A Sacramento reporter called me the other day to ask me how I thought the Bay area was feeling about SB 827, the Wiener-Skinner bill that would wrest some level of local control from communities that use zoning and other more imaginative strategies to prevent dense development, that is, high-rise and even low-rise housing in transit zones.
But before the article even came out, my prediction that the bill would die, came suddenly true. And it died an ignominious death-it didn’t even get out of its first committee hearing at the capital-but this is not before it had animated heated discussions in every hamlet and city disguised as a suburb across the expanse of the golden state.
Those who feared SB 827 may not want to dance on its grave just yet as the original author, Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco claims he’s not giving up. “I will continue to work with anyone who shares the critical goals of creating more housing for people in California, and I look forward to working in the coming months to develop a strong proposal for next year.” http://sd11.senate.ca.gov/news/20180417-senator-wiener%E2%80%99s-bill-allow-more-housing-near-public-transportation-stalls-senate
Wiener also said (in the above statement) that he was “heartened by the conversation it has started, both with those who support the bill and with critics of the bill.” And there I agree with him. We need to have this conversation and we need to have it among friends since we all live in a state that has almost no really affordable housing AND no comprehensive transit systems that compare with those in cities like New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, Philly, you know, real cities.
I grew up on the outskirts of a small town near a big East Coast city that was rapidly transforming into a suburb-this was the 50’s and early 60’s-so I regularly find Californians’ ideas on a number of things to be odd and somewhat removed from reality (my definition of that, of course.) For instance, you will often hear Californians say, we can’t have a festival, a picnic or whatever in March or April, because it might rain! But it rains whenever it feels like it in most of the country and people still plan festivals, barbecues, etc despite the likelihood of actual weather, you know, more than foggy-in-the-morning-clearing-with-sun-in-the-afternoon.
And so it is with our understanding of transit. Californians think that driving to a parking lot and getting on a sort of subway that takes us to one or two parts of town is transit. No wonder our cars clog the streets of our downtowns. In fact, how many real downtowns where jobs, entertainment and retail all coexist within walkable blocks can you find in the entire state, one, two, maybe three?
Political Perception makes Ornery Bedfellows
The Wellstone Democratic Club tried to debate the bill at a recent meeting and lots of folks I have never seen before showed up. Some said they were there to support affordable housing and anti-gentrification measures, still others feared their quaint neighborhoods would be transformed into concrete canyons.
Rarely does the Right join with the Left or if you don’t like those characterizations, the wealthy homeowners join with the anti-gentrification folks something which by definition happens outside of their high-priced enclaves, like they did in opposing SB 827. It would have been amusing if not so worrisome, because in this case, there interests do not overlap.
So at the Wellstone meeting most spoke about the problems with the bill, all the things it left out (I for instance felt sad that I didn’t get promised a pony-something I’ve always wanted) all the things it might change inalterably and all the folks who might be driven out by luxury, that is, market rate housing.
I know that the authors went to great lengths to tweak it, alter it and promise more goodies if only you clapped your hands 3 times. The bill’s bland scale was a mind boggling readjustment or an overreach, depending on your point of view, of our state’s zoning rules and even the vision we have of the California dream….
But one younger person, not a white-haired liberal like the rest of us, wanted to know why we opposed folks his age being able to live somewhere much less own a home. Good question and it encapsulated the growing generation gap between those of us who’ve obtained a corner of the American/California dream and those who are lugging along student debt while hoping that at some point in their lives, they won’t have to scan craigslist for Housing-Share any longer.
But according to Katy Murphy’s story in the Mercury News, ” Anya Lawlor of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, argued that it was too simplistic of a solution, ignoring decades of research and advocacy on the preservation of affordable housing and development near transportation hubs….that legislation of this scope can take years to become law.” https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/04/18/why-did-californias-major-housing-bill-fail-so-quickly/
Maybe that’s why, skimming my local pages on Nextdoor, many of my neighbors reacted to this proposal as they would a terrorist threat. Yes there were some who suggested we were in a housing crisis but they were quickly driven away by the fear mongering. In fact when I suggested on social media that the bill could be amended to consider these concerns and to add affordability requirements, some of my closest allies questioned my judgement and maybe my morals too.
While the bill was in hospice, Senator Wiener tried intubation by adding an inclusionary zoning clause (requiring affordable housing be included which matters a lot in Oakland since that policy is NOT in place here) and lowering the height demands of the bill, but it barely took another breath before it keeled over from the weight of confusion, consternation and out-right hate from all of its anxious would-be relations. The will has yet to be read on this blockbuster (get it?) bill before we are all fighting over the remains or rather attempting to put a stake through its heart.
Issues raised, my take-
1) Subsidized housing
Housing is not or should not be a privilege though it obviously is here in Oakland where tent cities expand daily. Housing should be seen as a necessity, a public utility and subsidized to the tune of whatever is necessary to house our workforce, our families, our future and that includes the poor to the middle class like they do in many other countries where owning a home is not perceived as synonymous with being grown or successful and lifelong renting is a comfortable solution not a prediction of PTSD.
Some of the affordable housing folks object to this bill because market rate developers could not be pressured into offering community benefits like subsidized units and local retail on the ground floor. That’s likely true but it’s a hell of way to get affordable housing built and not a sustainable approach over the long term. We also want prevailing (union) wages, of course, cause we don’t want out-of-town workers sleeping in their cars much less homegrown workers who have to live in tents while constructing luxury housing for newcomers.
Sounds like we all still want a pony —but but–we live in a wealthy state and if we can’t afford to subsidize housing for our folks, we shouldn’t expect to have a growing economy. Fix Prop 13, pass oil depletion allowances, tax professional services, but get something built since the Feds apparently won’t anytime soon.
2) Comprehensive mass transit
But that’s not all, who are we kidding with transportation hubs, we live in a state that has little to no dependable public transit capable of serving the majority of our everyday needs. And no, RM3 will not fix that. It won’t shorten the headways between BART trains or provide many more AC Transit buses on busy routes, much less expand those routes. Folks love to fuss about Uber, etc (me included) but it’s there because we simply cannot get around on our local transit and we can’t all ride bikes, not that there’s anything wrong with bikes-yeah, more bikes, more scoooters, whatever, please.
I can walk out of my house in the morning on time but that doesn’t mean the bus will arrive and mine is not the only street where this happens. You can’t reconstruct California around transit hubs if they aren’t there. We need transit choices like you find in other, less expensive, less wealthy cities. I’d even give up my pony for that! So Scott and Nancy and Governor Whoever, can you get on that too??
3) Dense cities & active downtowns
So here’s the last point I want to make which, damn, may be the most important one. Look around you please Californians. This whole state is one giant suburb. Is that what you really want? Do you want to be wedded to your cars and crabgrass, especially knowing that your children will be moving away or living their lives like Russians in old movies, multiple families to an apartment?
I have the benefit of having some young people in my life, but not so young that they shouldn’t be able to have an apartment or house or condo without checking the housing wanted, apartment-to-share listings, who allow me to see things in a different way. Also I like to travel and I appreciate cities. Some of them are full of low-rise apartments like Paris whose average buildings are 5 or 6 stories high although that’s about to change. https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/newly-freed-from-height-limits-paris-skyline-ready-to-rise.html
Some cities like New York and Chicago and now Atlanta have apartment and condo buildings with many more stories but, of course, some of their chicest, most expensive neighborhoods are similar to Paris. Even the Piedmont Avenue area is more like Paris and less like Rockridge, Crocker Highlands, or North Berkeley. I’m not even bringing Piedmont of Orinda into this discussion. They’re different animals.
But areas like Rockridge and North Berekeley near BART were once surrounded by working class cottages whose owners are now house-millionaires while their offspring move away or yeah, wait for them to die before they can hope to live in their pristine California craftsman cottages (with additions, of course, for those 6 burner stoves, ginormous fridges and farmhouse sinks, but don’t get me started.)
City living can be convenient and attractive, public transit doesn’t have to try so hard to reach it, eating out, which is now a national pastime for the young, is closer and a bit cheaper. Yes, I am betting that young families wouldn’t mind living in a fourplex with a shared backyard or nearby park if it meant not moving to Sacramento or Omaha.
For those families living in old lead-filled homes or crowded into small apartments, many might prefer newer family sized buildings that could be built with subsidies, rather than subsidizing their children’s learning problems later on. Pay now, pay later but pay anyway.
What is so wrong with building up a bit and not insisting that the California dream is a picket fence with grass we can’t afford to water (and why should we? It’s not sustainable.) Rockridge wouldn’t have to be a canyon but a well-designed low-rise urban landscape with occasional high-rises in their midst. Crocker Highlands could easily sustain duplexes and triplexes along Lakeshore and even higher. The problem on my narrow little street isn’t too many dwellings but too many cars. Only reliable transit can fix that. I can imagine a triplex on our little lots with an occasional empty lot transformed into a mini park.
Most of us when we travel prefer these kinds of cities where gleaming downtowns alternate with five to eight story side streets and cafes and street vendors encourage us to entertain and shop in public, where civic life is not limited to fighting on twitter but watching people’s children frolic while sipping a glass of locally made wine. These activities do not have to be limited to the gentrification class if we subsidize housing, transit, and promote local business. And if we do not, it won’t be long before our booming economy (not to mention confounding climate change, already here) will sputter and die.
Let’s rethink California! Si se puede….