Much of the state of California is in the midst of a housing crisis. The reason for that housing crisis is simple: there is not enough housing. But given a golden opportunity to change the law to allow the construction of much more housing, the state lost its nerve.
Yesterday, California state legislators voted down SB827, a bill that would have made it much easier to build dense housing in areas close to mass transit. Specifically, the bill would have “allowed for the construction of buildings four to five stories tall within half a mile of rail stops in areas, such as parcels zoned for single-family homes, where they are currently not allowed,” and eliminated the mandate to build parking spaces along with that construction, in areas that are well-served by mass transit. In other words, it would have opened the door to the construction of a significant amount of housing near mass transit, by blocking the ability of localities to stop development via zoning laws.
It is a drastic bill. But California has a drastic problem. The state’s housing shortage is estimated to be something like three and a half million units. The effects of a housing shortage that big: California lacks affordable housing and has a homeless crisis. You can draw a straight line from the housing shortage to the affordable housing crisis to the homeless crisis. These things go together. There are many contributing factors, but pull back a bit and it is obvious that a housing shortage of 3.5 million units—in a state with only 14 million total housing units—is going to make every existing housing unit far more expensive than it should be, and leave millions of people struggling to keep up. Affordable housing is the bedrock of an economically fair society. And California will never, ever have affordable housing as long as its housing supply is so far behind its demand.
This housing crisis has been generations in the making. Clearly, the measures that have been taken up until now have not worked. What SB827 would have done is to clear away almost all of the regulatory roadblocks to building dense housing in areas of cities where we would most like dense housing to be. An alternate way of looking at this is: SB827 would do away with the ability of neighborhoods and cities to shape the way development occurs on the neighborhood level. This is true, for what it’s worth. But it is true in the context of a housing crisis that has been brought about in part because localities have used zoning restrictions to prevent enough housing from being built for decades. It is reasonable to say, now that millions of people are in perilous economic situations due to a lack of affordable housing, and tens of thousands more are homeless: If cities want the right to exercise strict control over zoning, they must purchase that right by presenting an alternate plan that will allow four million additional fucking units of housing to be built. It is not tenable for people who are fortunate enough to have stable housing situations already to put their fingers in their ears and say “Housing crisis? I can’t hear you. I can only hear ‘keep my neighborhood lovely.’”
The issue of housing really comes to the question of whether we value humans above aesthetics. We all like lovely neighborhoods. And no matter how densely we build, we should try to keep neighborhoods as beautiful as possible. But it is inhumane to argue that the desire for a pretty, spacious neighborhood should trump the right of people to have an affordable place to live—or any place to live. That is selfish. It is too bad that the elected officials in California could not swallow a bill as radical as SB827. If they don’t come up with an equally radical solution soon, the problem will just keep getting worse.