Annie Lowrey: California is becoming unlivable
This deficiency has driven a cost-of-living crisis, leading to long commutes, desolate retail corridors, plunging net worths, bankruptcies, and shortages of child care, elder care, and other services. The average home in California sells for more than $600,000—far out of reach for many families. In San Francisco, the average sales price is $1.6 million. Spiking rents and hefty mortgage payments have worsened the state’s inequality, dimmed the economic prospects of millions and millions of families, and fueled the growth of the state’s homeless or housing-insecure population. There are 130,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day in California, despite the state’s strong economic growth.
Any number of trends have collided to foster the housing shortage: surging income and wealth inequality, in-migration, growing construction costs. But in policy terms, there is one central culprit: zoning regulations, including local oversight rules. Neighborhoods have the ability to kibosh too many projects, and zoning rules favor sprawl over infill housing.
S.B. 50 would override local restrictions on building, letting developers create more housing and denser housing near train stations and high-frequency bus stops. Homeowners would be able to build accessory dwelling units or casitas; companies would be able to build small apartment complexes. The bill stalled in the California legislature last year. But earlier this month State Senator Scott Wiener announced changes that would give localities more flexibility in implementing the law, provided that they allow as much construction as S.B. 50 itself would allow, and would ensure that low-income residents get access to the new housing.
The bill is a technical one, steeped in arcana on parking requirements, height limits, and bus frequencies. But it would be a transformative one, both its detractors and its supporters agree. It would effectively disallow single-family zoning in many neighborhoods. It would force wealthy suburbs to permit the construction of apartment buildings and duplexes. And it would reorient the state’s growth away from sprawl toward infill. Housing would get more plentiful, and thus cheaper.
Its detractors sit in two camps. Tenants-rights groups and low-income-housing advocates argue that S.B. 50 would not do enough to create housing for the poor, and might supercharge displacement in neighborhoods where even high-income residents are seeing themselves priced out. “Incentivizing more luxury development and inflating property values in San Francisco will further exacerbate real estate speculation, which has already played a key role in displacing low and moderate-income tenants, immigrants, seniors and families across California,” argues the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, which advocates for tenants.