No, “density” doesn’t rhyme with “sanity”

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

The recitals seem all right: big California cities are becoming increasingly unlivable as population continues to concentrate, traffic gets worse and housing costs soar.

Not a lot of disagreement there.

And yet it feels like there’s something in the Kool-Aid of many editorial boards and op-ed writers which makes them take a shine to SB50, Sacramento’s latest scheme to “fix things,” but which does nothing of the sort but which will, in fact, make the problem worse.  Newspapers, including The New York Times have showered praise on the bill, tagged it as “bold” and given the bill’s publicity-loving author Scott Wiener plenty of column-inches.

In the latest NYT paean to SB50, “America’s Cities are Unlivable. Blame Wealthy Liberals,” author Farhad Manjoo takes aim at those opposed to this community-destroying bill, including my city.  He writes, “Yet where progressives argue for openness and inclusion as a cudgel against President Trump, they abandon it on Nob Hill and in Beverly Hills.  This explains the opposition to SB50, which aimed to address the housing shortage in a very straightforward way: by building more housing.”

This may simply be the aftereffect of a Kool-Aid hangover, but does anyone really think it’s that simple? Does anyone really think that building more Porsches is going to bring down the price of Priuses?  Has Manhattan’s density helped create any kind of meaningful housing affordability? Has Manjoo even looked at vacancy levels for luxury housing or the impact global capital has on displacement and gentrification?

While Manjoo decries the “steady collapse of livability,” like the Yimbys and Wall St. he looks to even greater density to save the day. He writes: “metropolises are good for the psyche and the soul; density fosters tolerance, diversity, creativity and progress.”

Well, yes, maybe for some and maybe in some ways.  But this is hardly an absolute and largely a matter of personal preference. Yimbys who are quick to point out the racist history of some single-family communities – a history which Beverly Hills, now as a Jewish-majority city has managed to overcome – they are also quick to forget the racist, oppressive history of forced density, otherwise known as tenements and slums.  Maybe time for them to bone up on their Jacob Riis.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose are already the three densest urban areas in the US.  (New York is fourth). It’s hard to see how more forced density is going to make anything more livable, let alone create some kind of mythical “affordability.”

Just where does the gospel that “bigger is always better” come from?

Far from being “progressive,” the obsession with a never-ending spiral of growth seems to be something else entirely.  Economist Kenneth Boulding once wrote: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”  We might well add “Sacramento politician” and “self-styled progressive opinion editor” to that list.

It truly seems as if there’s Kool-Aid in the Kool-Aid.  Because when people correctly identify income inequality as a root cause of our state’s housing challenges, why would they seriously entertain a solution which puts Wall St. in the driver’s seat?  With its “the market will solve our housing crisis” premise, that’s exactly what SB50 – even in its “gut and amended” iteration as SB592 — and its associated bills do. It’s hardly surprising that its biggest supporters are a cabal of corporations, developers and tech oligarchs, who fund the AstroTurf Yimby movement and are making great strides in moving us ever nearer to an age of neo-feudalism.  These are the last people who have any interest in the kinds of measures which would seriously make a dent in income inequality (such as the corporate wealth tax I proposed a year ago).  Sorry, folks, but this is the kind of “progressive” solution that would attempt to address the smoking crisis by putting Phillip Morris in charge of tobacco control.

There are numerous measures we should take to deal with our housing affordability challenges, none of which involve giving Wall St. product developers and marketers the run of the state(their newest real estate product, which would be put in a kind of steroid-induced overdrive by SB50, the latest version of CDO’s, are said to be called “NBO’s,” short for “never been occupied”).

While building more Porsches might not reduce the price of Priuses, building more Priuses might.  So if we want more affordable housing, let’s build it. A massive bond meant for non-profit affordable housing would be a good start, as would the reintroduction of redevelopment with a focus on affordable housing.  CEQA reform linking job creation to affordable housing construction, a “clean up your own mess before you make it” provision, would avoid one of the biggest causes of displacement in our problem areas.

Rent stabilization measures, starting with repealing the Costa-Hawkins and Ellis Acts, would also be effective tools against displacement and gentrification.  Scott Wiener and Yimbys, unconcerned with such solutions or protecting current residents, seem more interested in those who haven’t moved here yet.

A vacancy tax, foreign owner tax and speculation tax could ensure that market rate housing actually comes to market, while strengthening state anti-trust laws to preclude concentration of ownership of real estate could ensure that developments are built to serve the actual needs of people rather than corporate profits.  Oftentimes, small is beautiful.

Allowing more regional cooperation in building affordable housing, currently precluded by existing rules, would be an important step forward, while crafting carrot and stick policies to create economic development in underserved parts of the state would further both the goals of creating community-based housing and geographic justice.

The best solutions to our housing affordability challenges don’t involve destroying community choice, though they may not strengthen Wall Street’s bottom line.

Local character and community choice, while oxymoronically decried by progressives who say they are concerned about livability, are wonderful things.  The right to self-definition of the individual is sacred for progressives and so should it be with communities, which are made up of people. Especially in already dense urban areas like Los Angeles County, community gives us a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of home.  Community sometimes makes life bearable. And community must continue to be our choice if we don’t want the state to become entirely unlivable.

It’s time to stop this silly war on single-family housing and to embrace the principle of urban humanism, which allows people to form and join communities which truly reflect the diversity and dynamism of American life at its best.  We need everything from Manhattan levels of density to single-family neighborhoods and everything else in between (FYI, more than 50% of Beverly Hills residents are renters and over 60% of our housing units are multi-family).  What we don’t need is Sacramento, or Washington, or the urban planning ideologues within academia to be making decisions for us about the future of our own communities.

In a cold, cruel and sometimes heartless world, Community is the solution, not the problem.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.