A Tangle for the Anti-Development Left

A Tangle for the Anti-Development Left

Housing debates have long been a mess of ideological contradictions. A far-reaching new bill in California, which would allow for denser construction in areas served by transit, begins to unscramble them.

A street in Beverly Hills that would be subject to rezoning under SB 827 (Vincent Lammin / Flickr)

Housing debates, on the left and on the right, have long been a mess of ideological contradictions. A zoning ordinance, as seen by its partisans, can preserve the exclusivity of a neighborhood or protect against rapacious capitalists. In the eyes of critics, it can abridge landowners’ property rights or act as a tool of racial segregation.

A far-reaching new legislative proposal in California, where rising rents have reached a crisis point, scrambles things even more—or perhaps begins to unscramble them. SB 827, introduced by San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener in early January, would overrule local ordinances that restrict new housing near transit. It applies to all property within a half-mile of a train station or a quarter-mile of a bus line that runs at least every fifteen minutes. Within that zone, bans on multi-family housing would vanish along with requirements for off-street parking. Buildings could go up to 45, 55, or 85 feet tall (varying with distance to the station and street width), or higher where local zoning permits.

California’s emerging urbanist movement—known as YIMBYs for “Yes In My Back Yard”—jumped for joy at the willingness of elected officials to move so far in their direction. Affluent single-family suburbs, always protective of their zoning, were predictably critical. The Beverly Hills and Palo Alto city councils condemned the Wiener proposal. Development foes from San Diego to Los Angeles to Marin County quickly joined in.

But SB 827 posed a challenge for the anti-gentrification left. One of that movement’s principal organizing issues—indeed, the one that wins it the most victories—is fighting new private development as a means of preventing gentrification. The policy argument for leftist opposition to new buildings, even when no existing housing is removed, is that the arrival of luxury housing and other amenities drives up nearby rents.

As long as the focus is on a single neighborhood, this seems eminently plausible. Real estate is more valuable when expensive properties are nearby. But in California’s coastal cities, rents are rising everywhere, not just in hot neighborhoods. The YIMBYs, joined by many left-of-center city officials, pin the blame on insufficient housing supply. Immigration, natural increase, and job-seekers attracted by a strong economy add up to a growing population. With federal subsidies scarce and local resources limited, homes that the private market is prevented from building will not be built at all.

As the YIMBYs see it, tight zoning that blocks private construction suppresses the housing supply and pushes up prices. Rent control and public housing protect some tenants, but the majority—including newcomers and first-time homebuyers—are hard hit. Scarcity of housing near transit multiplies the pain, pushing the less affluent out into unwalkable suburbs where they are forced to bear the heavy cost of car ownership. Hostility to new construction on the left may slow the pace of gentrification in a few localities, but it only sends demand elsewhere and worsens the overall shortage.

Anti-development progressives disagree, contending that supply-and-demand economics cannot explain urban rents. Activists turn instead to a version of academic neo-Marxism. The determining factor in setting housing prices is investment decisions made by real-estate interests and the city governments they dominate. Urban neighborhoods are impoverished by systematic disinvestment in order to prepare for gentrification. As Peter Moskowitz summarizes the theory in How to Kill a City, “the more disinvested a space becomes, the more profitable it is to gentrify.”

SB 827, by rezoning rich and poor alike, puts this reasoning to a test. The bill would, for example, allow new apartment houses in much of South Los Angeles, a predominantly poor, African-American area. And it would allow exactly the same buildings in a half-mile-wide swath along Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills. The two areas offer similarly convenient access to downtown Los Angeles. If disinvestment makes real-estate development more profitable, new luxury apartments in South L.A. will (as one activist explicitly argues) yield higher returns than identical structures on Sunset Boulevard. Viewed empirically, the theory here lacks predictive power. Trump Tower is not in the Bronx.

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On top of this intellectual challenge, SB 827 puts the anti-development left in a political pickle. The movement’s ability to halt new construction rests on an alliance with the suburban defenders of single-family zoning, a voting bloc not otherwise a progressive bastion. Supporting the bill would imperil this coalition; open embrace of the suburbs’ exclusionary zoning would—especially in the wake of Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law—contradict its ideological stance.

Faced with these contradictions, most anti-gentrification organizers working in low-income communities held their fire against SB 827 at first. But one activist in South L.A., Damien Goodmon, didn’t hold back. He called the bill a “declaration of war” on his neighborhood, described it as “ethnic cleansing,” and compared it to Andrew Jackson’s expulsion of the Cherokees.

For affluent suburbs where trendy progressivism accompanies exclusionary zoning—not a rare pairing in California—this offered needed political cover. Polemicists in Berkeley and Marin County seized on Goodmon’s writings as the authentic voice of the disempowered.

Even Beverly Hills joined in. The Courier, the local weekly of record, approvingly quoted Goodmon’s claim that SB 827 was an attack against low-income people of color. The paper complained as well that it would “change the very culture” of the city because, among other things, “residents would be forced to park on the street.” Councilman John Mirisch, until a few weeks earlier the mayor of Beverly Hills, followed up in a series of tweets. He argued that the bill would cause “gentrification and displacement” by bringing “ultra-luxury housing at the expense of non-wealthy renters.”

With time, a more grounded left critique of SB 827 emerged. In mid-February, a letter of opposition was issued by a group of Los Angeles–area tenant and low-income housing organizations that had, for the most part, come out against last year’s anti-development ballot question. They argued that the bill would undermine the city’s system for subsidizing construction of new housing for the poor.

This is a real concern. As federal support for affordable housing shrinks, advocates have come to rely on the zoning code as a means to capture profits from private development in the form of “community benefits.” On land where by-right zoning—what can be built without special permission—allows only small structures, developers are offered a trade: pay for the benefits and we’ll let you build something bigger. If the zoning is so tight that construction is unprofitable without the added size, the exaction is in practice mandatory. Neighborhoods often adopt the same tactic to fund local amenities; unions sometimes use it to make employers recognize workers’ rights.

As Los Angeles zoning rules are structured, the initial version of SB 827 sharply reduced the incentive to build affordable housing. Along most transit corridors, what the city offers developers in exchange for affordable housing is less than what the bill would give them by right.

Senator Wiener responded at the end of February with amendments designed to answer these objections. As the bill is now written, builders who take advantage of it will have to meet existing local requirements for affordable housing. In addition, they must offer tenants in any building that is demolished a new apartment of the same size at the same rent, pay for moving expenses, and subsidize temporary accommodations during construction. These protections exceed what most California renters now enjoy.

To date, these changes have won over few critics. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who initially said he’d be “all for” the bill if tenant protections were added, now demands more protection for single-family neighborhoods. The bill’s housing-activist opponents have avoided aligning themselves so openly with Beverly Hills, some withholding comment and others insisting that the tenant protections don’t go far enough.

Only time will tell whether insistence on added tenant protection is a negotiating tactic or a disguise for irreconcilable opposition. But either way, the debate over the bill points to an underlying weakness in the community-benefits approach to land use. Community benefits are the fruit of inflated housing prices. A developer will pay for a zoning approval only to the extent it will bring extra profit. Success for SB 827—indeed, anything that makes rents lower—will make approvals less valuable.

To be sure, for most of the last forty years, a critique of community benefits along these lines would have been purely theoretical. Zoning was solidly entrenched in government institutions and public opinion, invulnerable to direct attack. There was no need to defend the system that created the wealth, even when contending for a share of it.

Severe housing shortages in West Coast cities now change that calculus, and SB 827 poses the issue with unprecedented clarity. Zoning is under attack as a system. It is a system that generates economic inequality; exactions on developers limit the damage only slightly. Builders’ profits represent only a small share of the wealth that housing inflation creates, and community-benefits agreements can capture only a portion of that. With this money, housing for the very poor can be built, something the market cannot do, but the far larger gains reaped by landlords and homeowners are left untouched.

Resistance to looser zoning thus traps community-benefits advocates in a political dead end alongside the anti-development left. As the Garcetti flip-flop illustrates, affluent single-family homeowners are the main obstacle to SB 827. Leftists who oppose the bill become their junior partners in a de facto coalition. The poorest and the wealthiest are pitted against those in between—something that is never a good basis for redistributive politics.

Zoning controversies have long made strange bedfellows. But the ease with which Beverly Hills and Marin County residents can adopt anticapitalist rhetoric points to an affinity that goes beyond mere electoral convenience. Whether out of ideological conviction, political opportunism, or love of the hip cachet of urban neighborhoods, left activists identify gentrification as the essence of the housing problem and resistance to new building as the cure. Progressive organizing thus evolves stealthily into a defense of the residential status quo. It is a status quo that Beverly Hills is happy to preserve.

Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014), is about the politics of urbanism and transit.