If you have been following local politics in Davis for any period of time, you will know that the town at times is bitterly split over the issue of growth and housing. What has made the dividing line most interesting and perhaps most intense is that the cleavage is not formed over partisan or normal ideological lines.
In short, you see folks who agree on national issues, who agree on social issues, but who are bitterly divided over where and how fast to grow in Davis.
We are seeing similar lines in the state and even nationally.
An article this past week in the Economist captures the split in the Democratic coalition over housing costs in cities.
The Economist notes: “San Francisco liberals are the kind of people who abhor nativism in all its forms and recoil at statements, like those recently made by President Donald Trump, that America “is FULL!” Yet in their own neighbourhoods, they often act as if the country were packed to the brim.”
Meanwhile, in Berkeley, “Local residents in a posh part of the city have raised over $100,000 to contest plans for a new homeless shelter, claiming that the new ‘megashelter’ will breed crime and violence (‘drug users’ and ‘”pets, including those designated as “vicious” will be allowed’ they warn).”
The article points out that San Francisco, with its median monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat estimated at $3500 per month, “is only the most pathological example.”
They write: “West Coast cities, which are under near-total control of the leftiest Democrats around, rank among the least affordable for middle-class Americans and most inhospitable to the poor.”
There are consequences for these policies: “Every morning traffic in the Bay Area is clogged by service-sector commuters, some of whom live far off in the state’s Central Valley and must make three-hour long treks in each direction. The smog from the cars settles in the valley, resulting in some of the worst air quality in the country.”
The article argues that, while Democrats are unified on national issues, with surveys showing the majority self-identify as liberals, “the politics of land use in thriving cities scrambles this harmony.”
They identify three distinct coalitions.
First, “there is the landed gentry, older residents who bought at the right time and are precious about maintaining their housing value.”
Second “come the leftist activists who favour rent control, massive public-housing spending and who think gentrification is terrible.”
Third “are the market-oriented urbanists who want cities to fix their housing-supply shortages by building more.”
The article raises an interesting point, although I see it slightly differently. The first group is definitely present. But the second and third groups are probably more divided along the lines of what is the more salient social issue: people or the environment.
For many on the left, housing has become a social justice issue.
But it’s more complicated than that, because there are those who believe that land protection is vital to environmental protection and those who believe that the key to saving the environment is smart growth – more work-live, putting people closer to jobs to reduce commute time.
The Economist argues: “The rent-control faction appears newly emboldened.”
Again, have to question that a bit – in California, the rent control measure went down in flames. As the article points out, advocates argue such measures would “provide immediate relief” to those struggling “to keep up with rising rents and a tight rental market.” The downside of rent control is that it also works “to constrain housing supply, hurting future renters.”
They cite: “A study by three Stanford economists of a rent-control law change in 1994 in San Francisco found that affected landlords decreased supply by 15%, increasing rents citywide.”
The result is rent-stabilization or control, but rent that is “hardly cheap.”
In California, “the degree of rent control that cities can impose is limited by a state law known as Costa-Hawkins. In 2018 activists launched an effort to repeal the rule by referendum. They were defeated (the proposition attracted its highest level of support—53%—in San Francisco county). Unbowed, state legislators have proposed a suite of bills that would increase local rent-control capacities.”
Housing prices are high “because demand has grown more quickly than supply. Supporters of rent control pay no heed to the opportunities they deny to poor and middle-class people to move to thriving cities.”
The article argues “the market-urbanist coalition, which pushes for relaxed zoning rules and more building, had little sway over local politics.”
But that is changing, they argue. The YIMBY movement is a loosely organized bloc of those who are saying “yes in my backyard” to new development.
Here is where they situate SB 50 put forward by Senator Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco City Councilmember.
They write SB 50 “would pre-empt local zoning rules and allow high-density building near transit stations and centres of job growth or high-quality schooling. For many cities in the Bay Area, this would essentially legalise high-density building citywide.”
Once again the left is split. The mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento are in favor.
But the San Francisco City Council is opposed, as is the mayor of Pal Alto.
The article notes that SB 50 modifies the failed legislation from last year. They write: “The new version contains concessions to activist concerns—like delaying implementation in poor neighbourhoods and adding tenant protections—and looks politically hardier as a result.”
“Rather than having these two camps, or sub-camps, divided and fighting with each other, they should be unified,” says Mr Wiener. “In the end, the common opponent is the no-growth people who do not want any development in our community. They want to freeze their communities in amber even though their children won’t be able to live where they grew up.”
The believe the success of SB 50 will depend on Gavin Newsom, who has shown a desire to fix the state’s deep housing problems and pledged to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.
However, they correctly point out, “The intra-party politics of housing reform remain difficult. SB 50 has cleared one committee hurdle, but has yet to emerge from the state legislature. And for all his efforts elsewhere, Mr Newsom has yet to weigh in on whether he would actually sign it.”
What I find interesting about this article is that it captures very well that the divide we have experienced locally for decades is now at the forefront of statewide debates over housing policy.
It also puts SB 50 at the center of this battle – whereas, I think a more important long-term issue is going to be what happens with efforts to create a successor to RDA (Redevelopment Agency funding) which could create another battle between the need for affordable housing and funding for schools.
—David M. Greenwald reporting