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Wiener Loses Again. Or Does He?

Josh Stephens on
Feb 3, 2020

Over the past two years, Sen. Scott Weiner became the personification of growth and gentrification as he championed successive bills—SB 827 and SB 50—to increase residential density statewide. His speeches drew protesters. He was accused of doing the bidding of developers and the tech industry and of ignoring the plight of low-income residents who might not be able to afford units in the transit-oriented developments that he championed.

He appeared in memes inexplicably wearing bell bottoms and gleefully touting high-rises. In a an unusually saucy bit of planning repartee, Wiener responded via Facebook, "Apparently, allowing small and mid-size apartment buildings near trains and buses leads to fire, brimstone, chaos, soviet flags, gay rainbows, and some exceptionally gay disco outfits.”

For all of the excitement SB 50 generated among YIMBYs and many planners, Wiener never managed to neutralize the ill will he inspired — rightly or wrongly — from the start. Last week, SB 50 failed in the Senate Appropriations Committee on a vote of 18-15, with two fewer ayes than it needed.

Meanwhile, the housing crisis boogies on. 

Many of SB 50’s supporters, including increasingly prominent YIMBY groups as well as many housing developers (market-rate and affordable) and even some big-city mayors, fear that the state has missed its last, best hope to make headway on the estimated 3.5 million new units that it needs. And yet, SB 50 may have served its purpose – by provided cover for a great many pro-housing bills that passed while it and Wiener were taking their lumps.

Absent SB 50, the same stakeholders who opposed SB 50 might have marshaled their forces against 2019’s SB 330, which compels cities to automatically approve projects as long they meet certain conditions. As CP&DR’s Bill Fulton wrote, SB 330 “cuts into local discretion on planning and zoning significantly – by essentially outlawing plan-level downzoning and moratoria on housing for the next five years.” That, too, may be perceived as a threat to local control—but, against the backdrop of the more radical SB 50, it passed.

Wiener’s own SB 828 passed in 2018 after SB 827 went down. That law forces cities to zone for 100 percent of their projected local housing need and to add zoning, among other provisions.

Those laws complement 2017’s SB 35, which also forces cities to approve housing developments under certain circumstances (strengthened by 2019’s AB 1485). And that’s not to mention the vaunted housing package of 2016.

As well, had homeowners not focused on SB 50 and its provision to essentially outlaw single-house zoning, they might have realized that laws promoting accessory dwelling units passed in the last four years – more than ten, by my count – have already done the job.

If California is going to pull out of this crisis the real action may lie — and may have always lain — in the Regional Housing Needs Allocations. That’s the process by which the state, based on demographic projections, tells regions, via their respective metropolitan planning organizations, how much housing their and their component jurisdictions have to plan for. Previously, RHNA was famously toothless and, therefore, famously timid. But the laws that passed while everyone was watching SB 50 are the very laws that have strengthened the RHNA process. Meanwhile, Newsom has demonstrated that he’s more than willing to sue and fine noncompliant cities. 

Need proof of RHNA’s efficacy — or at least its potential? Look no further than Southern California. 

Over the summer, the Southern California Association of Government’s regional council asked the state Department of Housing and Community Development for a relatively modest (i.e. pathetic) allocation of 660,000 units. What did it get? Over 1.3 million units. The regional council had little choice but to approve that number, and they did so by adopting a plan to allocate a significant share of the units to coastal cities — over some coastal cities’ objections (see prior CP&DR coverage). 

When you’re pissing off Manhattan Beach, you know you’ve done something right. 

When we extend SCAG’s numbers to the state’s other MPOs, that 3.5 million all of a sudden seems attainable. The great benefit of RHNA is that it’s actually based on numbers. SB 50 was based on an assumption: that developers would respond to upzoning and that residents would want to live near transit. Those aren’t unreasonable assumptions. But there’s no telling how many units might have actually resulted, nor is there any telling about how those units would have been allocated throughout the state. SB 50 was designed to spread units equitably — there are over 200 light rail stations in California that could have absorbed SB 50’s largesse. But who knows how it would have played out. 

The RHNA process is far from perfect — but, then again, so was SB 50. Many city officials found SB 50 threatening because it literally encroached on their turf. It would have taken a scalpel to cities’ zoning codes and rewritten them with minimal local input. The RHNA process, for all of its bureaucracy and technocracy at both the state and MPO levels, at least creates the illusion of local control. 

And what will cities do with that control? Well, here’s the thing: public officials who have said they favor housing but oppose SB 50. They’ve gotten half of what they wanted. Now they have all the freedom in the world to deliver on the other half.

So, they’re gong to have to zone for their allocations. And that means that, in a great many cases, cities are going to have to adopt their own miniature versions of SB 50 anyway. Whether you’re San Diego, Santa Clara, Modesto, or, indeed, Manhattan Beach, you’re going to have to increase density. And where does increased density make sense? Around transit, so people can drive less, and around job centers, so people can shorten their commutes. Throw in a few duplexes and accessory dwelling units, and many cities are going to be good to go. 

Some cities are already following this principle. Los Angels adopted “Transit Oriented Communities” in 2018. Sacramento adopted a transit oriented development ordinance in December 2018. This summer, San Diego adopted “Housing SD,” which provides generous density bonuses. if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, the housing density movement is picking up steam. As a bonus, whereas SB 50 fell short on affordable housing, the RHNA process mandates that cities zone for low-income residents.

Of course, zoning doesn’t mean developing, and mandating doesn’t mean funding. RHNA forces cities to zone, but it doesn’t put financing in developers’ bank accounts, and it doesn’t force cities to actually approve projects. It does, though, make projects politically easier to approve, especially when local elected officials can tell stakeholders that they’re just complying with the law.

RHNA doesn’t involve the political gamesmanship of Wiener vs. NIMBYs, and it’s not going to inspire disco-themed memes. But it, and all the other bills that the legislature passed in the past two years—and whatever others it passes this year—has the distinct advantage of the power of law. Wiener and other legislators have promised introduce new bills this year to promote housing production and legislators continue to take the crisis seriously. As long as those bill appear more moderate than SB 50 did (not hard to do), they have a good chance of passing.

And let’s not forget: SB 50 itself almost prevailed. SB 50’s 18-15 vote suggests, Scott Wiener’s loss—or three losses—may yet turn out to be California’s gain. 

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