Generational conf lict
The debate is forcing California to consider the forces that have long shaped this state. Many people were drawn here by its natural beauty and the prospect of low-density, open-sky living. They have done what they could to protect that life. That has now run up against a growing generational tide of anger and resentment, from younger people struggling to find an affordable place to live as well as from younger elected officials, such as Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles, who argue that communities have been failing in what they argue is a shared obligation.
For the past several decades, California has had a process that sets a number of housing units, including low-income units, that each city should build over the next several years based on projected growth. Wiener’s bill targets cities that have lagged on building by allowing developers who propose projects in those places to bypass the various local design and environmental reviews that slow down construction because they can be appealed and litigated for years.
The bill applies only to projects that are already within a city’s plans: If the project were higher or denser than current zoning laws allow, it would still have to go through the City Council. But by taking much of the review power away from local governments, the bill aims to ramp up housing production by making it harder to kill, delay or shrink projects in places that have built the fewest.
It is hard to say exactly which projects might benefit if the various bills were passed, since it’s impossible to know which projects local governments might reject in the future. But there are various examples where it might have pushed a development along.
In Los Gatos, about 60 miles south of San Francisco, for instance, a longrunning dispute over a proposed development for 320 homes that the city rejected led to a lawsuit by the developer, which resulted in a judge directing the city to reconsider the plans. Also, cities regularly make developments smaller than their zoning allows, something that gradually chips away at future housing production.
California is the toughest market for first-time homebuyers and the cost of housing is beyond reach for almost all of this state’s low-income population. Despite having some of the highest wages in the nation, the state also has the highest adjusted poverty rate.
And Proposition 13, the sweeping voter initiative passed in 1978 that cappedpropertytaxes,hasmadethings worse: It had the effect of shrinking the housing stock by encouraging homeowners to hold on to properties to take advantage of the low taxes.
“California is a beautiful place with great weather and a terrific economy,” said Issi Romem, the chief economist with BuildZoom, a San Francisco company that helps homeowners find contractors. “To accommodate all those people you need to build a lot, and the state’s big metro areas haven’t since the early ’70s. To catch up, cities would need to build housing in a way that they haven’t in two generations.”
Coastal cities – which tend to have the worst housing problems – have the most scarce land. Still, economists say, the high cost of all housing is first and foremost the result of a failure to build. The state has added about 311,000 housing units over the past decade, far short of what economists say is needed.
“Cities have proven time and time again that they will not follow their own zoning rules,” said Brian Hanlon, policy director of the San Francisco Yimby Party, a housing advocacy group. “It’s time for the state to strengthen their own laws so that advocates can hold cities accountable.”
Still, few elected officials are eager to risk community anger by forcing through construction that would, say, put a 10-story apartment building at the edge of a neighborhood of singlefamily homes. That has turned California into a state of isolated and arguably self-interested islands.