SB50: Sticking it to SoCal

John Mirisch
Mayor of Beverly Hills

According to state senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, author of SB50, which would take away local zoning authority from municipalities, including eliminating single-family zoning in much of LA County, “one of the root causes of California’s housing crisis [is] hyper-low-density zoning near jobs and transit.”

Why, then, you might ask, did Wiener recently amend his bill to exempt Tiburon, Mill Valley, Sausalito and the rest of Marin County from the impacts of a bill he himself, in so many words, admits is punitive?

It would be fairly easy to conclude that Wiener’s bill, which is mainly co-sponsored by Bay Area politicians, is a targeted attack on Southern California.

Wiener has consistently invoked our city, Beverly Hills, in his push to get the bill passed.  He’s described our city as “anti-housing” and “anti-growth.” He plays upon the stereotype of Beverly Hills as a “wealthy, exclusionary” community, which sadly and carelessly plays upon anti-Semitic tropes  in reference to likely the only Jewish-majority city outside of Israel.

How ironic that Wiener, who is quick to toss around the expression “Nimby” (short for “not in my backyard”) in trying to silence his critics seems so unconcerned with the “hyper-low-density” in his own backyard.

Los Angeles is already the densest urban area in the US: expansive LA County has 2100 inhabitants per square mile which can be contrasted with Marin County’s paltry 300 people per square mile.  

Here’s the reality about Beverly Hills.  We are a very diverse and welcoming community, like many others in Southern California.  Like those communities, we have our own unique DNA. People here feel connected, like in a small town.  The feeling of home makes it much more than a faceless suburb in an urban area with a greater population than 46 states in the union.  

Over 50% of our residents are renters and over 60% of our housing units are multifamily.  Our population has remained stable for over half a century. We have never downzoned multifamily areas.  We have instituted meaningful rent stabilization measures. We are working on creating a robust inclusionary housing policy and working directly with non-profit affordable housing developers to do what we can in a manner that fits in with our community.  And we’re already more than 20 times as dense as Marin County.

SB50’s attack on single-family housing is, according to Wiener, an attempt to redress historical wrongs.  More irony, of course, is that the restrictive covenants Wiener is referring to, would have made it impossible for many of Beverly Hills’s current residents to live here.  In other words, Beverly Hills is a community which has overcome the inequities of the past. The impact of the bill would be to irreparably alter communities such as Beverly Hills and Ladera Heights, a largely single-family housing area which has an African-American majority (not to mention a higher median household income than Beverly Hills).

To paraphrase former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, SB50 is a real estate bill, not a housing bill.  It represents a massive wealth transfer from the public to the private sector. The impact of SB50 in Beverly Hills, for example, would be to eliminate single-family housing and replace it with luxury condos, which would do absolutely nothing to address the issue of affordability.  In fact, it could make the affordable housing situation worse, as nexus studies show that new market-rate and luxury housing creates a need for even more affordable housing.

There are all sorts of unintended consequences, in addition to the intended, punitive consequences of SB50, but one thing seems clear: producing more Rolls-Royces isn’t going to reduce the price of Priuses.  

Perhaps not so ironically, Marin County is home to many of the tech oligarchs whose corporations are fuel to the income inequality fire and who support Wiener and SB50 because they want more housing for their workers — just not in their own backyards.  Perhaps therein lies one reason why Wiener was so quick to exempt these tech oligarchs, while targeting Southern California with his attacks on local control.

SB50 ignores our need for a variety of housing choices, everything from single-family housing to ultra-dense urban living, which reflects the dynamism, diversity and richness of Southern California, and which is important for our ability to create sustainability.  As Professor Alex Wall has written, “heterogeneity in urban form can ensure resiliency.” Despite Sacramento politicians’ scapegoating of cities, distinct, unique communities are the solution, not the problem.

And if Scott Wiener and his Bay Area co-sponsors really think that market-based, trickle-down, blanket upzoning is the solution to our state’s affordability crisis, maybe they should test their Reaganomic theories in the Bay Area first, rather than exempting one of the least-dense, wealthiest Bay Area counties from SB50 and targeting us in Southern California.

John Mirisch is currently serving his third term as mayor of Beverly Hills.

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