By Sam Ozer-Staton
The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented housing boom. In just the past year, the average home price has increased nearly 15% nationally, a surge that has been particularly pronounced in cities like Austin and Salt Lake City, which have become sought-after destinations for young professionals fleeing crowded coastal cities during the pandemic.
But the pandemic migration has hardly solved the existing housing problems in states like California and New York, which have seen purchase prices continue to soar (even as rental prices have dipped slightly).
California, in particular, has long been ground zero for the housing affordability crisis, and with it, an ongoing contentious policy debate over density and development. On Thursday, following years of false starts and failed attempts, state legislators passed two landmark rezoning laws that, according to one study, could facilitate the creation of 714,000 new units.
One bill, S.B. 9, would allow two-unit buildings on lots currently zoned for single-family homes. The other bill, S.B. 10, would give local governments the power to rezone parcels to allow for 10 units with no environmental review, which would speed up the development process by several years.
Taken together, the bills are far from transformational, but they push zoning laws further in the direction of density. The lead sponsor of S.B. 9, Toni Atkins, who is also the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, called the legislation “[A] modest production bill, and one that will give opportunities to people who haven’t been able to own a home.”
Atkins was also careful to hedge against one of the main criticisms of the legislation: that it will radically change the look and feel of residential neighborhoods. “This is a gentle density increase that respects the character of neighborhoods,” she said.
But critics of the legislation argue that it is far from “gentle.” One of the main opposition groups, Livable California, called it a “bulldozer bill” that would effectively “end homeownership” in the state.
While housing policy tends to take a backseat in the national political conversation, it could not be more hotly-debated in California. There are many different groups with a stake in housing policy, including tenants rights activists, affordable housing advocates, and real estate developers. The contours of the debate are complicated and fast-moving, and there are many voices across the spectrum that evade simple characterization.
But when it comes to the question of new development, the warring factions have often been reduced to two sides: the NIMBYs and the YIMBYs. Broadly, the YIMBYs — that is “Yes-In-My-Backyard” — support easing regulatory barriers to construction. They argue that increasing the supply of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, brings overall costs down. Without new housing, YIMBYs say, demand outstrips supply, and existing housing becomes more expensive.
The phrase NIMBY — “Not-In-My-Backyard” — has historically been associated with homeowners in residential neighborhoods who, in effort to protect their own property values, oppose any kind of new development. While there are strands of the NIMBY movement in California that fit that caricature, there are also others that do not.
In San Francisco and Oakland, for example, activists have pushed back against pro-development policies, arguing that they serve as a gateway for luxury housing. Encouraging density does little to solve gentrification, they argue, given that many homes (about 1.2 million, according to 2018 census data) already sit vacant in California.
Earlier legislative attempts to encourage density failed in part because of the broad coalition that came together in opposition. Homeowners in tony Los Angeles suburbs. A group of Black homeless mothers called Moms 4 Housing, which occupied a house in West Oakland to protest against luxury housing and for repurposing existing vacant homes.
Those strange bedfellows came together last year to defeat a bill that would have required cities to approve dense development near transit hubs. It also would have ended single-family zoning restrictions statewide. That bill died on the Senate floor. But this latest pro-density effort succeeded, in part because of its modesty.
What are your thoughts on the density debate? Do you support the construction of additional housing to keep up with demand in states like California? Or do you think encouraging density does more harm than good?
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