Fighting for Housing in America
By Conor Dougherty
In California, more than 100,000 people sleep on the streets. The tent cities in Los Angeles’s skid row have distinct neighborhoods, and across from a homelessness center, the bodies on the sidewalk are four rows deep. Trailers line the streets near Google’s Mountain View headquarters, and in Modesto, a woman sleeping in a cardboard box was crushed to death by a front loader that came to clear her encampment away.
It’s hard to overstate how dire California’s housing crisis is. To combat it, policymakers must consider a complicated intersection of issues, including the displacement of vulnerable populations, maintaining the character of neighborhoods, the environment, affordability. But there’s only one answer: more housing. To end the crisis, 3.5 million new homes must be built. However, as Conor Dougherty shows in “Golden Gates,” his study of the housing shortage plaguing San Francisco, America’s most prosperous city, the Bay Area is beset by hypocritical homeowners and the paradoxes of progressivism. Too often the important issues aren’t so much weighed as weaponized in the war against new development. Dougherty has covered this quagmire extensively for The New York Times, and “Golden Gates” is both an empathetic portrait of all sides — legislators, developers, pro-housing and anti-gentrification activists — as well as a masterly primer on the fight for new construction in California.
Look at Dougherty’s chapter on the semirural Bay Area suburb of Lafayette. In 2011, it went nuclear over a proposal to build 14 buildings and 315 apartments. The developer, Dennis O’Brien, knew how protectionist Lafayette was; like so many other suburbs and cities within cities (Lakewood, Beverly Hills), Lafayette had incorporated, as Dougherty writes, expressly to “wrest land-use power from the county” — of Contra Costa — “and put a stop to growth.” It worked. While Lafayette’s population more than tripled between 1950 and 1965 (from 5,000 to 19,000), after its incorporation in 1968 it has stayed steady at 25,000. Residents decried O’Brien’s proposed project on the grounds of aesthetics, traffic congestion, protecting the school system and carcinogenic construction dust.
But O’Brien had been building in the Bay Area since the 1960s, and he had a plan. He notified the city that he intended to offer below-market rents and that if Lafayette opposed him, he would sue under the Housing Accountability Act. This was a forgotten law that Jerry Brown had signed at the end of his first tenure as governor in 1982. It allowed cities to be sued for thwarting high-density development.
Lafayette’s city manager, who would eventually lose his job over this dispute, reached out to O’Brien, and after numerous discussions, alighted on a compromise: a new plan for 44 single-family homes, and O’Brien would kick in a sports field and a dog park.
But O’Brien’s initial threat had made headlines and the Housing Accountability Act had caught the attention of Sonja Trauss, an audacious housing activist who had been bravely commandeering the mics at City Council meetings. “Thirty-five years of wonky liberals trying to induce localities to build housing has been a complete failure,” one fellow activist said. “So, why not just sue the suburbs?”
Which is what Trauss did. But by the time the case made its way through the court system, Lafayette’s NIMBY residents had collected enough signatures to demand a referendum to overturn the City Council’s approval of the 44 houses. O’Brien vowed to revive his original 315-apartment plan if the referendum passed. The “Save Lafayette” activists didn’t believe him, but when the referendum passed, that’s just what he did. Both the NIMBYs and the pro-housing YIMBYs had shot themselves in the feet. And the developer hadn’t won either. He’d already invested four years and several million dollars proposing two completely different projects. Now, it would likely take years and more lawsuits if the 315 units were to be built.
Dougherty expertly explains the confluence of microeconomic and historical forces that have created a housing shortage so severe that it’s rendered the most prosperous state in the country the poorest when adjusted for cost of living. To challenge readers to consider how change might be achieved, he features two very different YIMBYs. Trauss, the passionate but abrasive activist who rose to national prominence with her slash-and-burn tactics, raises the question, how far does one need to go to get results and how far is too far?, while the dryly diligent California state senator Scott Wiener shows how difficult it is to correct course legislatively. His much-needed bill to give the state control over zoning near transportation hubs, like BART stations and popular bus stops, in order to streamline the approval of tall, dense housing complexes, failed at the end of January for the third year in a row.
Anywhere else in the country, Wiener, who supports single-payer health care, state-sponsored abortion and fracking bans, would be considered a progressive. But in Los Angeles and San Francisco, liberals are divided into hyperlocal factions that war over hyperlocal issues, and the meaning of “progressive” has become distorted. There, Wiener is labeled a moderate because he is comfortable with growth, while “progressives” want it all to stop. Only in California’s paradoxical politics could “rich homeowners who fought for the sanctity of single-family zoning … be in alignment with poor renters fighting gentrification.”
Locking down the city, however, is what brought California to the crisis in the first place, Dougherty argues. During the Great Inflation of the 1970s, when living expenses became unstable, factory jobs disappeared and C.E.O. pay began its exorbitant rise, home prices also spiked and, for the first time, outpaced stock performance. According to Dougherty, two things happened to homes: They became not just dwellings but strategic investments — ones that represented the bulk of American household wealth. As a result, cities, driven by “homevoters” — essentially single-issue voters who wanted to protect their property values — began passing zoning ordinances to limit growth and “protect neighborhoods.” Because stunting growth leads to higher property taxes, a vast number of suburbs and neighborhoods incorporated in order to control local land use and zone out poor people (whose social services raise property taxes). And in 1978, homevoters passed Proposition 13, capping property taxes. The result? By 2018, the Bay Area created eight new jobs for each one unit of housing and in California, 130,000 were without a home.
Would San Franciscans rather drive out the tech industry than build more houses? Some, like the activist who jumped onto the hood of a Yahoo bus and vomited down its windshield, certainly would. Tech, with its pseudo-utopian airs and surveillance-profiteering, is a tempting scapegoat. But cities that oppose growth will fall apart or have cripplingly high property taxes. A bill like Wiener’s, Dougherty argues, is the solution. But stakeholders — cities, construction unions and environmental groups (some of which aren’t actually concerned with the environment but are skilled at using California’s environmental laws to thwart construction) — all fear that if building is easier, they’ll lose their leverage. “A complicated process was full of political profit,” Dougherty writes.
“Golden Gates” is essential reading for every Californian, new or native. But will outsiders care? Dougherty’s introduction lays out why they should. “You can’t talk about educational inequities or the shrinking middle class without talking about how much it costs to live near good schools and high-paying jobs,” he writes. The carnivalesque land-use battles that ensnare San Francisco and its semirural suburbs, he points out, are a microcosm of the exasperating land-use issues threatening other thriving economies, like Seattle, Austin and Denver; Vancouver, London and Berlin.
I wish he had continued to connect what’s happening in California with what’s going on elsewhere. But after the introduction, the borders mostly close, and so “Golden Gates” can feel, well, a little local. Perhaps that’s the point. At the moment, housing policy is primarily dictated by local jurisdictions that act like fiefs. Local jurisdictions are made up of idiosyncratic individuals — but, given the will, they can slowly be changed by idiosyncratic individuals, too.
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