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‘Legalize Apartments’ ~ How Another Attempt to Triage the Housing Crisis Died in Committee

10:48 AM PDT on May 20, 2019

[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]alifornia’s zoning laws for building housing are a mess. There are 533 individual cities and counties in the state, and they all have different zoning laws from each other, a lot of them designed from the 1920s to the 1980s to try as best they could to excluded lower income people from entering certain neighborhoods.

This boils down to communities resisting new housing construction, and it shows: California is ranked 49th only ahead of Utah in U.S. states' per capita supply of housing. We're just not building enough to meet demand, which is pushing people out of California or onto the streets.

Senate Bill 50, proposed by state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), would have tried to alleviate some of that mess by requiring that some cities across the state lift their restrictive zoning ordinances. It would have allowed for the construction of more apartment buildings, duplexes, and other multifamily housing units in single-family zoned neighborhoods, especially near transit centers or so-called jobs rich areas.

But late last week the bill was killed in the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee. It will have to be brought back and voted on next year.

The chairman of the appropriations committee is Sen. Anthony Portantino, who represents the foothill communities of Claremont, Burbank, Glendale, and La Cañada Flintridge. In a statement after killing the bill, Portantino said he was doing so at the behest of local governments.

"There were legitimate concerns expressed from both large and small cities about the scope of SB 50 as it pertained to bus corridors, historic preservation, the definition of ‘jobs rich’ neighborhoods and whether it would increase gentrification and discourage light rail expansion as unintended consequences; all of which justified the pause established today by the committee," the senator said.

In response, Weiner promised to press forward. “It’s unfortunate that one chairperson has so much power,” said Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, Weiner's communications director. “Anytime you try to take a little bit of power from local governance they fight you, but they haven’t been doing anything good with that power."

Ruiz-Cornejo added: “This is about saying that the entire state is in a housing crisis and we all have to do our part to solve it. This is saying legalize apartments.”

RELATED: Mayor Shut Down: Shouting Housing Activists Force Garcetti to Cut Short Speech at USC

Los Angeles is defined by low-rise sprawl zoned for single-family homes. Photo via WikiCommons.

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]In Los Angeles, zoning laws developed since the 1920s require that a little under 50 percent of the available land for housing development only be developed for single family houses. This is a practically sacred policy that, coupled with a history of racist ordinances, caused the economic and racial segregation we see throughout the city today. Powerful homeowners associations have led the resistance against higher density housing ever since.

Studies show that across the state 3.5 million homes will have to be build by 2025 to keep up with the state’s population, and 1.4 million new affordable housing units will have to be built, along with protecting the state’s existing affordable housing stock, to protect millions of Californians burdened by the state’s ridiculously high median rent of $2,225 a month.

Despite all the evidence before them, the issue for many city governments with SB50 was the notion of losing of “local control” for zoning rules. City Councils just don’t want to cede so much authority to the state. Last month the entire L.A. City Council voted unanimously on a resolution to oppose SB 50, saying that the bill would create more market-rate housing, and not protect or build more affordable housing.

The positions on all sides leave housing-starved Californians desperate for relief. The organization California YIMBY, an advocate for more housing development, found in a survey that 66 percent of voters supported the bill, and 61 percent supported the idea that more housing should be built around the state in general.

“They don’t support it, but they don’t have another plan. They have piecemeal plans,” Alissa Walker, Urbanism editor for Curbed LA, said in an interview with L.A. Taco. “I don’t have a lot of faith in municipalities to take on the housing crisis, because a lot of them think they need to prevent growth and prevent people from moving into them.”

The bill does include a section breaking down how many affordable housing units would have to be included in apartments with more than 21 units. Out of 45,820 housing units built in Los Angeles since 2013, only one in ten have been affordable units. That’s far short of the city’s proposed goals, especially in light of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s ambitious Green New Deal for L.A. That plan promises to build 15,000 units of affordable housing by 2021 — and 45,000 by 2035.

“Forcing them to grow seems like a good idea, but some people just don’t care,” Walker said. “The city should talk about building duplexes and fourplexes everywhere, and just starting to dream a little bit about what we can do ... but let’s not have to build parking spaces for those fourplexes too.”

If SB 50 was not the best solution to the housing and affordability crisis, it certainly could have helped. We'll have to wait and see if California's political leaders, and maybe even one from L.A., can get it together and do something about this perpetually growing crisis.

RELATED: 13,000 People Left L.A. County Between 2017 and 2018, Census Says

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