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'Declaration of war': liberals divided as California mulls housing push

California state legislators are considering an overhaul of the city planning rulebook.
California state legislators are considering an overhaul of the city planning rulebook. Photograph: Alamy

The mayor of Berkeley, California, has called it “a declaration of war”. A neighborhood group in Los Angeles said it would be akin to forcing Native Americans from their land.

Amid a desperate housing crisis, legislators in the Golden State have prompted an outcry with new proposals that threaten to take the rulebook that governs American city planning and throw it out the window.

Their proposition: reducing cities’ power to decide what gets built and putting more control into state hands.

“We have a housing deficit in the millions and it grows every year,” said the state senator Scott Wiener, author of a bill at the center of the fight.

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To keep up with population growth, California needs to build 180,000 new homes each year. But for the last 10 years, it has constructed less than half that figure.

This scarcity has driven up rents and the prices of homes to the point where half of the state’s current residents can no longer afford them and homelessness has surged. In San Francisco, the state’s most expensive housing market, the median sales price of homes was $1.25m in 2016 and the median rent was $4,500.

Liberals have found themselves pitted against liberals, with urban environmentalists who want to build “smart cities” with dense housing around transit lines facing off against minority groups fighting to protect inner-city neighborhoods and suburbanites wanting to slow growth. It has divided renting millennials from their homeowning parents and created a passionate breed of housing activists calling themselves Yimbys.

Inspiration for Wiener’s new bill stemmed in part from an unexpected corner: a squat building that once housed a Kentucky Fried Chicken in San Francisco’s desirable Mission district.

Over a decade ago, developers wanted to build 16 rental units there. But faced with neighborhood concerns ranging from the building’s lack of parking spaces to the effects of construction noise on a next door theater, the project was subjected to some 20 hearings and review meetings as the approval process dragged out over a 10-year period, according to the landowner, Mark Rutherford. After getting through eight different board votes to win city approval, it was challenged again by a neighborhood lawsuit.

“It demonstrated an aversion to new housing, coupled with an expensive planning process, topped off with arbitrary decisions,” Wiener wrote in a 2014 op-ed.

Last year, Wiener successfully pushed a bill that would override local objections in districts that don’t produce their share of housing. It was among many other bids to help ameliorate the affordability crisis.

His new bill would wipe out height and density limits around all transit stations and major bus routes in the state to allow construction of buildings five to eight stories high. It has won support from a group of 100 Silicon Valley tech industry leaders, who signed a letter saying workers desperately need the housing. It also has financial backing from developers.

“Things are not going to get better by sticking to the status quo,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. He said the state needed both affordable and market-rate housing near transit to reverse California’s tendency toward suburban sprawl. “We have to go full bore by building as much transit-oriented housing as possible.”

Opponents have declared the move “a war on local planning” that would unleash a huge wave of uncontrolled, private development and have unintended consequences, including gentrification and displacement of inner city minority populations. A Los Angeles city councilman said it could make beach neighborhoods look like “Dubai 10 years later” and Dick Platkin, a former Los Angeles city planner, said allowing eight-story towers around all transit stations would enforce a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

In an interview, meanwhile, Mayor Jesse Arreguin of Berkeley called the proposed rule change “extreme”.

“This will change the character of neighborhoods in the Bay Area and throughout the state.”

Others see Wiener’s plan in even starker terms, underlining the challenge that he and Yimby groups face.

A stakeholders’ coalition in the Crenshaw district, a Los Angeles neighborhood that has historically had a large African American community, charged that the bill would drive up prices.

The result, they said, would be the displacement of low-income residents on the scale of the Trail of Tears that followed President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act.

“This will be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Damien Goodmon, director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition.

Do you have an experience of homelessness to share with the Guardian? Get in touch

  • This article was updated on 14 February 2018 to clarify the appearance of the building on San Francisco’s Valencia Street.

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This article titled "'Declaration of war': liberals divided as California mulls housing push" was written by Erin McCormick in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14 February 2018 01.00pm

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