California housing bill’s failure comes amid fierce debate on how to solve crisis

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<span>Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP</span>
Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

An ambitious bill seeking to combat California’s housing crisis failed in the state senate this week, but the fierce discussion around how the state should solve an intractable and urgent housing shortage is not letting up.

Lawmakers, housing advocates and community groups involved in the debate around housing production fervently demand action, but few agree on a solution.

The dichotomy was apparent earlier this month when a group of housing activists in the city of Oakland crashed a news conference of local lawmakers who were promoting the bill, SB 50.

“What do we want? More housing! When do we want it? Now!” the activists shouted over the legislation’s author, the state senator Scott Wiener.

Among the activists were the homeless women of Moms 4 Housing, the group of mothers who made headlines around the US by occupying a vacant, investor-owned house in Oakland, in part to bring attention to the crippling housing crisis that has led to a surge in homelessness statewide.

SB 50 had been in the works for years and was billed as a way to mitigate that crisis by eliminating zoning restrictions near transportation and job centers to enable the construction of more high-density housing. “The lack of housing, including emergency shelters, is a critical problem that threatens the economic, environmental and social quality of life in California,” the bill read.

On the outset, it would appear that these opposing forces were fighting for the same thing. But when it comes to solving the housing crisis, legislators, tenant unions, housing advocacy groups and community organizations keep running up against a split in philosophies that have fractured the housing debate.

Proponents of SB 50, and bills like it, believe the crux of the housing crisis is a supply-and-demand issue, in part induced by restrictive zoning. Less than a quarter of the developable land in much of California is zoned for multifamily housing. That lack of space for new affordable housing combined with the sprawl of single-family homes has led to high housing costs, community displacement and a growing number of super commuters – people who commute upwards of hundreds of miles to work a day because they can’t afford to live near their jobs.

“We now have a 3.5m home shortage,” Wiener told the Guardian. “We have to build a lot more homes to improve affordability.”

Supporters of this “build more” movement are known as Yimbys, for “yes, in my backyard”. They believe California needs more of all kinds of housing, affordable and market-rate.

“That’s the thing about a shortage,” Laura Foote, executive director of Yimby Action, said. “The new stuff is expensive, the old stuff is expensive. Housing is too expensive right now. If there isn’t a shortage, then landlords can’t get away with charging you what they do. That’s what market power is. The suppliers have all the market power because there’s a shortage, so by flooding the market with housing, we hope to increase the power for consumers.”

But equity groups across the state argue that the solution to the housing crisis can’t be as simple as “build more” – the how, what, where and for whom matter. “What the ‘build, build, build’ mentality completely ignores is the question of power,” said René Moya, campaign director for Housing Is a Human Right. “The supply-and-demand narrative is far too simplistic to account for a housing market that works for different purposes, for different income levels, at a time when housing is increasingly a speculative aspect.”

Critics argue that in the free market, low-income communities rarely benefit. “We know that trickle-down housing doesn’t work and trickle-down economics doesn’t work,” said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union

Tenant groups also say that building more market-rate housing without including stringent, enforceable tenant protections like rent control will put new generations of renters at risk. They fear that up-zoning areas could increase the land value, and prompt other landlords to increase their prices, too.

Being pro-development and pro-tenant protections are not mutually exclusive, Foote said. “Yimbys believe in tenant protections, especially when you talk about passing bills that will get a lot of housing built,” she said. She argued that SB 50 had the strongest tenants protections in any bill that had ever been passed.

Opponents say the protections that were added to SB 50 before it was voted down in the senate to prevent developers from buying properties and demolishing them to build new ones were insufficient.

“Every round of the bill, we kept telling Senator Wiener that the protections were not enforceable,” said Leslie Dreyer, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee. “As the people who fight for tenant protections in the cities, we know.”

Opponents to the Yimby ethos of “build, build, build” are not outright against building more. They reject attempts to paint them as “Nimbys” – “not in my backyard”.

But these groups fear a repeat of history, of out-of-control rents, widespread displacement and a lack of affordable housing. They have seen what happens to communities – in particular, communities of color – when housing is treated as a commodity . During the foreclosure crisis, more than 10,000 buildings in Oakland went into foreclosure, of which 42% were purchased by investors who flipped the properties for the highest profit and irrevocably changed the landscape of the city’s housing market.

“We have to act as if gentrification is not inevitable,” Moya said. “Gentrification is not a hurricane, it is not an earthquake. It is the deliberate end result of certain policies that are meant to benefit certain economic interests.”

Lawmakers have indicated that while SB 50 may not have made it out of senate, this is not the end for legislation involving housing production this year. “We’re going to get something big done this calendar year, this legislative session,” said California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, who supported the bill.

Wiener and other SB 50 supporters have vowed to continue their efforts to revitalize housing production in the state. “Its defeat does send a negative message about the legislature’s approach to housing,” Wiener told reporters on Thursday. “But with that said, I also believe that we’re going to pivot quickly and get something big done this year.”

The bill’s opponents plan to make sure their voices will be included in the discussion.

“I welcome the discussion around a housing production bill, but one that is actually grounded in the needs for social justice,” Moya said. “Housing today is the civil rights issue of our time. We cannot continue to produce or make bills around housing and housing justice that doesn’t center the demands and the needs of the people who are most impacted.”

Though disappointed about SB 50 failing in the senate, Foote too looked forward to what the future held.

“We are at a new high water mark in saying we’re going to actually do something about our housing crisis,” she said. “I’m excited to see the equity community is responding to what the Yimby community is saying about how we have a housing shortage, and we’re paying attention to tenant protections and making sure tenant protections are stronger than ever.”

“We may be yelling at one another,” Foote continued, “but we’re also listening to one another.”

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