Local Voices Unwelcome As State Promotes Affordable Housing

Susan Shelley

Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”


From 2011 through the first quarter of 2014, more building permits for single-family homes were issued in the city of Houston than in the entire state of California.

That might be one reason that in April, the median selling price of a single-family home in Houston was $217,000 while in California it was $509,100.

There is widespread agreement that housing affordability in California is a problem, but there’s less agreement on what to do about it. Still, we should be able to agree that whatever is done ought to be transparent, publicly debated by the elected officials who represent us.

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are working on a backroom deal to “streamline” the approval of residential housing projects by cutting local voices out of the process.

Under this deal, any “attached housing” development that meets local zoning requirements could be built without local review of the project’s impact on traffic, parking, local businesses, the environment or the neighborhood, as long as 20 percent of its units were designated as affordable housing.

For developments located within one-half mile of a “major transit stop,” even fewer affordable units would trigger the “streamlined” approval. Just 10 percent would be enough to get pre-clearance to build a project like the 3,990-unit “urban village” planned for the former Rocketdyne site in Canoga Park.

No local review would be allowed.

This enormous change of policy is about to be slipped through the legislative process with a trick that prevents committee hearings, debate, amendments, and public notice. It will be written on one of the “spot bills” that was passed earlier in the legislative session.

Spot bills are blank pieces of legislation. They are empty, blank, with nothing written on them except a bill number and the words, “A bill related to the budget.”

Later, when a backroom deal is made, staffers pull out one of the spot bills and write the new law on it. Then the “amended” bill is brought back to the floor of each house for an up-or-down vote.

No hearings, no debate, no amendments, no public notice.

These formerly blank spot bills are called “budget trailer bills,” because they’re passed after lawmakers vote on the budget.

Trailer bills have become such an established part of business as usual in Sacramento that “trailer bill language” is posted on the website of the California Department of Finance. The “Streamlined Affordable Housing Approvals” draft is proposed trailer bill 707, if you’d like to read it. Of course, it may be changed in private negotiations. We won’t actually know what’s in the law until it passes.

Why is this even legal?

Who knows, but if the “Streamlined Affordable Housing Approvals” law is passed, whatever is in our zoning codes is the last word on what can or cannot be built in our neighborhoods.

That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s effort to update the zoning of every neighborhood in Los Angeles. We are in the midst of a “comprehensive revision” of the entire city’s zoning. The project is called “re:code LA.”

Haven’t heard of it?

Did you miss the “Listening Session: San Fernando Valley” meeting at the Van Nuys City Hall Council Chambers on July 9, 2013?

How about the “Regional Forum” at the Granada Hills Community Center on March 15, 2014? Surely you were at the “Public Forum: South Valley” at the Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center in Van Nuys on Saturday, April 2, from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

No?

The only way re:code LA could have a lower profile is if it was in the federal witness protection program.

But this “comprehensive revision” of L.A.’s zoning is the public’s last chance to have input on housing projects, because what the governor is writing on a piece of already-passed blank legislation will allow construction of huge residential developments, thickly clustered along a future transit corridor, without any local review at all. The projects need only be compliant with local zoning and include a bit of affordable housing.

It’s all too clever by half. The public deserves better than this.

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