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A residential street filled with colorful apartment buildings and cars parked on either side is shown in front of the skyscrapers of Los Angeles in the background.
SB 50 was framed as a way to stick it to homeowners who weren’t doing their part to combat the state's housing crisis.
Ruben A Martinez/Shutterstock

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The real reason California’s upzoning bill failed

SB 50 was opposed by wealthy homeowners—but that’s only part of the story

As you glide westward on the light-rail train that travels from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, there’s a place where it feels like you’re traveling somewhere in the south of France. From the windows of the E Line (formerly known as the Expo Line), the bustling LA streets give way to pastel stucco homes perched on a bucolic, leafy hillside.

Westwood Boulevard is the address of several major LA destinations, including UCLA’s campus of 45,000 students and 42,000 employees, less than one mile to the north. Four blocks away is a dead mall leased by Google, which is busily turning it into a 600,000-square-foot office complex. But here, where Westwood crosses the tracks of a rail system that carries more than 300,000 people a day, it’s zoned for single-family homes. In fact, in the surrounding neighborhood, many of the 1940s-era houses, valued at an average of $1.4 million, according to Redfin, are being demolished so people in the majority-white, majority-homeowner neighborhood can build even bigger single-family homes.

In July 2018, LA’s City Council approved the Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which would have allowed construction of taller, multifamily residential buildings along major streets within a half-mile of five E Line stations, including this one. Estimates showed that between 4,400 and 6,000 new housing units could be added across the entire plan area by 2035. But in October 2018, a group that often litigates over density-related issues sued the city for the plan, arguing that more housing would lead to increased traffic. Over a year later, not a single unit has been built.

It’s quite a different scene when you exit the train in my neighborhood, which is across town via the B Line (formerly the Red Line). On busy six-lane Vermont Avenue, a street lined with six-story buildings houses some of the highest percentages of transit-dependent riders in the city. Across the street from the station is a shuttered car dealership where a developer has proposed a large mixed-use apartment building. Several other new mid-rise apartment buildings have gone up within a few blocks of the station, including a supportive housing project for formerly homeless residents, with a second one proposed nearby.

Single-family homes get torn down here, too, but not usually by homeowners. It’s more often by developers who bought the homes with cash. Sometimes they replace them with rental apartments. But more and more, those developers are building condos that are more expensive to buy than the home they demolished. Virtually all—95 percent—of my neighborhood’s majority-Latino residents are renters, and when you see an older apartment building being gutted or dismantled, the fear of displacement that ripples through the block is palpable. Tenant groups have organized rent strikes and other interventions to keep families in their homes.

Last week, SB 50a proposal in the California legislature that would have increased building heights statewide to five stories near major transit stops or in job-rich areas, and allowed multifamily apartments on most properties—failed after a lengthy debate on the Senate floor. (The final vote was 18-15; it needed 21 votes to pass.) This was the third attempt by author Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, to pass this type of upzoning bill, something many elected officials and housing advocates agree is essential for the state to solve its housing shortage.

If SB 50 had passed, my neighborhood—which has a fair amount of single-family homes but has never been restricted to single-family zoning, as far as I can tell—would have been considered a “sensitive community,” giving local leaders five years or more to comply with the new requirements so new housing capacity wouldn’t displace current residents. But to my eye, my sensitive community has already contributed more than its fair share of new housing, and then some, while weathering more change than most LA neighborhoods.

What might SB 50 have done to the E Line neighborhood? Probably nothing. Sure, the neighborhood would have been upzoned on paper. But the neighborhood’s homeowners, who have money to hire lawyers, time to petition for historic preservation protection, and political clout to insulate themselves from growth, are likely to continue doing everything in their power to keep other people from living in new buildings around them.

SB 50 was framed as a way to stick it to homeowners, neighborhoods, and cities that weren’t doing their part to combat the housing crisis. They didn’t like that very much.

“The premise of this bill is that mayors and city councilmembers of some of our 482 cities in the state of California are standing in the way of home-building at the behest of single-family homeowners,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who represents a wealthy area of LA’s San Fernando Valley, during the floor debate. “This sweeping generalization both oversimplifies the problem and unnecessarily demeans people who have done nothing more than made homes for themselves, raised a family, and played by the rules.”

The “rules” of homeownership in California have meant setting aside over half of its residential land for those single-family homeowners, part of a classist, racially motivated construct to keep black homeowners out of neighborhoods that continues to block access to homeownership today. Los Angeles, where 75 percent of the residential land is zoned for single-family homes, has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country.

But while trying to change the rules to punish the rich into increasing density near them may sound good in theory, it can’t be the sole strategy for increasing housing supply. Because the rich—and the reps they elect—will continue to do whatever it takes to skirt those zoning rules.

Many national stories about SB 50 before and after the vote blamed its failure on those homeowners and the representatives like Hertzberg who cowed to them. An error-riddled National Review column (SB 50 is called the More Homes Act, not the Housing Accountability Act) tried to pin the bill’s demise on a “coalition of anti-growth environmentalists and wealthy NIMBYs.” It’s definitely true that many wealthy homeowners are using the equity argument as a cover for their own fear of taller buildings (you can always tell when it’s wealthy homeowners because they equate five-story residential buildings to Dubai and they also like to call it a “one-size-fits-all bill”).

But wealthy homeowners and housing justice advocates don’t have the same goals, contrary to the message that SB 50’s defeat seems to have sent to the rest of the country.

I suspected that SB 50 might fail when I received an email a few days before the vote from Chanell Fletcher, a transportation equity advocate who is executive director of the nonprofit ClimatePlan. On the surface, SB 50 was about everything ClimatePlan has been fighting for, she wrote: denser housing, for more people, closer to transit, generating fewer carbon emissions.

But Fletcher couldn’t ignore the concerns from ClimatePlan’s partner organizations, many of which were part of a giant statewide coalition of 27 housing justice and transit equity groups that issued an “oppose unless amended” statement a week before the vote.

One of those coalition groups, Alliance for Community Transit (ACT-LA), has spearheaded an incredibly successful housing program for the city of LA, the Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive, known locally as TOC, which is basically a miniature version of SB 50.

For developers that want to build homes within a half-mile of a train or bus stop, LA’s TOC program allows them to build taller, larger projects—and also build fewer pricey parking spaces—if they add a certain number of very low- and extremely low-income units. It’s been wildly popular: To date, the TOC program has permitted 20,000 units of housing, including almost 4,000 low-income units, in the very places that the city wants them. But not, it should be noted, on the large swaths of LA’s land that remain zoned for single-family housing.

The state desperately needs to build housing. Due to lagging development in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom will now have to get an estimated 500,000 new homes built per year to meet his self-imposed housing goals of 3 million homes, which would mean building homes at a rate not seen since the post-World War II housing boom.

Boosting residential density near transit is critical for a state like California that is facing not just soaring housing costs, but also decreasing transit ridership, which is jeopardizing its ambitious climate and air quality goals. But affordability is just as crucial in a state where high rents have already driven low-wage workers to far-flung communities where they must suffer long, mostly car-centric commutes to job centers.

Affordability was one of the most contested parts of SB 50: Unlike LA’s TOC, SB 50’s inclusionary requirements would only kick in if a development were 10 units or bigger—and those developers could have simply opted to build their affordable housing requirements somewhere else, if they wanted to, for a fee. ACT spent two years working with the bill’s authors and sponsors, proposing that SB 50 adopt an affordability structure similar to LA’s TOC program and exempt sensitive communities permanently. Ultimately, ACT’s suggestions were not reflected in the bill’s final amendments.

The TOC program in LA isn’t perfect—the program has ended up evicting some people from rent-controlled buildings and small-business owners from their shops—but it shows that the state needs much stronger tenant protections to accompany any development-focused bill. SB 50 would not have applied to rent-controlled housing, properties where renters had been evicted in the last 15 years, or apartments occupied by renters anytime in the previous seven years, which is all better protection than what many California sites have now. But like a new rent control bill that went into effect in January, SB 50 also didn’t have a mechanism in place to enforce those provisions, which would largely affect low-income renters.

“It’s not enough anymore for ClimatePlan—and I would argue for smart-growth advocates—to get a ‘win’ around infill and density if we’re ignoring communities that have been left behind for years,” wrote Fletcher in her letter. “I don’t want to choose between environment and equity anymore. I want both.”

Since California started this discussion in January 2018, many other states have successfully mounted their own campaigns to eliminate single-family housing. But it’s important to look at the ones that have been successful so far. The policies that have been put into place in Minneapolis and Oregon took multiple election cycles to muscle through their respective legislatures. Sure, the conversations might have originated from the disparities of devoting too much land to single-family zoning—which is true in most big U.S. cities—but the policies were initiated by and centered around equity groups.

At the same time, California has, technically, been upzoned to allow three units on most lots. The new accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that went into effect last month allows property owners to build both a ADU and a “junior” ADU on most single-family properties across the state. About 100,000 new ADU units have been permitted just in the LA area. Yet already, some communities, like wealthy, job-rich Burbank, are trying to argue the state ADU laws shouldn’t apply to them.

There are also other housing bills and policies under consideration that might address the state’s supply problem (including some proposed by Wiener). Last year, with virtually all municipalities failing to meet their housing targets, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to sue cities (and actually ended up suing one wealthy oceanfront enclave) that didn’t hit their quotas. New statewide housing targets will put some cities on the hook to permit thousands of new units, like Beverly Hills, which built zero apartments during a two-decade period. Will Beverly Hills actually build 3,000 new apartments? This is the same community that’s spent $15 million to delay the arrival of a subway line.

The idea that wealthy homeowners and exclusionary cities are going to somehow suddenly fall in line with new zoning policies without a fight is laughable when they’ve gamed the system from the beginning. When the system has been gamed for them.

A giant crane lifts a rectangular steel box onto a structure made from the stacked boxes
Housing near transit is being prioritized and built quickly in Los Angeles, which has a shortage of an estimated 500,000 affordable units.
KTGY Architecture + Planning

California has to start wrangling more money out of the wealthiest occupants of the world’s fifth-largest economy. Cities need to stop handing out tax breaks to hotels and sports stadiums, which can wreak havoc on rents and home prices. A tech company like Google should be required to build housing as part of its office development plans. Some elected officials want to revive the state’s redevelopment agencies, which were abolished in 2011 due to budget woes, a move that critics blame for causing the affordable housing shortage.

A solution could also come from electing more lawmakers who pledge to represent the needs of renters—who maybe are renters—the group that makes up a majority of the residents of California cities, where job centers are located.

But the biggest opportunity to make California more equitable begins this November, when the state’s voters will decide whether or not to partially repeal Proposition 13, a 1978 constitutional amendment that freezes property taxes at purchase price instead of market value. The Schools and Local Communities Funding Act is nicknamed “split roll” because it will only repeal Prop 13 for commercial and industrial property owners, which could generate up to $12 billion for public use. But many housing experts are pushing for further reform that would also repeal Prop 13 for residential property owners.

Prop 13 is to blame for many of the conditions that led to the proposal of SB 50. Fearing the tax reassessment that would come with a move, more homeowners are staying in their homes or passing them on to their children, further reducing the supply of homes for families to buy. The median home price in California is now $500,000, meaning the barriers for entry are too high for a majority of Californians to access the benefits of homeownership. So many would-be homeowners remain renters, putting a tremendous squeeze on the rental market that is putting more Californians on the street.

A full Prop 13 repeal could be made even more powerful when paired with targeted zoning reform as well as proposed national housing reform that would spur construction of new housing—including the Homes Guarantee, which aims to make housing a human right. SB 50 didn’t do that. Upzoning won’t do that. The decommodification of housing does that. And repealing a tax loophole that rewards people for hoarding a home as a wealth-generation tool starts to do that.

California can get creative when smashing those power structures. Redevelopment agencies might start to acquire transit-adjacent mansions to divide them into 4-plexes. Cities can use eminent domain to turn abandoned vacation homes into public housing. The state already runs a “cash for clunkers” program—what about a garage buyback program for homeowners to offload their detached garages, with the car in it, to create a land trust of alley-accessible, climate-friendly, permanently affordable neighborhoods?

Repealing Proposition 13 is just one part of a bigger fight for the lives of Californians who have been locked out of stable, equitable housing. Both fans of SB 50 and housing justice advocates want to topple the state’s most exclusionary policies and build more homes for the people who need them most. We have our work cut out for us, and we have to do this work together.

Let’s take back our state.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify details of the Schools and Local Communities Funding Act.


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