Monday, January 28, 2019




California’s housing crisis was bad enough last year, when Gov. Gavin Newsom – then a mere candidate – called for building 350,000 new units every year for the next decade.

The crunch is worse this year, with some of those who lost their homes to last fall’s disastrous wildfires now added to the tens of thousands already homeless and living on streets around the state and hundreds of thousands more who are housed, but overcrowded beyond the limits of many local codes.

          This scene last year led San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener to push a proposed law allowing builders to override local zoning ordinances and place high-rise apartment buildings with a plenitude of “affordable” units near light rail stations or heavily used bus routes.

          This proposal didn’t last long in the Legislature last year, shot down by a coalition of local governments, homeowner groups and lack of enthusiasm by former Gov. Jerry Brown, an advocate of local government controls since his years as mayor of Oakland.

          But there is more pressure now to override local controls on development, and Wiener is back with a slightly redone version of his building plan, which would reverse a century of California urban sprawl by concentrating development in areas long believed to be built out.

          Wiener has touted the changes he’s made to his proposal for the last couple of months, stressing ways the newer version panders to the desires of left-wing “progressives” dissatisfied with the previous version.

          Now known as SB 50, the measure would let cities delay building in areas where longstanding apartment tenants might be at risk of eviction to make way for newly-mandated high rises. If a tenant has been in a building more than seven years, for example, that building couldn’t be demolished to make way for a new, far taller one.

          This is meant to appease tenant groups that dominate politics in cities like Santa Monica, San Francisco and other currently dense places.

          But the essence of Wiener’s original plan remains: It allows new buildings of six to eight stories in all areas within half a mile of any light-rail station or within one-quarter mile of a frequently used bus route. Preferences of local voters, city or county governments and nearby homeowners or apartment dwellers wouldn’t matter.

          As Wiener says, such development could probably never occur unless the state mandated it. Few local officials could survive politically if they okayed high-rises overlooking the yards of thousands of single-family homes or caused the teardowns of expensive condominiums.

          But Wiener claims many elected officials tell him they want dense development, but can’t publicly admit it. He told the New York Times that “City councils, mayors, county supervisors have (told) me ‘We can’t say this, but we need help. We need to be able to tell our constituents ‘We have to approve this project because the state requires it.’”

          But just as the state’s high-speed rail project has seen years of delay and opposition over attempts to take land by eminent domain, forced new development could also run into legal buzz saws. Especially new development with virtually no new parking spaces required.

          For example, Wiener’s plan is founded on the notion that denser housing won’t worsen gridlocked traffic because new residents will ride nearby trains and buses. Figures from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Southern California suggest that’s pie in the sky.

          The bus and light rail agency reported last year that bus ridership shrank in the region by 15 percent in 2017 from levels of five years earlier, while rail ridership was up 4 million – less than the drop in bus ridership. Translation: there’s been some switching from buses to trains, but little net increase in mass transit riders despite creation of several new lines costing billions of dollars.

          So the logic behind Wiener’s plan remains false and would worsen existing gridlock in cities he wants to densify. It ignores many thousands of homeowners who invested their life savings in residences Wiener’s plan could radically downgrade.

          The bottom line: Some other solution must be sought, because it accomplishes little to begin solving one serious problem while making other problems far worse.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to

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