Down the Rabbit Hole on Housing

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

At the end of his pro-SB50 piece, Scott Lay asks: “Could Scott Wiener become the next Howard Jarvis-like figure?”

A better question would be:  “Could Scott Wiener become the next Gordon Gekko-like figure?”

The notion of painting corporatist Scott Wiener — Wall Street and the CBIA’s strongest advocate in Sacramento — as a populist everyman figure who is fighting for small homeowners against government overreach takes us into truly Lewis Carrollian terrain, even within the truly bizarre world of Sacramento politics.

There are so many false assumptions and “through the looking glass” moments in the article that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s try starting with the PPIC poll referenced by Joel Fox.  Did the poll ask, for example, if those surveyed felt single-family zoning should be made illegal throughout the state? Do Californians really feel so differently about housing than the rest of America, in which fully 80% of Americans prefer single-family housing, despite the contention of Scott Wiener acolytes that single-family housing is inherently “racist” and “immoral”?  Did the author consider that, hey, even UCLA students might decide someday when they’re older that they might join the majority of Americans and learn to love the virtues of a backyard.

While, despite Scott Lay’s suggestion, UCLA students may also not be exactly representative for California residents as a whole, he also mischaracterizes the opposition to SB50, using Yimby talking points.  No, it’s not just “wealthy donors” who opposed SB50. In fact, members of diverse communities throughout the state have opposed this war on single-family housing and on communities. And in LA, it wasn’t just Paul Koretz.  In fact, a unanimous LA City Council voted to oppose SB50 and Council President Herb Wesson spoke eloquently against the bill at a town hall in, yes, the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles.

What’s curiouser and curiouser is that SB50’s biggest supporters are the tech oligarchs, who are largely responsible for increasing income inequality, which is a key element of the state’s housing affordability crisis.  Wealthy developers and Wall St. are also big supporters: blanket upzoning can create blanket big profits, though it is more than questionable whether more market-rate housing might not, in fact, make the housing affordability crisis worse.  (Because building more Porsches won’t reduce the price of Priuses).

Lay writes: “Nobody is proposing that my childhood home or anybody else’s be plowed down to build condo towers on Montecito.” Except, that is exactly what SB50 is proposing.  In my city, Beverly Hills, which already is as dense as Detroit, Cleveland and Denver, single-family houses would be torn down to build luxury condos, convenient places for global capital to park money without doing a darn thing to address affordability.  In fact, with bills like SB330 from Wiener’s crony, Nancy Skinner, cities would be limited in their ability to force luxury developers to build or pay for more affordable housing. In fact, rumor has it Wall St. is building a monument to both Wiener and Skinner behind the “Charging Bull” statue.

Densification, as Lay writes, can enhance neighborhoods, but it can also detract from them.  It depends. Let’s not forget that slums and tenements were the product of densification. And while times may change (and some things such as reliance on obsolete urban planning models like TOD should change), some things don’t.  One size still doesn’t fit all. People still want to make their own lifestyle and housing choices, without the government or Wall St. dictating “acceptable” levels of densities. Livable communities are still important in providing a sense of place and a sense belonging and a sense of home in an increasingly cold and impersonal world.

Want to address housing affordability?  Then let non-profits build affordable housing. Let Sacramento use the state’s surplus to invest more in affordable housing, including paying the permit fees for non-profit housing providers.  Bring back redevelopment with a focus on building affordable housing. Institute vacancy taxes, foreign investor taxes and speculator taxes. Strengthen anti-trust laws to prevent a concentration of real estate ownership.  Repeal Costa-Hawkins and the Ellis Acts. Institute a statewide rental registry. Limit density bonuses to nonprofits, working in conjunction with individual communities. Address income inequality and consider instituting corporate wealth taxes.  Allow for more regional cooperation in dealing with housing issues. Deal with the root causes of job creation and job concentration. Encourage economic development in underserved areas, working towards the goal of geographic equity.

But don’t destroy neighborhoods.  Don’t take away community choice. Don’t put profits over people. In a state as diverse as California, dynamic, unique communities are the solution, not the problem, despite the best efforts of Sacramento politicians to scapegoat cities.

Finally, my guess is that Lay is also wrong in describing SB50 as dead (or delayed), though I hope he’s right here.  There is too much money for Wall St. and developers at stake: blanket upzoning is the urban planning version of turning lead to gold, and I expect we will see a Wall St. supported version of SB50 return this session as a gory, zombie gut-and-amend.

John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009 and is currently serving his third term as mayor.

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