Big Gains, But Much More Needed
After spending 2019 promoting my affordability solutions in Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, I believe progress is being made.
Nationally, housing advocates did a super job getting Democratic presidential candidates to announce housing plans in the year before the election. Kudos to Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 for assembling a huge national coalition, and for the National Low Income Housing Coalition for initiating the process.
Here is my city and state housing scorecard for 2019.
The Good News
2019 saw major election victories for pro-housing candidate slates in Boulder and Cambridge (See “Pro-Housing Candidates—Outside Seattle–Win Big,” November 6) and Austin ended the year with an initial 7-4 City Council vote for long overdue land use reform.The new code “envisions a future with more multi-unit housing and fewer single-family homes.”
As Minneapolis showed one year ago when it ended exclusionary single family zoning, local elections make a huge difference (it got overlooked in 2019, but Minneapolis’ 2040 Plan also increased housing beyond legalizing triplexes)
Cambridge should now pass its citywide 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, Austin will get land use reform, and Boulder is on a path to greater inclusion. Early in 2019 Austin Councilmember Gregorio Casar spearheaded an Affordability Unlocked rezoning and density bonus plan that has already resulted in new projects.
Culver City, which also had a shift to a pro-housing council in 2018, spent 2019 enacting rent control and just cause eviction laws and backing much higher regional housing goals. Culver City is moving in a very urbanist direction, a positive model for its neighboring Los Angeles.
Oregon set a national standard by eliminating exclusionary zoning statewide. The state also enacted statewide just cause eviction along with anti-rent gouging. Oregon began 2019 banning cities from enacting rent control and just cause protections so a remarkable turnaround occurred. Credit to the Oregon Housing Alliance, Sightline, and many other activist groups. And a special shout out to Tina Kotek, the legislative leader who pushed both housing measures.
In March, Seattle finally passed its HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) program (it was delayed by a lawsuit for a year). Generation Priced Out describes why HALA offers a model for other cities by using density bonuses to promote production and affordability. This is a particularly valuable strategy for offering tenants rent control protections in the many cities lacking such laws (Washington is among the over 40 states ban local rent controls).
Because HALA passed after Minneapolis raised the bar on land use reform, its failure to end exclusionary zoning left some disappointed. Seattle’s major upzoning now seemed less of a breakthrough, as only 6 percent of the city’s single-family neighborhoods (which cover about 65 percent of Seattle) are impacted by the new zoning. But HALA’s upzonings will significantly increase Seattle’s housing supply.
Seattle remains a work in progress on housing affordability. The lack of local rent control and just cause eviction protections is an obstacle that only a change in state law can address. Greater inclusion also remains restricted by “progressive” homeowners insistent on keeping exclusionary zoning (I addressed this in “Are ‘Progressive’ Homeowners Really Progressive?“, October 1). Yet the city builds roughly twice as much housing as San Francisco. My book attributes this to an approval process designed to build housing, not delay or stop it like in San Francisco.
New York enacted its most important strengthening of rent control laws in decades. It forever changed the housing debate in New York City by ending state control of the city’s rent law. Tenant groups challenged anti-tenant state Democrats in the 2018 primaries and replaced them with allies; massive state organizing by Housing Justice for All and other groups then won long overdue legislative victories for tenants.
California passed AB 1482, its most sweeping tenant protection measure ever. I’ve been involved in local and state rent control politics since the late 1970’s and never thought California would enact statewide just-cause. The statewide rent cap is well above inflation (5% plus CPI) but cities can lower this amount. Passing local rent control laws becomes a lot easier with just cause eviction laws and rent caps already in place.
How did this huge step forward for affordability happen? As I explain in “Why CA Tenants Won Big in 2019,” September 17, housing production groups played a huge role in passing the state’s tenant protection legislation.This occurred through the CASA (Committee to House the Bay Area) Compact process whose agenda focused on the “three P’s,” production, preservation and protection.
I wrote in January 2019 that a CASA Compact process “that imposes statewide just cause eviction with a cap on rent increases was probably seen by development types as a huge concession to tenants. Landlord groups certainly felt so, which is why they are leading the CASA opposition.” No way AB1482 passes without housing developers strongly pushing it.
Yet developers’ success at protecting tenants was not matched by California passing legislation to meaningfully increase housing production. The state did pass critical ADU legislation (which allows new 800 and 500 square foot units on every parcel), but did not follow Oregon’s lead and end exclusionary zoning. And housing permits statewide fell sharply in 2019 from their already deficient state.
There was legislation that would have legalized fourplexes statewide and boosted production, but SB50 was unexpectedly shelved in the State Senate. Efforts to pass it have been revived, but it has to happen by January 30, 2020.
The debate over SB50—whose core provisions promote increased height and density along transit corridors—- speaks volumes as to why California cities suffer extreme affordability and traffic problems. Opponents have no alternative strategy for significantly increasing infill housing, which is essential to reduce the greenhouse gas causing long car commutes. As Los Angeles’ traffic and affordability gets steadily worse, its elected officials insist on banning new apartments in most neighborhoods.
While the state fiddled, some major California cities showed progress. Oakland is building more housing than much larger San Francisco. The YIMBY Democrats of San Diego (See “Lessons From San Diego: Building the YIMBY Movement,” Feb. 12) have become a political force to be reckoned with. They are backing a very strong pro-housing mayoral candidate, Todd Gloria, whose election would continue the city’s urbanist direction. San Jose made gains under pro-housing mayor Sam Liccardo as pro-housing forces effectively mobilized community groups, tech, and the nonprofit housing sector to move housing to center stage; San Jose Spotlight has a good summary of the city’s progress.
Finally, our 2019 scorecard would not be complete without noting how chapters of Habitat for Humanity intensified their advocacy focus. Habitat is pushing locally and at the state level for increased density and heights, and Habitat’s Cost of Home campaign is boosting national advocacy efforts, including support for Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020. I wrote about Habitat’s expanded direction for Shelterforce, “Habitat for Humanity Steps into Housing Politics,” Oct 22.
2019 had its share of disappointments. Among the biggest was in blue-state Massachusetts. The state is losing thousands of desperately needed housing units due to an undemocratic state law that requires super-majority approval for housing rezonings. This despite the state’s launching of the democratic town meeting and widespread recognition of the racist origins of super-majority requirements for housing..
Massachusetts’ Republican Governor has backed a “Housing Choice” bill to restore majority rule. But he could not even get a floor vote on the bill in 2019. Most troubling is opposition to the bill from “progressives” who feel that other tenant protection measures should be included.
What have these “progressives” won for tenants by holding the Housing Choice bill hostage? Nothing. But they have stopped a lot of working and middle-class residents from living in the cities where they work and from getting housing that is more affordable.
Also disappointing is the continuing sense of denial expressed by local elected officials in the “progressive” bastions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Generation Priced Out explains why both cities fail to build enough housing and homeowner opposition to new apartments remains strong. When I ask opponents of density in both cities what their plans are to reduce long car commutes into the city I get no response. We now have 120,000 daily car commuters from Sacramento to the Bay Area and the longest traffic into LA that people have ever seen.
Yet local officials in both cities are content to worsen climate change rather than support the legalizing of apartments in exclusionary-zoned neighborhoods. District-elected officials in both cities care more keeping boomer homeowners satisfied than with preserving our planet.
With Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all calling for an end to exclusionary zoning, preserving such elitist laws is clearly not “progressive.” Yet 2019 showed that national perspectives on left housing policy are often not shared locally.
Connecting housing policy and climate policy remains a work in progress. I look forward to further gains next year.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron
Filed under: National Politics