Are special interests blocking housing reforms? Or is public opposition?

Should land owners be able to put up small apartment buildings in single-family areas? A powerful state senator says no.

The belief that California has a profound housing crisis took hold in the state’s media and political establishments in recent years after Census Bureau statistics showed the Golden State had the highest effective rate of poverty once cost of living was included.

The view was amplified by stories about four-hour commutes forced by housing costs and about shocking numbers of poor college students who struggled to pay for food.

That’s why the decision last week by state Senate Appropriations Chairman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, to kill Senate Bill 50 – the latest attempt to spur housing construction by limiting local control of approvals
– came as a surprise to many. That included the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. His push to ease rules to allow four-to-five-story apartment buildings near public transit centers and to allow construction of such units in many zones previously reserved for single-family homes had won support from not just developers but construction labor unions, several large-city Democratic mayors and some activist groups. Many were skeptics of Wiener’s and Gov. Jerry Brown’s previous attempts to limit local control.

Stories about Portantino’s decision focused on the fact that leaders of cities in his district, starting with Pasadena, had been vociferous opponents of Senate Bill 50. Reports also focused on the formidable influence of environmental groups, which prefer strict zoning rules to give them more clout to block development.

These arguments are common. In August 2016, when Brown’s attempt to sharply streamline the approval process for housing projects died in the Legislature, Shamus Roller, executive director of Housing California, blasted “the political gamesmanship of powerful interests.”

Californians ‘must be convinced of benefits’ of adding housing

But another view is that then-state Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor knew what he was talking about in March 2017 when he issued a report on the failure of local governments to meet housing mandates that said major change was unlikely “unless Californians are convinced of the benefits of more home building.” Instead of seeing the failure of housing reforms as a result of special-interest machinations, Taylor argued that elected leaders who backed such measures hadn’t cultivated the public support necessary to enact major changes.

Taylor’s thesis was supported by a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of Californians released in October that found little belief that the housing crisis was due to a lack of building. It was the sixth-most cited reason, falling far behind the top two: the lack of rent control in much of the state and inadequate “affordable housing” programs. Two-thirds of those surveyed supported local control of housing approvals even if cities or counties weren’t meeting state mandates for new housing construction.

Still, Wiener said he wasn’t daunted by Portantino’s decision. He said he would bring another housing reform measure to the state Senate in 2020. The former San Francisco supervisor, a Harvard law graduate, also said he thought Senate Bill 50 had a chance of being resurrected this summer, even though appropriation chairs of the Senate and Assembly have a long history of making their decisions stick.

“We’re either serious about solving this crisis, or we aren’t,” he told reporters in Sacramento last week. “At some point, we will need to make the hard political choices necessary for California to have a bright housing future.”


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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 21 May, 2019, 10:24

    Where should I begin?

    First of all, Property Rights, being sacred because given by God as a right inherent in Liberty (human instinct includes a territorial imperative, and the Ten Commandments says we are not to steal or covet our neighbor’s house or land), are not an open-ended license to do whatever we wish with our property.

    Most importantly, we may not cause harm to our neighbors or their property. This goes both ways. In ancient times, land use decisions were worked out mostly one case at a time and if the neighbors did not want a tannery in the middle of town, they would make sure that it was built outside of town, and downwind.

    In principle, zoning is not an unreasonable policy to establish orderly development. On the one hand, it protects property owners who are already there. On the other, it tells potential real estate and business interests what may or may not be done on a particular site so they can make rational decisions. It is meant to prevent unnecessary disputes and save, time, money and hardship.

    Limits on new development have been hard won by homeowners, neighborhood associations, local governments, preservationists, conservationists, and community activists. This is only way we’ve had to protect our homes and neighborhoods from bad land use decisions for the past seventy years. Even so, local government officials tend to overthrow existing law to allow inappropriate development around residential, rural, agricultural and recreational areas, anyway.

    That is because they have been trained by the National League of Cities to view the people they represent as tax-revenue generating units instead of citizens with rights. In California, from the 1950s to 2011, the Redevelopment Bulldozer–a.k.a.: the eminent domain-abuse machine–was in the business of destroying viable neighborhoods to make way for sports arenas, hotels, movie theaters, big box stores, shopping centers, auto malls, high-rise offices and other large-scale private projects.

    Most were a dismal failure at generating additional tax revenue–most of them merely displaced existing local businesses and residential areas. Even the residential projects. And now, after eight years without Redevelopment to smooth the path for building affordable housing in all the wrong places, government officials are still brainwashed with the notion that without their ministrations local economies would fail.

    This makes it easy to convince them that single-family residential homeowners objecting to allowing their neighbors to build second units and apartments are unreasonable. Because the bottom line in all this, the proposed affordable housing policy is not about building more housing. It is about increasing tax revenue for the local treasury at the expense of the well-being of the taxpayers, people like you and me. The destruction of viable communities is not good for a city, either.

    So, the next time somebody is called a “NIMBY” (not in my back yard), maybe Libertarians should think twice before complaining about zoning restrictions. The next property owner to suffer from unregulated development may be you.

    Government is here to protect our rights, not threaten them. And all our rights and Liberty are reciprocal–your right to do what you want extends only as far as somebody else’s. If you respect one another’s rights, then Liberty can prevail. If the government favors one of you over somebody else’s, then it is abusing its power.

    Liberty and the Golden Rule are both considered principles of reciprocity. We are not talking about material equality, but of equality in the sight of the Law.

    “Liberty is a power to do as we would be done by.”
    John Adams, 1819

    Reply this comment
  2. Charles Lung
    Charles Lung 21 May, 2019, 10:29

    The sad fact of the polling results dealing with solutions, is just another example of the death of basic economic education. Rent control and government housing will never solve the problem of pricing.

    Reply this comment
  3. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 21 May, 2019, 12:48

    Nonsense. Government fees, school fees, assorted fanatics all along the line…

    Tried to add three units to a huge two unit lot.

    Approved by planning department….but whoa…, the neighborhood beautification zealots wouldn’t approve without $38,000. of added nonsense hardscape and plants.

    Well. I walked. No negotiation. No comment. Walked

    The property is now, a few years later, part of a dastardly, declining, unsafe neighborhood ghetto.

    Reply this comment
  4. Robert See Allen
    Robert See Allen 22 May, 2019, 15:59

    The moratorium on SB 50 is well deserved.

    Ample parking at BART stations is far more important than housing. Most commuters can easily drive – even several miles – from their home to BART. (They can’t from BART to their job site.)

    Outlying BART stations can thus be farther apart, making the rapid transit trip much faster and more viable.

    With development around the station, surface parking can go into structures; land becomes available for commercial use without razing homes and disrupting neighborhoods.

    Robert S. Allen
    BART Director, District 5, 1974-1988.
    223 Donner Avenue
    Livermore, CA 94551-4240
    925-449-1387, but email contact is far better.

    Reply this comment
  5. Queeg
    Queeg 22 May, 2019, 17:24


    Go to shop worn Socialist Spain

    Little parking in cities and the worst of the worst looking serf filled apartment dumps.

    Not as bad as Russia apartment gulags though!!!!

    Northern California better wake up….between getting crispy fried by utility miscues or becoming mobility/domicile helpless due to continual feel good land planning disasters….pretty sorry-

    Reply this comment
    • Standing Fast
      Standing Fast 22 May, 2019, 19:59

      My dear Comrade Queeg,

      Well spoke, as has been your custom. Did you know that in Russia, the first five floors of an apartment building are reached only by stairways. Elevators are available only from the fifth floor up.

      As for the troubles of our friends in Northern California, if you stick with your southern comrades, we won’t abandon you. But we would sure like it better if you stopped bossing us around. Please don’t expect us to abandon our back-country ways.

      Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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