pathetic attempt to split the righteous opposition. And in Chiu’s view, opposition to SB 9 because it lacks affordability requirements is right-on, as long as it comes from the right people. As for the fear of change canard: What the past year has revealed is that the parties who really fear change are Chiu and his comrades. They desperately want to revive the insane growth of the past few years. Who’s afraid of change now? As Tim Redmond wrote in a lovely column, the present moment offers an opportunity to reimagine our home place along genuinely new lines.
But it was Wiener whose fulminations went wild. Like Chiu, Wiener said he respected “housing advocates” who want to see affordability in every project. By contrast,
“[i]t is really maddening when you see people who are clearly Nimbys -- they just oppose all growth in their communities -- communities that have little or no affordable housing for low-income people -- all of a sudden they’re criticizing Toni Atkins’ duplex bill because it’s not about affordable housing. It’s a duplex. You don’t put subsidized affordable housing as a duplex. It doesn’t pencil out. You have to have a certain scale of density for affordable housing.”
The senator said the trigger is usually ten units. In Berkeley it’s five.
Then Wiener went over the rhetorical cliff:
“Probably about 98 percent of housing in California is market-rate housing -- the home you live in, your single-family home, apartment, or condo, is market-rate housing. . . .Are you going to give up your own home, worth one or two million dollars, because you’re so opposed to market-rate housing?”
Where to start?
California has an affordability crisis. If 98% of the state’s housing is market-rate, why would anybody want to encourage the construction of more of it?
I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t want to see any change. I’d appreciate Wiener and Chiu pointing out such a person.
As I reported last September, SB 1120 was not a duplex bill; neither is its identical twin, SB 9. SB 9 would allow by right—no public process—virtually all lots currently zoned for single-family housing in California to be split into two. As former League of California Cities staffer Dan Carrigg explains, when combined with state Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU—granny flats) law, SB 9 would allow the creation of six, eight, or possibly ten housing units where formerly only one was permitted.
So stop calling SB9 a duplex bill.
LA: a political backwater?
The housing talk wasn’t all rants. Wiener said that the “biggest political challenge is in Los Angeles”—in his view, a political backwater whose “housing politics” are “ten years behind” the Bay Area. Ting explained: “What’s missing in Los Angeles,” he said, are the counterparts of SPUR, the Housing Action Coalition, the Bay Area Council, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
What Ting didn’t say: these business organizations formulate pro-growth policies, mobilize Bay Area elites to support those policies, hype a complicit media about those policies (how many times have you seen BAC’s Jim Wunderman or Matt Regan approvingly cited in the Chronicle?), and lobby sympathetic elected officials whom their members have recruited, mentored, and funded. That’s a big reason why so much of the new anti-democratic, market-friendly housing legislation comes from Bay Area legislators.
Ting contrasted the Bay Area with LA, where “business groups are involved a little bit.” The assemblymember said he hoped that the NorCal exemplars “can find business groups down there” who will follow their lead. Does that mean they’re doing missionary work?
One of the state legislators who voted No on SB 1120 was Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, who represented LA’s 54th Assembly District. You can hear her explaining her vote here. I surmise that Kamlager is what Wiener had in mind when he referred to LA’s backward political culture. On Wednesday it was announced that Kamlager had been elected to the 30th State Senate District to replace LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. She will be the only Black woman in the State Senate. Maybe it’s the Bay Area that’s behind the times.
On Wednesday it was also announced that Atkins had pulled SB 9 from the March 18 hearing for which it had originally been scheduled.
(Zelda Bronstein, former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, writes about land use and transportation planning in the Bay Area and beyond. This was posted on 48Hills.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.