Ending The War On Communities: 14 Suggestions To Protect Neighborhoods While Providing Meaningful Housing Solutions


The debate on solving California’s housing affordability crisis has reached a fever pitch, and the level of noise is drowning out solutions. We are facing a push to indiscriminately force density on neighborhoods and a war on single-family housing, which some in Sacramento paint as inherently “racist” and “immoral.”

As Sacramento politicians spin their wheels on the highway to nowhere, we have an opportunity to find sensible, community-friendly measures to meet the housing affordability challenges here in California and across America.

The fundamental question: do we want to create affordable housing or do we want to promote housing as an investment vehicle? Wall Street, corporate developers and their Sacramento politician friends espouse “trickle down” housing theories which in reality promote luxury development which we have in abundance. The goal of non-profit affordable housing developers is: housing itself.

Huge difference.

With this in mind, sensible housing policies should look to promote affordable housing solutions with non-profit organizations, most of whom are in it for the long-run and want to be integrated within the communities they serve.

Sadly, the discussion of California’s housing challenges in traditional (and some non-traditional) media outlets is so one-sided that people have a right to be skeptical about the agendas being pushed in them.

Publications from the Washington Post to the New York Times devote a serious amount of column inches to housing in California, and almost everything they write places the blame for the housing affordability crisis exclusively on “Nimby” cities. The preferred “solution” is to override local zoning in favor of Sacramento-mandated levels of forced density. Self-proclaimed “housing advocates,” including San Francisco state senator Scott Wiener are freely allowed to state their Reaganomic trickle-down, “the unfettered market will solve it all” perspectives without any counterposing views.

When the communitarian views of those representing the very cities being scapegoated are denied the ability to respond and/or present alternative perspectives, you know something very strange is going on.

And when those who are being faulted are not “just saying ‘no’ to everything,” but have real, concrete solutions to propose, refusing to allow those voices to be heard represents something more than a mere sin of omission.

It’s not for want of trying.

Beverly Hills has been perhaps the poster child of Yimby efforts to make cities “the bad guys.” Sadly, most of the attacks are based on misinformation and, worse, bigoted stereotypes. Even people who should know better seem to be watching too many reruns of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

One would think that a chance to rebut the skewed and false narratives with ideas which have been vetted with affordable housing advocates would at least be worth sharing, if for nothing else than for the sake of fairness and objectivity. And, of course, we have submitted these ideas to all the usual suspects.

But the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and closer to home, the Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle and LA Times all seem to prefer stereotypes to substance, fiction to fairness and diatribe to dialogue.

The LA Times, owned by a billionaire oligarch has a housing writer, Liam Dillon, who bids fair to become the biggest unofficial CBIA (California Building Industry Association) and Yimby spokesperson in the state, in addition to having a storied history of stereotyping and boosterism.

Publications like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee have a history of putting the interests of big business, corporations, and Wall Street above that of individual communities and the people who live in them. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Wall Street Journal and Co. are organs of Wall Street talking points --- wonder how many would like to see densification of their communities in Westchester and Marin, but never mind….

What’s perhaps even more disappointing is that CalMatters, which purports to be a marketplace of various Californian ideas, was unwilling to share the proposed solutions coming from a city that has regularly been targeted by the same Sacramento politicians whose feathers CalMatters evidently doesn’t want to ruffle by allowing our voice to be heard.

One would think that any or all of these outlets might at least have had the fairness to now present our solutions to the state’s housing challenges. One would think they might at least have tried to pay lip service to objectivity, even if it’s just window dressing to create a pretense of journalistic balance.

Fortunately, there are still websites, which are unafraid to feature a diversity of opposing viewpoints. And in this case, it’s not even a question of opposing viewpoints: it’s a question of proactive solutions to the state’s housing affordability crisis (which is what we are really dealing with; it’s not like we have a luxury housing crisis). True, these are solutions that the Yimbys and their Wall Street and tech oligarch benefactors might not prefer, but they i preserve local flavor and preserve community diversity in a way that the standard, virtually identical high-density buildings clearly do not.

What we need are community-based solutions that embrace urban humanism. These include the following measures:

1. A massive statewide bond, dedicated to building truly affordable housing, specifically directed towards non-profit affordable housing developers. Much of the state’s surplus could also be used to build affordable housing. Locally generated revenue, including linkage fees and local bonds could support local projects.

2. Land banking: using some of the state’s surplus funds to prospectively purchase properties throughout the state which would be used for purely affordable housing, in addition to registering all current public lands which could be suitable for affordable housing with the input of local agencies.

3. Reintroduction of redevelopment (or some form of tax increment financing) with a focus on affordable housing (at least 75% of funds would go to affordable housing built by non-profit affordable housing developers). Eminent domain of residential property or any property for non-residential uses could be precluded, so some of the abuses of past redevelopment agencies would be avoided.

4. Supporting economic development in underserved areas, reversing the trend of population clustering created by job concentration. Increased investment in public higher learning institutions in these areas, such as the Central Valley, etc. Carrot/stick approach to corporations to encourage job creation in these areas, while avoiding the pitfalls of overheated job concentration in already dense areas, thereby also furthering the goals of geographic equity.

5. Repeal of Costa/Hawkins and the Ellis Acts (which restrict cities’ abilities to implement rent stabilization ordinances and renter protections), along with assisting cities in creation and maintenance of rental registries. Good data can help with the creation of good policy, and particularly accurate information on vacancy rates are crucial.

6. Vacancy, foreign owner and “speculation” taxes. Vacancy taxes, like in Canada, would progressively be charged to absentee landlords. Additional taxes would be levied towards speculators who don’t actually occupy their properties but purchase them as investment vehicles. Some naysayers to this approach have complained that it would have the effect of reducing property prices – something which would actually be a boon to non-profit affordable housing organizations.

7. Strengthen state anti-trust rules for speculative ownership of housing and real estate; the securitization and commoditization of housing often stands in direct conflict with the goal of affordable housing and additional anti-trust regulations would aim to curb Wall Street’s influence.

8. Strengthen CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act). Commercial projects which create a need for additional housing would need to mitigate the impacts they are creating, namely, by requiring the requisite amount of housing (including affordable housing) be built as a condition of project approval. No “kicking the can” to other communities or to the future; no “statements of overriding considerations.”

9. Institute a “Clean Up Your Own Mess First” principle, including linkage fees. Negative impacts of projects must be mitigated by project owners. If a project creates a need for more housing or infrastructure, the project owner must “clean up her own mess first” rather than place the burden on the public.

10. Density bonuses only for non-profit affordable housing developers, working in conjunction with individual communities, with continued community involvement/partnership with these non-profits.

11. Additional advantages/incentives exclusively for non-profit affordable housing developers (including tax incentives). Non-profit affordable housing developers cannot compete on a level playing field with for-profit corporations.

12. Address the root cause of the housing affordability crisis: income inequality. Consider instituting corporate wealth taxes.

13. Allow regional cooperation/solutions to affordable housing (currently not allowed in California). Cities could through bi- or multi-lateral discussions/negotiations with other jurisdictions share RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) obligations across jurisdictional boundaries (and could share in revenue generated by projects, if the projects are the cause of increased housing needs which the jurisdictions would be meeting together).

14. Waive all fees for non-profit affordable housing, with the fees to be reimbursed to cities by Sacramento.

Let these ideas bring debate and discussion which ultimately lead to housing solutions and dynamic, livable and sustainable communities that celebrate urban humanism, our ability to make choices for ourselves and our belief that ‘one-size-fits-all’ doesn’t work well in America. Is there a better time than now?

John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009. He is currently serving his third term as mayor.

Photo credit: realtor.com.