In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Public political dialog these days seems to be dominated by highly vocal, slickly marketed, relatively small groups of individuals at the outer edges, left and right. Their hype and its velocity has all but drowned out common sense and observable truths, and it has reduced that dialog to glib non sequiturs, too-clever “Gotcha” zingers and scurrilous sound bites.
This phenomenon, which has been super-charged by the Internet, has now spilled over into how so-called grown-ups run our government. Yes, Washington D.C. is an easy target for this criticism, but we don’t have to look much further than California politics to find our own home-grown examples.
California Senate Bill-827 is one of these.
California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is supposed to be a bright guy (a Fulbright Scholar) with a resume that includes working as a private practice litigator and deputy city attorney in San Francisco, prior to being a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and being elected to the State Senate. However, his recent efforts have helped convince me once again that intelligence and common sense (much like power and self-awareness) are often mutually exclusive.
My sense is that Senator Wiener greatly enjoys his public persona as a progressive Milo Yiannopoulos: that of a far-left provocateur. As such, one has to view his recent legislative efforts as opening salvos, which he assumes he’ll have to compromise on but that will still greatly advance his agenda. I would describe Scott Wiener as a smooth operator, which makes his agenda all the more worrisome.
Prior to his recent offensive against the American Dream, Wiener authored Senate Bill-35, which was signed into law by Governor Brown in September of 2017. SB-35 took large bites out of the sovereignty of locally elected government. With SB-827 and its companion legislation, SB-828, he now wants the whole enchilada.
SB-35 was promoted as an affordable housing solution, but was really just a way to allow developers to run roughshod over local planning and zoning. Wiener would have us believe that zoning is one of the great evils of our time. In order to enhance the ability of private, for profit developers to gain faster entitlements, SB-35 reinforced the removal of local objections about impacts on the environment, schools, infrastructure, aesthetics, public services, density, and traffic and so on, which were begun by SB-375, back in 2008.
Housing affordability, however, was kicked to the curb in SB-35, because the bill actually reduced the State’s required affordable component (to qualify for increase development rights) from 20% of new units to just 10% of the units, per project. Worse, the bill failed to clearly define “affordable,” opening the door to units being rented at rates as high as 120% median income, to qualify. SB-827 is more of the same on steroids.
No longer content to just weaken local government zoning control, this newly proposed legislation wants to remove it altogether. SB-35 paid lip service to affordable housing. SB-827 no longer even bothers to do that. SB-827 has no requirements to provide low-income housing in exchange for additional development rights. In fact, the bill does not mention the word “affordable” at all. Worse, SB-828 specifically demands the development of more “above moderate income” housing.
“Affordable housing” appears to be just a useful talking point that Senator Wiener and his collaborators, who call themselves YIMBYs (an acronym for “Yes, in my back yard”), use to get what they want, which is to open the flood gates to development of all kinds, regardless of the social justice, economic or environmental consequences.
The impacts and implications of this are unprecedented: a fact that has not been lost on the California Sierra Club or the League of California Cities, both of which quickly issued letters opposing the new legislation.
Wiener and the YIMBY movement have consciously chosen a top-down, full-frontal attack approach to social change, without ever reaching out to local community organizations and agencies that are trying to solve the very same problems.
question is, why vilify and attack entire social classes before you’ve even
talked to them?
A Short History of Zoning
Zoning has become a dirty word. In the newly revised dictionary of terms, “single family homeowner” is now synonymous with elitist, rich, selfish, white supremacist and #%&* (I’ll let you use your imagination). In this new lexicon, we are admonished to accept that zoning of any kind, but particularly single family residential zoning, is legalized racism and anyone who suggests otherwise is a racist.
I have actually had the experience of sitting on a panel discussion with a young housing attorney, who grilled me on the ethnicity and sexual proclivities of everyone who lived in the single family homes, on my block. And, when she learned that we had only one mixed-race couple, two lesbians, and an Asian family, she concluded that this was insufficient to pass muster and declared this prima facie evidence that I was a racist. The false accusations aside, this disregards the fact that I have no say in who lives on my block.
Certainly, city plans designating different sectors for different uses or for different income groups or for different nationalities to reside in, have existed since the beginnings of civilization.
And, it’s unarguably true that many ethnic, religious and racial groups have been discriminated against in this way, throughout history. However, to claim that zoning laws were primarily created as a racist tool, is simply false.
Modern zoning laws in the U.S., evolved out of 18th and 19th century "nuisance" ordinances designed to protect people from public health hazards, manufacturing and industrial pollution or other dangers (even ancient Rome had such laws). These ordinances were not primarily racially motivated, though they certainly impacted some ethnic groups more than others (e.g., laundries run by Chinese immigrants in California in the 1800’s).
The Los Angeles City Council passed the first ever municipal zoning ordinance in the United States in 1908. The ordinance established a zoning map that created separate industrial and residential zones. Existing nuisance laws had already prohibited certain industrial land uses in the City. Dangerous businesses, such as warehousing explosives, were unregulated in L.A. before 1908, as were odorous land uses, such as slaughterhouses and tanneries. The ordinance prohibited businesses such as commercial manufacturing, lumber yards, and in general, any industry using equipment driven by motors.
Between 1909 and 1915, Los Angeles responded to requests by business interests to create exceptions to industrial bans within residential districts, creating what we would now call mixed-use zones. New ordinances in other cities followed the Los Angeles model. By 1913, there were 22 cities with zoning ordinances in the U.S.
Zoning As a Segregation Tool
None of this recounting of history is in any way intended to suggest that zoning hasn’t been used to discriminate and keep the “riff-raff” (anyone who’s not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) out of well-to-do neighborhoods. But, zoning is just one of many types of laws and “protective” covenants that were used to keep undesirables (fill in the name of the most recent immigrant group) from running businesses, joining country clubs or living in housing developments, until the Civil Rights Movement and the Fair Housing Laws of the 1960’s dramatically curtailed such abuses. . Zoning laws, per se, are not inherently any more evil than business licenses or any other rule or regulation.
However, YIMBYs allege racist intent without providing any contemporary evidence of that in our liberal SF Bay Area culture. That so-called “structural racism” may still exist in our society in a myriad of ways, does not make suburban homeowners racists.
Still, there’s little doubt that the African American and
Native American communities can legitimately lay claim to having historically
suffered the most under legalized discrimination. So, based on that, one would
assume that disadvantaged communities of color would be big supporters of
Senator Wiener and the YIMBY agenda. But, they’re not.
By and large, disadvantaged communities look at legislation like SB-827 and SB-828 and YIMBYS and see more gentrification and displacement.
For better and for worse, and mostly for worse, the single biggest factor denying anyone equal housing opportunity in the San Francisco Bay Area today, is money. I can assure you that if anyone of any race or creed wants to buy a house on my block, their only obstacle will be paying the absurd asking price and the sky high taxes required to live here. However, the dynamics driving this are not local nor can they be changed on a local or even a state level.
We really do live now in a global economy.
The Death of Dialog
If you can summon up the courage to loiter on social networking sites such as Nextdoor, you can immerse yourself in a sea of vitriol, fact cherry-picking, name-calling and worse, by YIMBYs, who come heavily armed with carefully scripted talking points.
In this climate, regardless of how factual or well-intentioned your comments, or reasoned your arguments might be, unless it aligns with the YIMBY agenda, it is guaranteed that someone will be throwing choice epithets at you, in short order.
Your age, experience, knowledge, personal sacrifices and challenges, lack of wealth, years of community service helping others or other substantive qualifiers will not spare you from being the target of such attacks. But, it’s not the attacks themselves that are the worst part: it’s that this climate forces complex issues to be crammed into ideological sound bites and wastes a great deal of valuable mindshare that could be better used for productive problem solving.
More experience and hands on knowledge about how development really works and less ideology would be helpful right now, and separating stakeholder’s financial self-interests from public policy decisions would also help move toward better solutions for all concerned.
But, you won’t hear that acknowledged by Senator Wiener or YIMBYs. They seem intent on shaking up the status quo, regardless of the outcomes or costs.