Scott Wiener, the California state senator representing San Francisco, has a pretty good idea for how to save the world. In fact, sitting in a coffee shop in his city’s Financial District, Wiener seems downright perplexed that anyone would be against it. Here’s the idea: Build more housing.
So, with his fellow senator Nancy Skinner, he authored a bill, SB 827, that overwrites some metropolitan zoning—putting policies that had been in the hands of cities under the authority of state government—to allow medium-sized multistory and multiunit buildings near transit stops.
Lots of urbanists and housing activists believe the bill will shift California cities into a denser, transit-oriented, multi-use future. But an unlikely coalition has emerged in opposition: homeowners who don’t want their neighborhoods to change and advocates for the lower-income people of color who almost always get hurt by gentrification.
This isn’t some dry policy fight. The mayor of Berkeley called the bill “a declaration of war against our neighborhoods.” A Los Angeles City Council member said it will make the residential areas he represents in LA’s tony Westside “look like Dubai.” A community organizer in LA wrote that Wiener is a “real estate industry puppet” who supports gentrification and displacement, and compared SB 827 to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.
Housing costs are crushing American cities, perhaps nowhere as severely as in California. It’s catastrophic—homes are priced 2.5 times the median in other places; rents are sky high; the population is increasing (but construction of places to live for them is not); poor people are getting pushed out; homelessness is severe, and on the rise.
Wiener says his fix can, over time, address all that without worsening the state’s drumbeat of evictions. And it'll do even more: “If you want to limit carbon and reduce congestion on freeways, the way you do that is by building a lot more housing near public transportation,” he says. “You get less driving, less carbon emissions, less sprawl so you can protect open spaces and farmland, and healthier families.”
It might even work.
Wiener came to San Francisco in the late 1990s, just in time to see the first dot-com boom turn the city into the center of the world and wreak centrifugal havoc, pushing longtime residents out and housing costs up.
As a community activist and then a politician, Wiener saw the other side of the problem. It’s really hard to get anything built in San Francisco. Booms, critical to the state economy because of the tax money they dump into state treasuries, don’t benefit cities the same way. Unemployment falls to nothing, but housing costs rise. The poorest people get forced out by gentrifying newcomers. The current boom, Wiener says, “has caused lasting damage to the culture and diversity of our city.”
"When we push people into areas like Phoenix and Houston, we see the climate impacts, from flooding to sprawl, with people in these high-polluting areas where they don’t necessarily even want to be."
Wiener has been full of ideas to counteract that. He’s behind a bill to make net neutrality a state law and another to let bars stay open until 4 am. (“Great cities have great nightlife,” he says.) He got a bill passed to force California cities to live up to their unenforced commitments to build new housing. And now he’s saying that within walking distance of mass transit, housing shouldn’t be single-family, suburban style. It should be tall, like 45 feet or up to 85, depending on how wide the street is.
The goal, Wiener says, isn't Hong Kong–style high-rises. It's what housing advocates call the “missing middle,” things like side-by-side duplexes, eight-unit apartment buildings, six-story buildings—a building form even San Francisco built plenty of in the early 20th century. Typically these are wood-frame construction, cheaper to build than luxury steel-and-glass high-rises.
If cities don’t build those housing units, other places will. “People first look for cheaper housing as far away from their jobs as they can that is still a reasonably feasible commute,” says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment. “When we push people into areas like Phoenix and Houston, we see the climate impacts, from flooding to sprawl, with people in these high-polluting areas where they don’t necessarily even want to be.”
Denser urban cores, it so happens, are more environmentally responsible. Downtowns have lower per-capita carbon emissions than suburban and rural areas. A household in the heart of Wiener’s district has an average carbon footprint of about 31 tons of CO2 per year. In downtown Phoenix, it’s 34. In suburban Phoenix, it’s 82.
Thanks to global warming, the San Francisco Bay is full of rising seawater. Like Florida and New York, the region faces a future of chronic floods. It also faces fire: Seasonal wildfires like the ones that scorched huge swaths of California this year (including the biggest one in state history) begin at the wildland-urban interface, where human beings build near nature, like in the hills of the East Bay. Spread between mountains and the ocean, Southern California faces similar boundary conditions.
These regions can’t build outward; they have to build inward and upward. After all, one of the fundamental functions of a city is to serve as a bulwark against disaster.
"What you have are two strips of land on both sides of the Bay that are flat, high enough above sea-level rise, and not as prone to fire," says Kim-Mai Cutler, an urbanist and a partner at Initialized Capital. "Longer term, the safest and probably most inclusive way to handle the region's growth is missing-middle or more dense housing along transit lines." (Like many of the people I talked to, Cutler stresses that she's in the "support, if amend" camp on SB 827—pending tenant protections, controls on demolitions, and some way to deal with affordable housing.)
But economics and the law don't accommodate those pressures. Strapped California cities accrue more tax benefits from commercial development than from residential. (As American retail crumbles, “commercial” increasingly means office space and hotels.) Eventually, that pushes out everyone but the richest rich and the poorest poor. “We have offices in cities elsewhere in the US,” says Jeremy Stoppleman, CEO of Yelp and one of 120 signatories to a letter supporting Wiener’s bill. “As someone who lives in California, I’d love to allocate as many positions to San Francisco as possible, but I have to look at performance and retention.”
Yimbys—the “yes in my backyard” supporters of efforts like Wiener’s—slough off aesthetic concerns about “neighborhood character,” sightlines, or the shadows cast by taller buildings. At best, they’ll say, that’s old-people whinging. At worst, this apparent concern for architecture and planning is cover for redlining, keeping affluent neighborhoods closed to young people, lower-income people, and people of color. “It’s areas that have the land values to support multifamily development but don’t want newcomers and more density,” Elkind says. “They’re happy to accept all the benefits of new transit—the property value and benefits it gives them at taxpayer expense—but when it comes to providing housing around those transit networks they consistently say no.”
So the Yimbys instead want more housing to deal with population growth, more transit, more infrastructure, more everything. More city.
Some of the Nimbyism—“not in my backyard” (or, even worse, Banana, as in “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything”)—that Wiener encounters argues that building new housing doesn’t reduce housing prices, because it attracts even more upper-income people. That doesn’t seem true—Seattle’s recent home-building binge apparently lowered rents, for example. Some opponents, like the California Sierra Club, argue that allowing increased density near transit might quash people’s willingness to pay for any new light rail lines at all.
To be fair, not everyone sees value in denser, more urban cities. You might think that having a place to get a coffee and drop off dry cleaning on the way to a bus stop or train is the best, but some city dwellers don't want to see changes like new four- to eight-story apartment buildings. They bring parking difficulties, traffic, and more crowds.
“It’s becoming rapidly apparent to lots of people that, in fact, the Nimbys are greedy, and they benefit dramatically from the housing shortage.”
Because of a state law called Proposition 13 and its follow-ons, Californians pay property tax based on the value of their home when they bought it—not on real-world increases in its value caused by, let’s say, a new subway nearby or a neighborhood suddenly turning “hot.” Now, changes to residential neighborhoods potentially lower the value of the houses there. Maybe young people keen on biking to work want apartments and light rail. But not so much for families with three kids to drop at two different sports practices, or someone who’s lived in the same house for 50 years who can’t easily move away because they’d face a steep increase in property taxes—again, thanks to Prop 13.
To be really fair, though, putative improvements to cities have often benefited the rich at the expense of people who live there—especially people of color. Some of the opposition to Wiener’s SB 827 and the ideas behind it comes from a real concern for displacement, racism, and classism. It’s already happening. Retail stretches of hair salons and dry cleaners at area-appropriate price points begin to give way to the Four Riders of the Gentrification Apocalypse: bike shops, yoga studios, artisanal tchotchke stores, and third-wave coffee.
The history of urban change in the United States is full of examples of low-income neighborhoods getting erased by capitalists in the name of renewal and modernization. Boston’s West End, Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, and San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhoods all used to be vibrant (low-income) communities.
Urban renewal in the mid 20th century didn’t emphasize density or climate change, of course. It was about “blight,” in a literal sense because of the health issues all poor communities face, but also (as the writer Alexis Madrigal has discussed) as a metaphoric term to cover failing infrastructure and economic collapse. But the end was the same.
So the interests of the rich and powerful align here with the interests of disenfranchised people of color—which should be great! Except they’re aligned against the young, new migrants, and the middle class.
Right now it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard. “The Nimby movement for years stifled development and higher-density projects under the guise of ‘developers are greedy,’” Stoppleman says. “It’s becoming rapidly apparent to lots of people that, in fact, the Nimbys are greedy, and they benefit dramatically from the housing shortage.”
For his part, Wiener doesn’t believe that new housing will ruin neighborhoods and displace poor people. And, he says, people in well-to-do areas are co-opting that argument to protect their own interests. “It makes me nuts when I see wealthy Nimby homeowners in Marin and elsewhere suddenly becoming defenders of low-income people of color,” Wiener says. “These are communities that fought tooth and nail to keep low-income people out.”
Still, he knows the bill still needs work. California already gives a bonus to developers for higher density and mixed-income development, and in 2016 Los Angeles passed a law to do more of the same. “It’s very important that this bill not undermine those incentives,” says Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, an attorney with Public Advocates who works on low-income housing issues. “Giving developers of 100-percent market-rate housing the same or greater benefits awarded to mixed-income developments could really undermine the mixed-income development.”
One risk is that SB 827 could increase the speculative value of land near transit. That would give landlords an incentive to tear down cheaper rental housing and build luxury condominiums. Worse, the death-spiral outcome ousts low-income people who live next to a transit station and replaces them with upper-income people, who use the available transit less often, leading to the demise of that transit. On the other hand, inclusionary housing requirements that force developers to subsidize low-income units sometimes scare developers off altogether—as may be happening in Portland, Oregon, for example.
“The rhetoric and tone in the debate has gotten extremely heated,” Tepperman-Gelfant says. The solution: Making sure people in any potentially affected neighborhood, not just richies from the hills, are at the negotiating table. “If we’re going to get good solutions for low-income people of color, they need to be involved in shaping the policy.”
Wiener knows the negotiations aren’t over. Far from it. “I don’t pretend the bill will be in its pristine form by the end,” he says. “And it’s not by any stretch of the imagination guaranteed to pass.”
Cities change. That’s their nature. If California has to add 100,000 houses a year for the foreseeable future, someone’s going to have to goose that change along. Maybe it’ll be the guy trying to keep San Francisco bars open late. “I’m a progressive urbanist, and I embrace cities,” Wiener says. “A city’s character is not just the physicality of a neighborhood. It’s about who lives there.” A city underwater, on fire, with no young people, no families, no people of color, and restricted to only the richest rich and the poorest poor—that’s not a city at all.
Life in the City
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