Los Angeles Desperately Needs SB50

by on December 3, 2019

Long car commutes in Los Angeles

Challenging False Claims of Gentrification and Displacement

Los Angeles has the nation’s worst homelessness and affordability crisis. So why is the city intent on continuing the policies that helped create this situation?

I’m heading to my hometown of Los Angeles this week to mobilize support for California Senate Bill SB 50, which the city desperately needs. The bill increases allowable heights on transit corridors to six stories, legalizes fourplexes and allows more homes to be built on every lot.

Los Angeles residents love the active street life of Paris, Vienna and other European cities where apartments are the norm and single-family homes a rarity.  Yet Los Angeles homeowner groups view SB 50 as an attack on neighborhood “character.” These politically powerful groups insist on maintaining the exclusionary single family home land use policy that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have all denounced as elitist and even racist.

Los Angeles prides itself on being a progressive city. Yet its failure to build enough housing to meet population and job growth has created dire social and environmental consequences. The city has priced out its working and middle-class, forcing workers to live hours away from their jobs. Their long car commutes worsen greenhouse gas emissions and prevent California from meeting its climate change goals.

But the LA City Council thinks all is well. The Council unanimously opposed SB 50 claiming it was “thwarting our current efforts to gather community input and support to customize our local incentive program.”How the state bill stifles community imput is a mystery. And SB 50 does not preempt local housing incentive programs.

Councilmember Paul Koretz represents some of the nation’s wealthiest homeowners and has been a leading opponent of SB 50. He added, “In Los Angeles, we already have densified. We have around 100,000 units [of housing] that have been approved and not built already, so there doesn’t seem to be that much of a point.”

Of course, Koretz and others would have no problem with SB50 if they really believed that it would not result in six story residences on transit corridors and fourplexes getting built. And if the City Council really believes that Los Angeles is meeting its housing demand it needs to explain why its freeways are  clogged by commuters.

Koretz and some of his colleagues need to talk to those commuting one to two hours to city jobs and ask them if they would live closer to their jobs if housing was built they could afford. Limiting buying options in Los Angeles to single-family homes is wrecking affordability and worsening climate change.

Gentrification and Displacement

I’ve found it particularly disappointing that people and groups who share my support for strong rent control, just cause eviction laws and other tenant protections claim that SB50 will displace tenants and promote gentrification. No facts support this claim. No neighborhood in Los Angeles has been gentrified due to the construction of either six story buildings on transit corridors or by allowing new fourplexes.

Instead, as I describe in Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park gentrify without new housing. People priced out of nearby neighborhoods bought Highland Park’s craftsman homes because they were more affordable; that pattern of higher prices in one neighborhood leading buyers to go to the next occurred throughout the city.

The luxury highrise developments that opponents of SB 50 complain about could not be constructed under the bill. Ironically, these projects for the elite have been approved by the same City Council that opposes far more affordable six story residences and fourplexes.

Councilmember Mike Bonin, who my book highlights for his progressive stance on housing the unhoused, said SB 50 “doesn’t do enough to stop displacement.” But SB 50 puts no tenants at risk. Nor does the bill in any way interfere with the Los Angeles City Council enacting new anti-displacement laws.

Affordable Housing Only

Some oppose SB50 because its housing is not 100% “affordable.” But restricting new homes to those with incomes low enough to qualify for subsidized housing ignores the teachers, nurses, first responders and others earning above this amount. These are the workers clogging LA freeways each day and whose struggles for higher wages still do not allow them to live in the city where they work.

SB50 will provide them with lower-cost units than are currently available. And all SB50 buildings over twenty units must include on-site affordable units, a mandatory inclusionary requirement that Los Angeles still lacks. SB 50’s affordable units will give many working and middle-class families their only chance to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s the public and political leaders were adamant that the city did not need to invest in public transit. The city paid a terrible price for that stance. Today, many in the city claim Los Angeles does not need to build a lot more housing, an equally misguided view.

SB50 cannot solve all of Los Angeles’s housing problems, as meaningfully reducing homelessness requires a massive increase in federal dollars and the city can only do so much on its own.  But sharply increasing the supply of homes more affordable than currently available would make Los Angeles a more economically diverse and environmentally sustainable city.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, San Francisco’s leading provider of housing for homeless single adults. He will be debating Charles Loveman on SB50 on December 4 at 6:30 pm at Santa Monica Place, 3rd floor community room.  The event is open to the public. Details here.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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