SB 50, the state level bill that could do away with single-family and local zoning, and significantly change the character of residential neighborhoods in many California cities, including Los Angeles, is proving to be a hot topic for discussion. A Town Hall meeting organized by opponents of the bill in the Carthay Square and South Carthay neighborhoods, held at Temple Beth Am on Tuesday night, drew approximately 350 people – one of the largest public meeting crowds we’ve seen locally since the equally contentious anti-development Measure S was debated before the 2017 elections.
The “Stop SB50” meeting featured a panel of five speakers, all adamantly opposed to the measure, and a couple of shorter sets of remarks, one of which was provided by a member of California YIMBY, a pro-SB 50 group, giving a brief summary of that group’s position.
Jill Stewart – Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles
The first speaker of the evening, after opening remarks by Brad Kane, president of the South Carthay Neighborhood Association and the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council, was Jill Stewart, head of the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles, which also took the lead in promoting Measure S three years ago.
While the point of SB 50, written and championed by San Francisco Bay Area State Senator Scott Wiener, is to do away with restrictive local zoning that reserves large swaths of urban neighborhoods for single family homes, Stewart said the bill’s approach – simply eliminating single-family zones and allowing a minimum of four units on any lot, with significantly increased height and density on parcels within 1/2 mile of major transit lines – is a “massive experiment” neither tried nor proven in any other jurisdictions, and amounts to nothing more than Reagan-era “trickle down” theory, which didn’t work for economics and wouldn’t work for housing.
In support of that position, Stewart quoted UCLA and London School of Economics professor Michael Storper, who says housing prices are not simply a matter of supply and demand, and that massive upzoning and construction of new market-rate units does not make housing more affordable overall.
Instead, said Stewart, quoting Samuel Stein, author of the book, “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State,” upzoning simply makes the underlying land more valuable, which makes it less affordable for either developers or individual buyers, and thus pushes up the cost of new housing even further.
Stewart noted that some recent amendments to SB 50, made in a committee hearing last month, will exempt counties with less than 600,00 residents from its provisions, and will thus remove large swaths of Northern California from its provisions, leaving southern California cities affected to the greatest degree.
Stewart also said that while the bill’s proponents tend to paint it as help for families struggling with housing affordability, it will also result in the replacement of many fairly modest family homes (the average single family house is about 1,400 square feet) with much smaller units (from 400-900 square feet) in multi-unit buildings on the same size lots…which are not as familiy-friendly.
Paul Koretz – Los Angeles City Council Member
The second speaker of the evening was City Council Member Paul Koretz, who was particularly outspoken at the recent City Council hearing and vote on SB 50, where the Council voted unanimously to oppose the bill.
Koretz, too, said SB 50 is “like Reaganomics, but with housing…it just doesn’t work.” As an example, he cited statistics from the city of Seattle, which recently built 24,000 new housing units in one year, but saw rents fall by only $2 in the year after the units were completed.
Koretz said he, too, has never heard of an example in which unrestricted building had a downward effect on housing prices. Instead, he predicted, SB 50 “will devastate single family housing” in Los Angeles, as well as our locally designated Historic Preservation Zones. (SB 50 would exempt properties and districts designated historic before 2010, but many of our local HPOZs, including those in the Carthay neighborhoods, Miracle Mile, Windsor Square, Wilshire Park and others, were designated after that time and would not be protected.)
In addition, Koretz noted SB 50’s elimination of parking requirements would mean the addition of many more units where residents would be forced to park on the street, increasing congestion. He said the bill is based on the theory that if you build new housing close to transit, people will be more willing to give up their cars and take public transportation…but that only works if you build housing for the people most likely to use transit – those with lower incomes. People who can afford market rate housing, he said, are much more likely to own and continue to drive their cars.
Also, Koretz said, while the city has been working hard to increase its tree canopy, eliminating single family lots with yards, as well as the size of setbacks for larger buildings, would significantly reduce the land available for planting, and would “devastate” our tree canopy. In addition, while SB 50 does exempt fire zones from its densification measures, it does not specifically exempt hillside areas, where increasing density could also have disastrous effects on local wildlife and wildlife preservation efforts.
Carmen Bordas O’Connor – Resident/Teacher/Single Parent
The next panelist was Carmen Bordas O’Connor, a local resident, teacher and single mother, who contended that SB 50 “dismisses and disregards,” community members who are strugging with housing affordability, and will do nothing to help them. O’Connor agreed with the other panelists that SB 50 does not address affordability issues “at all,” and that it will simply open up more land to developers…which means people seeking housing are competing with corporate real estate interests for that land and “the people will lose.” As the other speakers did before her, O’Connor implored audience members to contact their elected representatives to speak out against SB 50. “What these senators are doing is an absolute betrayal of the people they’re supposed to be serving,” she said.
John Mirisch – Beverly Hills Mayor
In perhaps the most animated remarks of the evening, Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch agreed with others that SB 50’s approach to our housing crisis is unlikely to have the desired effects, but he reserved particular anger for the state-level representatives who are promoting it. Mirisch, riffing on the popular NIMBY/YIMBY (Not in My Back Yard/Yes, in My Back Yard) designations, called himself a “SOOMBY ” — someone who wants to get “Sacramento Out of My Back Yard.” He suggested that state representatives from northern California, which would be much less affected by SB 50 than larger cities and counties in Southern California, should be more concerned with the “hyper low density” in their own towns and cities, and less with cities that are already increasingly dense and diverse.
Mirisch also hit the “trickle down” note, saying such theories didn’t work in economics and definitely won’t work in other areas like medicine or housing, where caring for or building for only our wealthiest residents will do nothing to help those with fewer resources.
In addition, Mirisch noted that there are currently more than 200 bills in the state legislature dealing with housing issues, and said “playing whack-a-mole” with that many proposals at one time is also not the path to effective city planning. And simply building more and more market rate housing, he said, is just “digging the hole deeper” when it comes to affordability. “Providing more Rolls Royces is not going to reduce the price of Priuses,” he said several times.
Instead, said Mirisch, truly resilient and sustainable cities need a variety of housing choices for their residents…but SB 50 would “impose housing choices on all of us.” “This is a Howard Beale moment,” said Mirisch, referring to the angry TV anchorman character in the movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Finally, Mirisch said that if SB 50 does pass, he would advocate for a ballot measure allowing people to vote on whether control of local zoning should remain with local cities.
Brad Kane – President of the South Carthay Neighborhood Association and the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council
The final featured speaker of the evening was Brad Kane, President of both the South Carthay Neighborhood Association and the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council, who also moderated the overall event.
In his own remarks, Kane presented a list of 12 potential alternatives to SB 50, which he said could be much more effective at addressing our current housing issues. The 12 points included:
- Declare a two-year moratorium on new developer incentives, so developers would be more likely to build the more than 100,000 units that both Kane and others said have already been permitted by the city, but which developers have been holding off on building because they’re hoping for new incentives like SB 50 that could increase even further the size and density of their potential projects.
- Create a revolving loan fund to help incentivize single family home owners to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their R1 and R2 lots, which could add thousands more new housing units without any further upzoning.
- Institute a “progressive tiered vacancy tax” on unoccupied residential units. Kane said some current estimates are that as many as 40-50% of new market rate apartments are currently vacant. The tax would encourage owners to lower rents and get tenants into those units rather than leaving them vacant for long periods of time.
- Impose at 15% tax on the purchase of residential property by foreign coporations, as well as people who have lived in the U.S. less than five years, or who are not citizens or permanent residents.
- Work harder to find the “right balance between luxury and affordable housing, without giving away the farm.”
- Create an infrastructure plan and figure out who will pay (and how they will pay) for the additional utilities, street maintenance, etc. that increased density will require.
- Audit and enforce the use of officially designated “affordable” housing units in the city, which is currently not being done, to make sure they’re being used as they’re supposed to be.
- Create a “transparent and fair” application process for officially-designated affordable housing units. (“Sunshine is the guiding principle in all of this,” said Kane.)
- Preserve existing housing units, Historic Cultural Monuments and HPOZs.
- Correct what Kane contended are incorrect population projections for the city.
- Repeal Article 34 of the California State Constitution, which requires voter approval before publicly funded low income housing can be built in a community, which makes such housing very hard to build.
- Require developers to have “good faith” meetings about their projects with local communities, within 60 days of proposing a project, to discuss design and mitigation issues.
Kane said the overall goal should be to figure out how to create more rent-controlled housing units, because whenever the number of such units decreases (as it does when older homes are torn down to build new ones), homelessness increases.
“Sacramento is saying we can’t be trusted to make decisions for ourselves,” Kane said, but “we want them to know that if they don’t oppose this now…we will vote no on every politician who supports SB 50.”
Following the five main panelists on Tuesday, there were two additional speakers who made briefer presentations.
The first, Konstantin Hatcher, representing California YIMBY, one of the biggest pro-SB 50 advocacy groups, said that he grew up in the Carthay area, in a family of modest means, so he knows what a great place it is. Today, however, he said many people with moderate incomes – such as teachers and firefighters – can’t afford to live here any more, and senior citizens can’t afford to retire here. SB 50, he said, would increase the housing supply, so that housing prices would go down and residents could “welcome more neighbors into our communities.”
Hatcher also noted that the latest amended version of SB 50 would exempt any building in which there had been rental tenants in the last seven years (or 12 years if there had been an Ellis Act eviction at the property), which would help to preserve most multi-family properties, even duplexes and triplexes. Also, he contended that SB 50’s requirements for proximity to major rail and bus routes would exempt even larger swaths of residential neighborhoods, so that it would apply to far fewer single-family neighborhoods than its opponents have implied. And, finally, he noted that certain “sensitive communities” (e.g. low income areas) would also be exempt, which would help those areas maintain their relative affordability.
In summary, Hatcher said SB 50 is still making its way through the legislature, and will continue to be amended as it goes, so it “will only get better as we go.” He said it will bring “more neighbors” and “relief for working families” to our neighborhoods…and that people should learn more about it before opposing it. “Don’t listen to the talking points,” Hatcher said. “Look at the bill. Do your due diligence.”
Winding up the formal presentations, attorney Hydee Feldstein said that most SB 50 opponents do not dispute that the city needs to add about 100,000 housing units, but just disagree about “how and where we build.” Rebutting several of Hatcher’s contentions, Feldstein noted that the city does not have any sort of current tenant registry, so tracking which properties might or might not have had tenants, or Ellis Act evictions, in recent years would be next to impossible. And even if multi-family buildings were protected by such a provision, she said, it would do nothing to protect most owner-occupied single-family properties, which could become even more vulnerable to replacement by fourplexes and larger buildings.
Also, Feldstein said, developers would still be able to apply for things like density bonuses (made possible a few years ago by the SB1818 state law), which would increase building sizes even further than the limits being proposed by SB 50. And finally, she said, the term “sensitive communities” is currently still open to interpretetation and definition by Sacramento lawmakers. Also, as currently proposed, the exemption for those areas would be only for five years, during which they would be required to write their own plans for densification…and failure to do so would result in them being covered by SB 50’s provisions anyway.
Q & A
After the formal presentations, the panelists fielded questions from between 15 and 20 attendees, most but not all of whom also spoke in opposition to SB 50 and on topics – growth, densification, imposition of state-level mandates on local municipalities, and the effects of less restrictive development on various communities – which had been addressed earlier. But there were some new issues raised, too, during the Q & A. They included:
- How much growth and denisfication the city can the handle? In response, Mirisch quoted economist Kenneth Boulding, who famously said, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
- Why don’t one-size-fits-all rules work? Mirisch compared cities to individual human beings, saying that if everyone were required to weigh 300 pounds, despite their indiviual shape or size, it wouldn’t work very well.
- What could SB 50 mean for other communities…like Venice (where the speaker was from)? Feldstein said concerns about densification are especially valid in such areas, and that SB 50 could spur Miami Beach-style growth in our coastal communities, which is something people haven’t discussed widely yet.
- What’s wrong with turning single-family homes into fourplexes? Koretz said the four new units would be both smaller and more expensive than the old unit..and that prices on nearby homes would rise, too, to match those of the new units.
- What would happen to small local businesses if SB 50 passes? According to O’Connor, many small “mom and pop” businesses don’t yet realize that SB 50, and the new buildings it would spark along business corridors (which are often major transit routes), would mean that even more small business owners would be pushed out by teardowns and rising rents for their spaces, too.
Finally, the evening’s final speaker, a woman in her 70s, had no specific question, but did have a very familiar story. She said she’s a longtime area resident, still works because she can’t afford to retire, and worries that if she gets displaced from her relatively affordable rental unit, she won’t be able to afford a new apartment. It’s a story Angelenos hear increasingly frequently these days…and it’s what’s truly at the heart of the ongoing housing debates.