Opinion | It Shouldn’t Take 50 Meetings to Build Some Apartments

Who should be in charge of housing? Should it be local homeowners who organize themselves into neighborhood organizations to protect their interests? How about local elected officials, who presumably were put in office to think about the needs of their constituents, especially when it comes to making sure they actually get to stay in their homes and don’t get displaced by hordes of newcomers? Or should it be the federal government, which, when it has stepped in on housing issues in the past, has done so mostly to protect poor and minority homeowners from housing discrimination?

In 2017, California passed Senate Bill 35, a landmark piece of housing legislation that put the state’s cities on notice: You can either build housing your way or build it our way. S.B. 35 requires cities that are behind on their Regional Housing Needs Allocation — a measure of how much housing needs to be built in an area to keep up with population changes — to fast-track projects that meet their zoning requirements. The bill included several progressive measures, including mandates for below-market housing, union-level pay for all construction workers and ecological protections.

The architect of the bill was Scott Wiener, a 51-year-old state senator from San Francisco who has become an effective voice of the Yes In My Back Yard, or Yimby, movement, which argues for more development and housing in crowded cities. (The name is meant to be a rebuke of Nimby — Not In My Back Yard — activists.) Since being elected to office in 2016, Wiener has been a legislating machine, churning out bills that aim to chip away at restrictions on building and eliminate single-family zoning throughout the state.

For the third installment in my series on housing, I spoke to Wiener about the role state governments can play in alleviating housing crises and why we should care so much about a wonky issue like zoning.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your vision for housing in California?

One where we’re building hundreds of thousands of homes per year, both publicly funded and privately. Where we’re doing it more in an infill kind of way, and not sprawling out. And where we have cities that aren’t dramatically denser than they are today, but are somewhat more dense. If you have enough cities that are becoming somewhat more dense, you’re going to produce a lot more housing for everyone.

San Francisco, for example, is not going to go back to the ’60s, when you could buy a single-family home pretty cheap and raise seven kids in it. But I do think that we can at least make it that people are not spending 70 percent of their income on housing. If we can just give people a fighting chance to live in these communities and give young people an actual path to establish themselves in a community and not have this constant, explosive displacement pressure … That to me is a big win.

What got you so interested in housing in California in the first place?

I moved to San Francisco in 1997 and decided to go out and rent an apartment. I thought this would be a normal process: You show up to an open house, find a place you like and sign a lease. The first place I showed up to, there was a line down the block. People were trying to bribe the landlord. And so I saw that there was just a complete lack of housing.

I was a young lawyer back then and did pro bono work representing low-income renters who were facing eviction, including a number of older gay men, long-term H.I.V. survivors who had been in San Francisco forever. They would say things to me like: “If I lose this apartment, I’m going to have to leave San Francisco. There’s just no way I can ever stay.” This led me to get more involved in the community and in my neighborhood association. I saw what people trying to build housing had to go through, even if they were building within all the rules.

I remember one project that had to go through 50 community meetings, even though it was entirely within zoning. So from all these different angles, I saw what a mess of a system we had and what the real-life consequences are for people in terms of not being able to get housing.

And so when I got elected to the board of supervisors in 2010, I decided that housing needed to be a focus for me. And so I started doing that work at the local level. And when I was running for the State Senate in 2016, I remember some of my Yimby supporters were saying, “No, we don’t want you to go because you can’t do anything at the state level on housing.” And I told them respectfully that they were wrong.

Were they wrong?

Yeah, they were wrong. You can definitely shake things up on housing at the state level. That’s been a high focus for me since I took office. Housing in so many ways is the issue in California. It intersects with so many of our other problems: homelessness and poverty, climate change and wildfire risk.

Fifty community meetings to get one development built does seem like a lot of meetings. What has created a system where so many community meetings are the norm?

We’ve created a structure where the priority isn’t to get housing built as quickly as possible. The priority, instead, is trying to make everyone happy. It’s veered into this extreme situation where every project is discretionary, even if it complies with all of the local zoning rules. If you’re someone who wants to build something, you also need to show up at a planning commission, or City Council meeting or board of supervisors meeting, and be able to say that you worked for two years with the neighborhood groups and that you worked with them on every element of everything. And if you don’t do that, your project might be in jeopardy. And so we’ve created a system that prioritizes process and making everyone happy. And that de-prioritizes the actual creation of housing,

What you just described, a process that makes everyone happy — couldn’t that just be described as a democratic process?

You can have a democratic process that doesn’t last for three years. When San Francisco was building a rapid bus transit line, the environmental review process and the community process took 10 years. At some point, that’s not democracy. I’m all for community process and community participation. And I think developers should go to the community and try to work through issues. But when you allow it to be an unending process, that’s no longer democracy. That’s a battle of attrition. You end up with less housing, and it’s more expensive. The longer it takes to get housing approved, the more expensive that housing is going to be.

Housing’s a pretty wonky subject. A lot of the talk is about zoning, permits and duplexes, quadplexes, etc. How do you translate all that into popular legislative politics?

More and more people are being affected by housing in some way. They’re frustrated. Their kid has had three teachers in one year because the teachers are moving away. Or their kid’s best friend moved away or they know someone who is living in a car. And so people experience it, even if it’s not affecting them directly. And that’s why I think the polling has shifted. Pro-housing policies are now very popular.

Why has so much of the conversation about housing in this country turned to zoning in the past five years?

Zoning is the math: How many homes is it legal to build in this community? How many homes is it legal to build within walking distance of this transit station or within short driving distance of this job center? When you cap it at only one unit per parcel — single-family zoning — you are creating a major math problem that directly ties into climate change and wildfires because if you don’t build enough housing in the core areas, you end up pushing housing farther and farther out. Longer commutes mean more carbon and more housing in wildfires zones.

I also think zoning has gotten increased attention in the past few years because of its racist history in terms of why single-family zoning was explicitly created to exclude Black people and low-income people from communities. And we know that from recent studies that it is continuing to have a segregating effect. And so I think that as we try to grapple with structural racism, including the various ways that structural racism has seeped into housing over the years, zoning is one of the areas that has gotten deserved attention.

You’ve tried four times to get zoning reform through in the state. Why has it been so difficult?

Some of the bills I have tried to pass were radical bills — radical in a good way. If they would have passed anywhere near their original form, they would have dramatically changed land use through the bulk of California. It was what John Lewis would have called good trouble.

You should also ask why is it so difficult to get gun control through Congress. It’s because there’s a small group of highly organized, unrepresentative people who are exceptionally well organized, have a lot of time on their hands and are extremely loud. And they create an appearance that they are a majority when they are not. And it really puts enormous pressure on legislators and City Council members. It’s just an unfortunate dynamic that we have to contend with. The Yimbys are fantastic, but they have not yet risen to the Nimbys’ level of organization and loudness.

A friend of mine, who is very much on your side of the political aisle, said there’s this challenge that all Yimbys have: You’re basically acting as activists and lobbyists to allow real estate companies to build more housing. He said — and I agree — that while that might be the right move, it’s still a hard sell, especially when some of the people you’re going up against are talking about gentrification, housing justice and displacement. Do you agree with that statement?

Someone has to build the housing, whether developers or nonprofit affordable-housing builders. So yes, it’s an easy, cheap shot for the opposition to say, “You’re just doing what the developers want.” My response is that I personally don’t care what the developers want. I just want there to be enough housing, whoever’s building it.

Why should people trust that the real estate industry or real estate developers aren’t going to just steamroll all the concerns that you and other Yimbys in California say that you have about tenant rights and anti-displacement laws? Isn’t it logical, in a way, to just assume those concerns will just be sidelined?

That’s why you have to have good rules so the real estate industry can’t just do that and pass anti-demolition controls or eviction protections or affordability requirements. You have to pass strong laws.

What’s the best way to sort of make sure that building is done in that thoughtful way you just described?

We try to put those protections in our bills, but local governments have to do better. There are a few places like San Francisco, Berkeley, a few others that have pretty strong anti-displacement protections. But we are a minority. And you got a lot of cities, including some large ones, that have very weak displacement protections.

For the first of these housing interviews, I talked to Ananya Roy, a professor and housing justice advocate from U.C.L.A. She made an argument that your Yimby movement and housing justice, which she defined as being pro-public housing, anti-gentrification, anti-displacement and pro-tenant, were incompatible with one another. Her logic, I believe, was that development would always step all over tenants and do what was best for capital. Do you agree with that?

I strongly disagree and I think that argument is defeatist. It’s an argument in favor of having a perpetual and growing massive housing shortage. Let’s be crystal clear right now: In Los Angeles, 90 percent of low-income renters live in market-rate housing. When we look at middle-income Californians, I would speculate that it’s probably somewhere north of 99.9 percent live in market-rate housing.

I’m a supporter of public housing, I’ve supported tens of billions of dollars in spending on housing. So I believe in publicly owned and publicly subsidized housing, but that will never be the complete solution. By saying that is the only kind of housing we should build, you’re ensuring a perpetual massive housing shortage. You’re basically telling the middle class, “Screw off, there’s no housing for you.” And it actually tells most low-income people to screw off because we’re not going to even have enough housing for all low-income people. So with all respect to the professor, we need both, and we need both in a big way.

Let’s say you are able to pass your most ambitious zoning bill. How long do you think it would take for middle-class families to be able to afford, say, the Bay Area? Or for lower-income families to be able to afford to stay in their homes because there’s less pressure in the housing market?

If we accompany the changes with other things like streamlining permit approvals, ramping up the construction work force and having some rationality around impact fees, I think that within a few years, we would start to see some change. But in terms of the real deep structural change, I think it would probably take 10 to 15 years. But you know, it’s taken us 50 years to dig into this hole. We’re not going to dig out of it overnight.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Loneliest Americans.”

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