March 15, 2018 - From the March, 2018 issue

Zev Yaroslavsky on Scott Wiener’s SB 827: The Triumph of WIMBYs

In introducing Senate Bill 827 this January, Senator Scott Wiener, a champion of dense housing development, has initiated a heated and complex debate about the future of local zoning and community plan governance throughout the state. In response to Sen. Wiener’s comments at a recent community hearing in Los Angeles organized by Assemblymember Laura Friedman, Zev Yaroslavsky, former Los Angeles County Supervisor and City Councilmember and presently Director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs opines on how the Weiner bill would radically change Southern California by “eviscerating decades of planning.” Yaroslavsky, deeply critical of SB 827, provides context for how this state legislation—touted as promoting transit-oriented development—would in fact undermine the region’s existing affordable housing stock and ability to chart its own future.


Zev Yaroslavsky

"SB 827 is not a transit-oriented development bill; it’s a real estate play of the worst kind." - Zev Yaroslavsky

At a recent community hearing in Los Angeles, State Senator Scott Wiener promoted his bill, SB 827, with the argument that the state ought to address the housing crisis by facilitating greater density in cities throughout California. Having spent decades adjudicating land-use and transit issues while serving in LA’s local government, what are your thoughts on the bill?

Zev Yaroslavsky: SB 827 is not a housing bill; it’s a real-estate bill. It is intended to monetize real estate. This bill is not about YIMBYs vs. NIMBYs; it’s about WIMBYS: Wall Street in My Backyard. With one stroke of the pen, the State Legislature could totally transform the economics of real-estate development in Los Angeles—while totally eviscerating decades of planning.

I admit some of that planning has not been good. But on the whole, it has been the result of give-and-take from the stakeholders who live and work in these communities.

As Senator Wiener would have it, the legislation is about transit-oriented development that creates added zoning near transit stops. At the town hall, for example, he spoke about subway and light-rail stops. But that’s not all that this bill is about.

Wiener’s definition of a “transit corridor” is not simply subways and light rail. It’s every bus line in the state that runs at least once every 15 minutes during the morning and evening rush hours. In Los Angeles, that’s almost every bus route on almost every commercial street from Boyle Heights to Brentwood, and from the San Fernando Valley to south Los Angeles.

Moreover, his definition of a “major transit stop” includes any bus stop at the intersection of two transit corridors—e.g. Melrose and Fairfax Avenues, Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Ventura and Van Nuys Boulevards, and hundreds of similar intersections throughout most of the LA basin and a good part of the San Fernando Valley.

Under SB 827, a developer would have the right to build, at minimum: 1) an eight-story-high apartment building within a quarter-mile of a major transit stop or transit corridor, or 2) a building of four to five stories within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a transit corridor.

What does this all mean? Think of the corner of Melrose and Fairfax. Under this bill, the bus stop at that corner qualifies as a “major transit stop.” That means that if a developer bought the commercial properties on those two streets, and/or any residential properties within a quarter-mile radius of that corner, they would have the right to build eight-story apartment buildings there—with no parking and no limit on density.

That’s right: Wiener would prohibit the city from requiring a single parking space in an eight-story, 100-unit apartment building. A “brilliant” idea for LA.

That would impact the shops on Melrose—one of LA’s most unique shopping streets—as well as all the rent-controlled apartments and single-family homes within a quarter-mile radius. The same can be said for the corner of Exposition and Crenshaw in Leimert Park, the corner of Nordhoff and Reseda in Northridge, the corner of Pico and Westwood in southern Westwood, and so forth.

What’s more, historic preservation zones—such as Angelino Heights, which is within a quarter-mile of the Sunset transit corridor, and South Carthay Circle, which is within a quarter-mile from the Pico, Olympic, and La Cienega transit corridors—could be razed in favor of five-to-eight-story, market-rate apartment buildings.

Is that what we want to do to these neighborhoods? Does Scott Wiener want to take a wrecking ball to most of the retail villages and residential communities in Los Angeles? It’s nuts. Every responsible planner with whom I’ve spoken about this bill speak of it with great disdain. It is classic overreach—a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the planning of the largest city in California. That’s why I say this is not a transit-oriented development bill; it’s a real-estate play of the worst kind.

A San Francisco state senator cannot possibly understand the complexities and nuances of a city the size of LA—and he really shouldn’t try. Maybe he should use his own city as a guinea pig; let’s see how this brilliant idea works out in his hometown.

This bill has accomplished one thing: It has united tenants’ rights organizations with small businesses and homeowners, all of whom are rising up against this broad-brush approach.

In an effort to gain the support of tenants’ groups, Wiener has amended his bill, with great fanfare, to appear to address their concerns about the demolition of what’s left of our affordable housing stock, especially rent-controlled apartments. He has failed to do so.

After the new clause prohibiting the demolition of rent-controlled units, the bill goes on to add, “…unless the local government passes a resolution explicitly authorizing a review process for demolition permit applications.”

If you can’t trust your local city council, by gosh, who can you trust?

You were a longtime advocate of public transit, and a Metro Board member who fiercely supported increasing sales-tax for the buildout of our public transit system. Why do you say SB 827 is not a transit bill? 

We didn’t pass two sales-tax measures over the last 10 years in order to raze the city to make it look like New York. We didn’t promote Measures R and M as growth machines that would densify every linear foot along the new rail lines and existing bus routes. If we had, they would not have passed.

That is not to say that there aren’t many areas along the new fixed guideway lines that are appropriate for densification. Hollywood, the Wilshire corridor, the Vermont corridor, Van Nuys, NoHo, and many areas along the Expo, Gold, and Crenshaw light-rail lines—among others—lend themselves to densification. However, we have to be smart about where along these corridors we densify, and where we preserve neighborhood character. There is room for both.

While it’s more difficult to go through a consensus-building process community by community, it’s far better than letting the bulldozers loose on most of the LA basin.

Some criticism of the bill has come from the perspective that achieving equity requires localized solutions. Blogger John Perry recently wrote:

"'Local control' is a term that has been tainted in Southern California by its association with Beverly Hills or Santa Monica homeowners who wielded it to keep out low-income residents and people of color. But in South L.A. and Boyle Heights, residents have struggled for years to gain some degree of control over their futures, and their efforts have finally begun to bear fruit with accomplishments like the People’s Plan and Metro’s revised plans for Mariachi Plaza."

How would SB 827 affect different communities differently?  

That’s precisely the problem with Wiener’s bill: It is oblivious to the uniqueness of the communities that make up Los Angeles and every other city in California. He treats them all equally—abrogating local zoning laws and giving the real-estate industry a gift horse of increased property values, increased building, and increased profits. In other words, put a bull’s eye on every community in our city, and let the developers have at it.

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This is an arrogant and wrong-headed approach. Land-use policies, and their impacts on a community, must be left to local government—not the State Legislature—to determine. The Legislature cannot possibly know the unintended consequences of a broad-brush bill. And there are hundreds of unintended consequences.

Every member of every community cares deeply about where they live and work. Whether you live in Echo Park or Beverly Hills, in Chatsworth or Wilmington, your community is your community.  Businesses, residents, and other stakeholders fight to maintain a community’s values—and its value. That doesn’t make them NIMBYs; it makes them the responsible citizen stakeholders who make a city what it is.

It’s been my experience that political leadership can bring about a large degree of consensus on where to build low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise buildings, and on where to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless. Indeed, when I served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, my office funded more than a half-dozen permanent housing projects for chronically mentally ill homeless persons, and I never had a so-called NIMBY testify against them. On the contrary, communities from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Van Nuys to West Hollywood to Culver City embraced them. 

Let’s take a step back and assess the impacts of the last few decades of state legislation on local housing supply.

The State Legislature and the city of Los Angeles have approved myriad pieces of legislation over the last two decades. First, the Resident Auxiliary Zone (RAS) essentially doubled the FAR for residential buildings on commercial streets—from 1.5:1 to 3:1. Then there’s SB 1818, another density bonus bill.

The recent granny flats ordinance now allows any single-family homeowner to build an auxiliary unit on their property, essentially doubling R-1 density. And in the last legislative session, just a few months ago, Governor Brown signed no fewer than15 housing bills.

A lot has been legislated recently! Let’s give those laws a chance to work.

It’s also worth noting that there is ample capacity under LA’s current zoning code to build hundreds of thousands of new apartment units, without a single zone change or plan amendment. The problem is that residential developers prefer to have zoning doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled because it allows them to realize a much bigger profit. And they have a compliant city, which has approved over 90 percent of developer requests for increased zoning.

I don’t blame developers for trying to change the rules rather than playing by them; it’s much more lucrative to do the former. But that effort has driven up land values, ultimately resulting in prevailing rents that fewer and fewer people can afford. It’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in—and it’s dead wrong.

At the same hearing, in response to hostile questions, Senator Wiener said, “I do not advocate a state takeover of housing policy. I’m advocating looking at a balance, where the state sets basic standards that are enforceable, and local communities [have] control within those standards—just like public education.”

Scott Wiener has said a lot of things, but this one made me laugh. Of course he’s advocating a state takeover of local housing policy!

He’s willing to leave it to the city to permit demolition of rent controlled apartment buildings—but not to determine which retail villages or single-family neighborhoods live or die. He’s advocating the destruction of what’s left of our affordable housing stock.

Wiener’s bill is the most audacious takeover of local zoning powers in the state’s history. If he’s going to propose it, he shouldn’t be afraid to accurately describe what it does. 

Wiener also said that the LA region has downzoned much of its housing capacity, such that the vast majority of the region today is zoned for single-family homes—which, in places where prices are rising, are inefficient uses of land. Your thoughts?

In the 1980s, LA was forced to downzone much of the city as a result of state legislation (AB 283) and a law suit. However, I am not aware of any community plan in which the city changed multi-family zoning to single-family zoning. That is simply not true. 

Many sections of the city were downzoned from R-4 (multifamily zoning at 100 units to the acre) to R-3 (50 units to the acre), and even some lesser multiple-dwelling densities—but not to single-family zones. It would be fair for the city to revisit some of those 40-year-old decisions, but not with a broad brush, and not from Sacramento.

The affordable housing crisis is not simply a matter of zoning, and it’s not simply a matter of supply and demand. Wiener’s bill doesn’t require developers to set aside a significant percentage of units for affordable housing. All it will induce is the development of market-rate rentals that will command rents that are unaffordable to a large percentage of our population.

If the Senator wants to do something about affordable housing, he might work a little harder to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, which prevents cities from enacting meaningful rent stabilization laws that protect our affordable housing stock.

Metro is about to engage in an effort to reconfigure all of its bus lines countywide. Given the definition of transit corridor in SB 827, is it possible to truly know what tracts in the city will be subject to state legislative exception to local zoning? As writer Bob Silvestri asked:

"What happens when bus frequency suddenly rises above or falls below SB 827’s frequency criteria? Will cities then be required to immediately up-zone or down-zone large swaths of land as bus intervals rise and fall? And, how will a city or a developer deal with zoning that is in constant flux and essentially unpredictable? What if a street is “transit rich” one year but not the next, and in the interim a developer has broken ground on a housing project? Does that neighborhood then end up with high density housing but no public transit?" 

Given these possibilities, are you concerned that the buildout of public transit is evolving into the vehicle for land-use changes?

That’s one of the most insidious features of this bill: It determines the size, height, and density of allowable development based on how often a bus comes down the local business street during peak hours. If a bus runs every 15 minutes, you get to build eight-story apartments in the Melrose/Fairfax neighborhood—destroying businesses, rent controlled units and single-family homes. If it runs every 16 minutes, the neighborhood is saved.

I suggest we all get to know the chief bus scheduler at Metro, because he or she will determine what gets built and where. Who’s the genius who thought that scheme up?

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.