This article was originally published in the Mercury News.
By Susan Candell
California clearly has a housing affordability crisis. Unfortunately, the response from Sacramento politicians has only made the problem worse. Cities and resident groups are now pushing back, and a recent court filing by one of the country’s leading planning experts confirms their contention that state leaders have got it wrong.
The narrative widely circulated is that if we simply densify our cities, eliminate single-family zoning and remove the ability of our local councilmembers to review housing developments, the result will be more affordable housing. In a stunning legal filing, this narrative was upended by a top urban planner.
Professor Michael Storper, from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, filed a legal declaration in support of the Southern California cities’ lawsuit against the state of California over the passage of SB9. SB9 is the law that eliminates single-family zoning and allows owners to split their lot and build as many as four to six units. The cities’ lawsuit claims that although SB9 was passed on the premise that it would lead to more affordable housing, it has no affordability requirements, so will not improve affordability.
Storper agrees based on his 2019 paper, and he is willing to testify under oath to prove that the currently popular narrative supporting the state’s policies is unabashedly untrue. He says the current narrative is “fundamentally flawed and lead(s) to simplistic and misguided policy recommendations” and actually harms residents and communities due to gentrification and displacement.
Gentrification results when new expensive housing is built and the current residents can no longer afford to live there, which occurs most often in communities of color. Over 100 laws have been passed recently that require denser cities and eliminate local planning, but affordability has only gotten worse with more unhoused residents.
Storper says that the states’ erroneous narrative “diverts attention away from the real need to address housing affordability for low- and moderate-income groups already residing in the prosperous metropolitan regions.” These state policies are an unqualified failure, and a respected world policy expert is willing to testify that this whole narrative is not only false but is leading to widespread gentrification and displacement.
To make matters worse, the state has weaponized the housing planning processes, adding steep fiscal penalties on cities, hiring lawyers to sue cities and removing local input for projects if production goals are not met. An old law called the “Builder’s Remedy” allows developers to build almost anything, anywhere, if a city does not have a certified Housing Element that satisfies state bureaucrats. Hundreds of Builder’s Remedy projects have been filed across the state, taking local elected officials and residents completely by surprise.
How do we fix the untenable position that our state has imposed on us? The only solution is to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow cities to override the state laws that are failing to solve our affordability and homelessness crisis — the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative. The state should return their attention to working with the cities, as we have done successfully in our past. Sacramento’s one-size-fits-all policies don’t work — only strong local democracy and city leaders working with the residents can achieve our shared goals.
Thank you, Professor Storper, for your willingness to testify that the popular narrative of upzoning, densification and deregulation of California’s housing markets does not and will not work.
We must unite, fight for local democracy and solve the complex problem of housing affordability together.
Susan Candell is a member of the Lafayette City Council and a proponent for the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative.