By Francis Northwood (PO ’21)
Back in 2018, Scott Weiner, the State Senator representing San Francisco, introduced California Senate Bill 827 to the floor. The bill’s purpose was to counteract the growing housing crisis in the state by drawing zoning power away from the cities and into the state’s hands. The bill would allow increased construction of residential housing near transit, sidestepping the parking, height, and density requirements previously in place. While this might not seem too grand of a plan to match the severity of the housing crisis, the bill involves 50% of single-family homes in Los Angeles and 96% of land in San Francisco.
California’s affordable housing crisis has in many ways developed from the slowing of residential development. Before the last decade (approximately), the state had been producing around 300,000 new housing units per year; currently, the state produces around 100,000 new units per year. This slowing of construction has come at a bad time, with the state’s economic growth as large as ever. To add on to this problem, much of the residential development is occurring outside of urban centers (creating sprawl), which increases transportation costs and cancels out the supposed affordability of the new suburban housing.
California’s housing shortage has been costing the state over $140 billion per year, without factoring in business expansions foregone because of the difficulties in recruiting workers to high-cost environments such as California. The issue compounds itself by hurting those most in need: California families earning less than the 50% median income are most in need of the new housing, with a shortage of 1.5 million new housing units in their range.
With California’s housing situation in such obviously dire straits, it would seem strange to oppose plans such as Weiner’s. Yet, his bill was met with criticism across the board. NIMBY (“Not in my backyard!”) supporters—who oppose most development—were immediately against it. But even affordable housing advocates were opposed to it, arguing that the housing resulting from the bill would displace current underprivileged residents, to which Weiner decidedly responded by adding provisions protecting current tenants. Both the San Francisco and Los Angeles city councils resoundly opposed the bill, as did the Sierra Club—which preferred the localization of zoning laws—and public housing advocates, who saw the bill as a way for developers to fill their coffers. On Weiner’s side was a strange amalgamation of tech giants (Salesforce, Twitter, Yelp, etc.) and housing advocates who saw radical change as a necessity.
The California State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee ended up killing the bill with a 6-4 vote. Despite this failure, Bill 827 marks a dynamic shift in the state’s approach to housing, in that the state has now given itself a mandate to handle the housing crisis. NIMBY cohorts occupy municipal politics and hold sway over local political leaders, but they do not have as extensive power at the state level, and California’s state-level political apparatus is taking advantage of just that. Gavin Newsom, the recently-elected governor, after a few days in office, took action on affordable housing by suing Huntington Beach for their blocking of affordable housing development. Newsome also promised to follow up with other cities if they did not follow suit. Scott Weiner has not given up either, as he has promised to bring a new bill to the State Senate floor, one that, this time, should see more success. California’s housing crisis is incredibly dire, but its leaders have finally realized that incredible answers are needed.