The California legislature and governor are working right now on a deal to pass bills to provide more funding to subsidize affordable homes and make it easier for some residential developments to avoid local procedural barriers. To contribute to this important conversation, this week I will post a series of thoughts on how some of California’s core policy frameworks and governance structures could be reformed to A. remove obstacles to housing and B. better reflect modern social and environmental priorities. Today, I start with zoning. Later in the week I will add posts on:
Tuesday: CEQA + Coastal Act & Commission
Wednesday: Growth controls, moratoriums + Local Agency Formation Commissions
Thursday: Prop 13 and sequels + Rent control
Friday: Social & public housing


California Legislative Analyst's Office

California Legislative Analyst's Office

Last week Abundant Housing LA and the USC Price School’s Urban Growth Seminar hosted Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who discussed their interests in housing and some of the bills that they had sponsored this year.   Both stressed that this session’s housing legislation is just a start and that residents need to keep the pressure on to make it easier to build homes and to fund affordable housing. Even if the key 2017 bills pass, they are expected to be just a ‘downpayment’ on California’s housing crisis: decades of underproduction of new housing and the 1.7 million low income residents who spend more than half their income on rent.

Senator Weiner also referenced the emergence a pro-housing movement in the state. Earlier this summer I attended YIMBYtown 2017 in Oakland, the second annual conference of groups that identify as YIMBY (yes in my back yard) advocates for more homes of all types. It was informative and inspiring to learn about housing situations and strategies in other places.

I participated in a session organized by Abundant Housing LAon the defeat of Measure S.
I also presented on the roots of and potential solutions to California’s housing crisis. I called the session “Unhousing the Golden State: who did it and how to fix it?” In retrospect, this title claims too much certainty for such a complicated topic. But I think that there are some useful ideas from the talk worth sharing as state leaders look to address housing policy this legislative session and in future sessions.

Before sharing reform ideas, let me provide a brief summary of the first half of the presentation, which explored the roots of the state’s housing crisis. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, California had a boom mentality. Home building was accepted, celebrated and incorporated into the mythology and publicity of local and regional boosterism. Racist restrictions on non-whites residency and property ownership was an exception to (or core component of) this pro-housing consensus.

In the presentation I argued that a number of cultural / intellectual currents combined to flip public attitudes, rules and institutions in California from broadly pro-housing to anti-housing in impact (and sometimes also in intent.)

Each of these is worthy of more analysis to explore its origins, goals, impacts and complexities. In this post, I will over-simplify them in a line each:
    •    Exclusionary suburbanism sought private and public restrictions on who could live where and what type of housing was allowed in certain neighborhoods.
    •    Good planning reacted to and attempted to constrain the exuberance of speculative housing production.
    •    Counter-culture romanticism challenged assumptions at the heart of housing booms: that more was better and that homes should be built and sold through mass production.
    •    The ecology movement quantified problems with rapid growth and gave nascent anti-development homeowner activists a kind of urgent and neutral/scientific cover.
    •    Historic preservation questioned the cycle of building, demolition and re-building that characterized both private construction and pubic redevelopment.
    •    The new right fought against public housing and fair housing laws and for lower property taxes.
    •    The new left sought to de-commodify housing and democratize land use decisions through regulations to make market housing construction less profitable.  
    •    ‘Quality of life’ nimbyism mastered procedural and legal tools to slow and stop developments that might impact traffic or other local concerns.
    •    Community control / anti-displacement advocates raised concerns over development in lower income areas.

Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles Public Library

These overlapping currents led residents to question both fast-moving land development and a generous, well-resourced state. They helped forge political coalitions skeptical of development. They also contributed to local and state planning and policy regimes that empowered locals to scrutinize and slow housing construction.

An important take away from this capsule history ofhousing skepticism is that we are all ‘guilty’, or at least all suspects, in laying the groundwork for the state’s housing crisis. By this I mean that most Californians share at least some values and goals with some of the trends that contributed to the state’s housing shortage. Shifting California back to become a more pro-housing state will require reforging a pro-housing majority. Advocates and decision makers therefore need to consider the concerns listed above in order to synthesize a new pro-housing consensus.

It will probably take both a broad cultural shift on housing and a specific reform agenda to address the obstacles to more and better homes in California. It also should be said that some policy obstacles are federal, beyond the scope of this post; and that policy is only a piece of the puzzle. Trends in the finance, construction and sale of homes; the availability and cost of of land, labor and materials; and changing demographic and lives styles have all contributed to our current housing challenges.

How to fix it

The mix of anti-housing attitudes described above became embedded in important state and local policy frameworks. To improve California’s housing situation, we need to consider how to reformthese rules.  Changing them can help reduce obstacles to enough homes for all. But that’s not all. Addressing these systems is also an opportunity to reexamine and update old systems to reflect modern priorities. Some of our current rule structures, like zoning, began to take shape in the 1920s. Another wave of institutions, such as CEQA and prop 13, are legacies of the 1970s. What would a 2020 approach to California governance and planning look like to address today’s challenges and opportunities?

The following list of state policy ideas is drawn from my YIMBYtown presentation. It also includes suggestions from conversations with housing advocates and experts, including Greg Morrow from Pepperdine, Brian Hanlon from California Yimby, Sonja Trauss from BARF, Mike Manville, Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen from ULCA, Mott Smith and Ava Bromberg from LAplus and steering committee members from Abundant Housing LA. But I am responsible/ to blame for the list in full and for how I present the ideas.

Strong local zoning lies at the heart of many of our housing woes. Local substantive standards and procedural delays limit the number of homes that get built in California, add to the cost of housing, and increase social segregation.

The state authorizes and requires local governments to plan and zone. To further housing goals, California could:
1. restrict local anti-housing rules, as 2016 laws did to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units. The state could, for example:
- set a minimum density that jurisdiction must allow near transit
- eliminate mandatory parking minimums
- reduce limits on where mobile home parks or other more naturally affordable homes are allowed.
- make all permanent supportive housing for the homeless by right.

2. Strengthen Regional Housing Needs Assessments. The state could:
- set jurisdictions’ RHNA targets based on past deficits and current overcrowding and vacancy rates, not just anticipated population growth.     
- require some percent of the target to be actually built. (Senator Wiener’s SB 35 is a move in this direction by allowing more by right when cities do not meet their RHNA targets).
- make sure that sites identified for potential development to meet RHNA aren’t, in the words of one planning expert who shared ideas with me, “the B.S. land that many cities allocate for affordable housing - very sloped sites, contaminated, next to slaughterhouses, etc (sites they know won't be developed!).”
- Require jurisdictions that plan land use at the sub-municipal level (like LA city with its 35 community plans) to allocate their RHNA at the local plan level so that wealthier, more politically connected areas don't avoid adding new homes.
- reward cities that meet their targets with more state funds to help overcome both local opposition to new homes.
- As an alternative, downplay the RHNA as over-planning (trying to determine what types of homes and people should be in what areas is inherently complex) and instead A. require general adequateand flexible zoning that can accommodate a range of housing types (see below) and B. better enforce fair housing rules to break down exclusionary zoning.

3. expand regional planning so that major decisions about what type and what density housing is allowed where are made by regional bodies rather than by local jurisdictions. I wrote about this potential for flipping planning so that big decisions are made at higher levels in the LA context, similar ideas are worth considering statewide. The state could:
- adopt a statewide zoning code modeled loosely after federal zoning systems in Japan and Germany.
- grant California’s 18 metropolitan planning organizations some of the zoning authority currently held by cities and counties. (I ran a twitter poll on this idea and while 60% of respondents thought it would be an improvement, some commenters noted that one would want to reform MPOs themselves to ensure that they better represent populations rather than just individual cities).
- create state or regional zoning appellate bodies with authority to override local decisions that block and delay homes that meet regional plans, like the (recently weakened/transformed) Ontario Municipal Board that had this power in the Toronto region.

Next installment- CEQA & the Coastal Commission..