The California Housing Crisis will only get worse: Part 1, Housing Bill SB50

California’s Housing Bill SB50 won’t be voted on until next year, but it foreshadows how impotent politicians are towards housing in the face of Capital.

Christian Patterson
2019-09-10
Underground Mall

California Housing Bill 50 was proposed by state Senator for San Francisco, Scott Wiener. Right now, it ended up being shelved until 2020, but this bill will come back, and the general sentiment behind it is endemic to Californian politics. The bill would rezone residential areas in California, that are near public transportation, to allow large apartments and condos, rather than single-use housing. In theory, this idea could be effective at alleviating California’s housing crisis. But, think about it: in California, who’s most likely to live around public transportation? Poor people. And even if this weren’t true, we all know that rezoning and upscaling always targets poorer neighborhoods before richer ones. This style of neoliberal, gentrification policy is always masked in the language of increasing density and affordability. But the real effect is that they want richer people to move there, and the type of rich, usually young, person they’re trying to attract, usually prefers mid-density apartments to single-family detached homes.

In this post I’ll explain why this Housing Bill can only be met with, at most, ambivalence. It’s certainly a solution to help the housing crisis, but at the same time, it’s not a solution anyone wants, except the elite nouveau-riche young Californian gentrifiers. The ads that were ran opposing SB50 highlighted how its bad for homeowners. In reality, it’s even worse for renters. Increasing density around transportation could add more housing, but it worsens the housing problem.

Scott Wiener, the quintessential California neoliberal social authoritarian

Scott Wiener, who introduced the bill, is an interesting politician. He’s a unique synthesis of technocracy, with neoliberal capitalist policy, with Lee Kuan Yew / Michael Bloomberg-influenced city-state, nanny-state capitalism.

Also, he looks exactly like every guy I’ve ever met who lives in San Francisco:

Scott Wiener introduced SB50, and he has introduced at least two other similar bills in the past – Senate Bill 827 and California Senate Bill 35 – so this is an issue he cares about a lot.

Some of his other notable positions revolve around HIV/AIDS. He authored a bill that made knowingly spreading HIV no longer a felony. He said this unfairly targets people who are HIV-positive. He also authored a bill to protect Net Neutrality, which is cool.

Going forward, keep that in mind. A lot of his ideas aren’t bad, and they’re about things we don’t immediately think about. A lot of his policy interests are Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope style policy, that’s all about innovative™. His policy on net neutrality is good (there’s similar pet policies of his that aren’t good), but it isn’t transformative or particularly substantive. A lot of his policy accelerate consumerism, in an Andrew Yang-style way. His policies on housing are his most substantive, and the most destructive.

One of the more confusing things he pushed in the California Senate is an extension of alcohol service hours until 4AM. This would happen in six California cities: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, West Hollywood, and Long Beach. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill last year because California Highway Patrol opposed it. CHP has opposed later last call laws since way back, and it’s well-documented.

Personally, Sacramento, Long Beach, and maybe Oakland seem like bleak places to have 4AM last calls. Also, the combination of California’s glorification of car culture and America’s unhealthy relation to alcohol, some things about the culture would have to change to allow such a widely implemented alcohol serving law change. I also think it’s something an individual city should decide for itself.

The revealing thing about his last call law though, is Wiener’s reasoning. He claims a 4AM last call is better for tourism, spending, and “culture”. What this shows is that, like the housing bill, Wiener is primarily focused on further commodifying society (in the name of economic growth) from a capitalist context. When Wiener ran as San Francisco supervisor, he ran on similar nightlife advocacy policy. After he was elected, he made it easier for businesses to get DJ permits, and hold live music events in public spaces.

Some other policies Scott Wiener has supported include increasing public transportation in San Francisco (good), increasing the amount of taxis in the city (neutral), and increasing parking spots dedicated to car-sharing programs like Zipcar (mostly bad). The last one raises my eyebrow, since, even though it’s rooted in the same mentality as increasing public transportation, it also replaces privately-owned cars as a possession, with cars that generate capital through their use.

He also advocated for the Soda Tax, the classic neoliberal nanny-state policy, from the Michael Bloomberg style of authoritarian city-statism. In a place like Philadelphia, where a Soda Tax also passed, this type of poverty tax is heavily opposed and stigmatized. In a place like San Francisco, a Soda Tax is embraced openly by the rich neoliberal scolds. Not only that, but the San Francisco city government has thrown out caring about poor people long ago.

Another weird pet policy of Scott Wiener’s was making nudity illegal in San Francisco, except at specific permitted events. I guess this isn’t categorically a bad thing – my political views don’t lie in niche social issues like public nudity – but it’s weird, because it undermines the reasons people moved to San Francisco for generations past: unbridled, American eccentric individualism.

Here’s the beginning of a piece he wrote for Bloomberg about it (it’s only the beginning because I don’t have a Bloomberg membership, but it’s enough to get the idea):

We’ve always had public nudity in San Francisco—in our parades, beaches, and street fairs, as well as the random naked person wandering through the neighborhood. Public nudity was part of the quirkiness and fabric of the Castro. About two years ago that changed, and it became a seven-days-a-week kind of thing. Every day there were a few, or more than a few, naked men displaying themselves at Castro Farmers’ Market and elsewhere. It created a lot of tension and anger among our residents and, of course, our businesses also weren’t fans. There’d be lines of families waiting to get into the Castro Theatre, and naked guys would be walking around with their genitals at kids’ eye levels.

I didn’t want to rush to introduce legislation for something that might be an aberration, so I waited almost two years to see if it would go back to the way it used to be. Unfortunately, it only got more over the top. And eventually it got to the point where I needed to step in and take action.

Scott Wiener

I’m not sure if Scott Wiener’s claim that in San Francisco, people were seeing dicks flopping around in kids’ faces all the time, is true. Maybe it is, but I imagine it’s overblown. The whole passage reeks of urban appropriation of the “How dare you sir? Think of the children”, suburban mom, HOA rhetoric.

What rings the most true to me, though, is that Wiener targeted public nudity, because most people you may see naked in San Francisco now are disproportionately homeless and/or with mental illness.

Another thing Scott Wiener did, which is a classical neoliberal maneuver, is trying to regulate and promote food trucks. Basically, he reconciled the relationship between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks. For example, he made it so food trucks could park closer to schools than before, but added a 75 foot “buffer zone” between food trucks and restaurants. They also made it so food trucks can’t park in the same place more than three days a week.

The reason this is a neoliberal maneuver, is because the neoliberal worldview revolves around synthesizing powerful and rich bureaucratic government planning with for-profit private companies. Politicians like Scott Wiener want to regulate and promote private industry. They can’t let food trucks interfere with their current business partners – restaurants – but they also can’t not get in on this ~market disruption~ and ~innovation~ of selling food out of trucks. Neoliberal governments function like capitalists have throughout history: they notice a profit-generating venture, and figure out how to best milk it.

And finally, one more Wiener pet policy involved increasing funding to public parks. Sounds good right? Wrong… For one, he regulated parks by adding curfews, which is clearly an anti-homeless gesture. But in terms of the actual funding, it went towards increased patrol of parks, which is also clearly anti-homeless.

All of this about Scott Wiener speaks to my point: SB50 is a solution to the lack of housing, but it doesn’t solve the housing problem, and in fact, probably makes it worse. This ties in to Wiener’s regular political oeuvre, which are left-field, “common sense” solutions to problems. Some of these political moves, I support, or would support in specific contexts.

But the specific issues Wiener has proposed are secondary. It’s clear that his worldview is fundamentally different than mine. Wiener signifies the strand of Californian cosmopolitanism that resents New York for being more busy and lively, compared to San Francisco’s reputation of closing down at 9PM. Mix this New York resentment, with the exclusionary politics of the suburbs, that has now seeped into the most gentrified neighborhoods and cities – which San Francisco is, par excellence.

The substance of Senate Bill 50

The basic idea of Senate Bill 50 is that, in counties with a population over 600,000, areas that are within 1/4 mile of a railway stop are now zoned for taller buildings. There are also some other circumstances where areas can be rezoned, like if its in a work-rich area. I’m purposefully avoiding being more specific than that, because the bill has changed several times, and probably will change more. A lot of the specifics, especially the height of the rezoned buildings, are different depending on where you look.

A useful way to understand the bill is by looking at this map. It highlights what areas would be rezoned on an interactive map. Los Angeles gets heavily changed, basically all of the Los Angeles basin, from downtown LA to West Hollywood is completely rezoned. Virtually all of South LA is rezoned. Decently sized chunks in the San Fernando valley and the areas surrounding LA are also rezoned.

San Francisco is the same, with most of the Peninsula being rezoned. A decent chunk of the main parts of Oakland are rezoned. The rest of the Bay Area is less blanketed with rezoning, mostly because it’s much less consistently dense than the LA metro area, which even its most furthest reaching suburbs are relatively compact compared to most suburbs. The Bay Area instead turns into small circles of mid-density (high-density for California) apartment and shopping blocks built around BART stations, in the midst of super-low density California suburbs.

SB 50 effects other cities as well, although it now no longer effects coastal cities with less than 100,000 people (making the map I linked to earlier outdated). I’m going to focus on the Bay Area and Los Angeles, however, because I’ve spent time there, understand them better, and they’re both widely different in how the policy would end up looking, so they’re easy to compare.

Another map to look at is this one put out by UC Berkeley. This one breaks down neighborhoods into five categories: 1. High density/high income, 2. high density/low income, 3. low density/high income, 4. low density/low income, and 5. low density/diverse.

In the text of the page, they write that since the high density areas are already de facto in compliance with the new zoning, they probably won’t be that effected. They then say that the low density areas were most likely to change. However, this seems incredibly naive to assume that a low density/high income California suburb would allow upzoning to occur in their neighborhoods. Consider that the LA Metro Purple Line extension was delayed for years because it would be built under Beverly Hills High School – it wouldn’t stop near the high school, it just went under it. I don’t buy these NIMBYs would allow upscaling their neighborhoods.

When you look at that map, the parts that are certainly most likely to be targeted are the areas labeled yellow – low density/low income.

For Scott Wiener’s San Francisco, the only part that would be noticeably, heavily developed, given my assertion this will really only effect low income/low-density neighborhoods, would be Hunters Point, a heavily under-developed neighborhood, featuring under-utilized ports, an unused naval shipyard, and little bits of weirdly suburban looking housing.

For Oakland, it’s a different story. Here’s the UC Berkeley map for Oakland:

Here, we see a lot more yellow. This means that, with SB50, West Oakland would probably be the most rapidly developed, along with the corridor going SE, through Fruitvale, towards San Leandro. However, this map is a lot more revealing when juxtaposed with a racial map of Oakland:


Here, the yellow area in the first map neatly juxtaposes over West Oakland, which is primarily black. The other section of major development is the corridor east and SE of Downtown Oakland, which is the racially diverse, mostly Hispanic and black.

As you explore SB50 more, the racist and classist implications become more clear. Of course, the law encourages development in low density/high income areas, but it shows ignorance about the way capital functions, to assume this would happen on any noticeably different scale.

Now, let’s look at LA for comparison:

Here, the yellow takes up a much more visible part of the city. Mostly everything east of Highland in Hollywood, is labeled low income, and everything south of about Pico Boulevard is both low income and low density. Main stretches through East LA are also labeled yellow.

I don’t need feel the need to post a racial map with this one, because as you imagine, the low density/low income areas in yellow are where non-white people live. It’s basically all of South Central, East LA, and the less dense sections around the East Hollywood/Koreatown/West Lake areas.

And, like I’ve said, although SB50 allows, and even advocates for, upzoning in the areas labeled red, this is unrealistic. I can’t even imagine a reality where the residents of Santa Monica would allow mass upzoning in their neighborhoods.

Pete Buttigeig’s housing solution

If you’ve been following Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigeig, you may have heard about his controversial housing policy as mayor of South Bend, IN.

Buzzfeed News writes:

Buttigieg gave himself a nice, round-numbered goal and an urgent deadline: 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses bulldozed or repaired within 1,000 days. Then he finished ahead of schedule.

On the surface, these seems like a noble goal. I currently live in Philadelphia, where large swaths of the city has empty lots speckled between rowhouses, and lots of general urban blight. The quantity of empty lots in Philly skyrocketed in the 70s, after a couple decades of decline, when Trump-esque mayor Frank Rizzo came to power. He wanted to tear down houses that weren’t being occupied and maintained. This is, in theory, a good idea to make the city nicer, and open up space for new development.

How Rizzo’s policies looked, in a practical sense, is that it turned a lot of squatters and homeless people living in shelter into conventional rough sleeping, street homeless. The promise of using these empty lots went unfulfilled. Some of these empty lots were turned into parks, but most of them became neighborhood trash dumps. As you would imagine, these policies targeted black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and for the most part, blighted the neighborhoods more than they were originally.

Rizzo’s promise, of tearing down the blight to replace it with new things, is now being fulfilled. Philadelphia’s population finally began bouncing back in around 2006. More and more of those lots are now being developed. And virtually all of them are gentrification-bait.

Now, let’s go back to Pete Buttigeig. His goal to bulldoze 1,000 houses in 1,000 days is a noble one… on the most surface level glance, if one considers nothing about politics and economics. We can see clearly, though, how Buttigeig’s policy resulted in something similar to Rizzo’s policy. Anytime capitalist housing policy like this is implemented, the results are not a coincidence.

Buzzfeed writes:

Buttigieg has focused considerable development energy downtown. He eliminated one-way streets to slow down traffic coming and going, a move designed to keep people downtown after work. As he looked to improve the neighborhoods, some in the community of color saw a mayor who wanted to increase value without thinking about how that could affect low-income residents — in a word, gentrification.

They continue:

From the start, the 1,000 houses mark was to be met through a combination of demolitions and repairs. But there were suspicions early on, especially among people of color, that the city would use code enforcement powers to apply fines and civil penalties as a form of pressure to chase away even well-meaning property owners.

The Common Council quickly pushed back on the plan, passing a bill that demanded more transparency when houses were slated for demolition instead of repairs. In a statement at the time, Buttigieg complained that the council vote would “add layers of bureaucracy and expense to this effort.”

And finally, an anecdote about the policy, to demonstrate how the policy practically effected the city. In this section, Odom is expressing pride for buying a home that, unbeknownst to her, was scheduled to be demolished by Buttigeig:

“I was so proud,” Odom recalled. “So I tell this guy, ‘I’m just working on my house.’ He said, ‘Well, this house is on the demo list.’ … The demo list? What’s the demo list?”

Odom didn’t know this when she bought it, but the city had slated the house for demolition. […]

She worked out an extension with the city, only to be put back on the demo list because she didn’t know she had to schedule a code inspector to come check her progress. A city employee laughed at her when she realized her mistake. “I felt like I was at a comedy show. And I looked at him, just trembling.”

When she needed permits for other repairs, Odom was at the mercy of an unsympathetic city employee. So she would wait outside discreetly, until she spied the woman leaving for a break and could try her luck with someone else.

This is the human element that Buttigieg’s critics say he initially missed with 1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days. There were people in the neighborhoods who wanted to rehab vacant properties, either for themselves or as investments, and to keep money in the community. But they found a system working against them, from the city bureaucracy to costly fines and penalties.

This policy imposed eminent domain on black homeowners, and demolished homes in their neighborhood to build expensive homes for gentrifiers to take over. The issue is, people like Pete Buttigeig and Scott Wiener can only think in a neoliberal frame, and the only solution from a neoliberal frame is by destroying structures that aren’t accumulating capital, and replacing them with structures that do accumulate capital.

Once you embrace the capitalist construction of our society, then the only way to go is to try to to fix that construction by furthering its contradictions.

This is the end of part one of “The California Housing Crisis will only get worse”. Part two is available here. The second part will goes into the nature of supply and demand, and how it applies (or doesn’t apply) to housing. I go into alternatives to Scott Wiener’s SB50, by looking at development and urban planning policy in other cities.

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