In the world of housing advocacy, a dangerous myth has taken hold, one that is now being manifested in the form of legislation. That myth goes as follows: If you just build more housing, housing will get cheaper.
Were it so easy. And yet for some reason this simplistic notion keeps getting accepted at face value by a lot of people who should really know better. This myth is more or less the fundamental belief of self-proclaimed YIMBYs, who are really feeling their oats in California right now with the introduction of Scott Weiner’s SB 827. If passed by the California State Legislature, SB 827 would basically exempt any housing project within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop from most zoning regulations, particularly height and density restrictions and parking requirements.
Predictably, YIMBYs were eager to jump on board, praising Weiner as some sort of urbanist visionary. But they seem to have been taken by surprise by a diverse coalition that has formed in opposition to the bill, which includes some members with pretty serious cred: tenants and immigrant rights organizations, housing and homeless advocacy groups, and even transportation advocacy groups like Move LA and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. These weren’t the usual Beverly Hills suspects that could be so casually dismissed as “NIMBYs” (not that this has stopped some YIMBYs from trying).
In short, what we’re seeing is the inevitable shattering of the broad coalition that overwhelmingly defeated Measure S less than a year ago. The urbanists who prematurely declared that victory as a sign that Los Angeles was uniting around an urban vision for its future overlooked something crucial: this fight was never just about what gets built in this city; it’s about who gets to live in this city.
I’ve briefly touched on the problems with YIMBYism before, but they basically boil down to an absurd faith that left to its own devices, the real estate market will sort itself out. Build more housing units, the thinking goes, and the price for each individual unit will go down. Basic supply and demand, right? The obvious problem with this reasoning is that housing as a commodity doesn’t function like the simple models you studied in your microeconomics class. Supply is just one of numerous factors that affect the cost of housing in a speculative real estate market. In pricey cities like Los Angeles, the cost of your housing unit probably has more to do with how old it is and how much speculative capital is flowing into new construction in your neighborhood. After all, the old real estate mantra is “location, location, location,” not “supply, supply, supply.”
To once again quote Karen Narefsky’s marvelous article on YIMBYism:
The YIMBY narrative rests on an idea called filtering, which maintains that even luxury construction increases affordability: as new luxury units are built, wealthier residents move into the new housing stock instead of competing for existing lower-quality housing. Apart from the condescension — should low-income people really have to wait for housing to “filter” down to them? — this framework ignores the reality of today’s housing market. Existing housing is more likely to be turned into short-term rentals through Airbnb, flipped to a condo developer, or turned into a high-end rental than it is to be occupied by a low-income family. There is also strong evidence that rents in existing housing near new luxury housing rise more than rents in apartments that are not close to new luxury housing.
What’s more, just because new housing units get built doesn’t necessarily mean that people will live in those housing units. As Narefsky writes, “The idea of filtering, as well as the premise that new construction will bring down rents, means little when housing can be, and often is, used as an investment.”
Given all this, it’s no wonder that SB 827 has many housing advocates in South L.A. and East L.A. worried. “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. City-wide, there has been a greater push to require developers to provide affordable housing and incentivize transit-oriented affordable housing through initiatives like the voter-approved Measure JJJ—an incentive that would be completely disregarded should SB 827 pass in its current form, undoing years of hard work.
Even for transit advocates, the prospect of what SB 827 could wrought has given pause for thought. On the face of it, more density around transit is good. But there’s a healthy difference between development that’s transit-oriented and development that’s merely transit-adjacent, and SB 827 makes no delineation between the two. What’s more, market-rate housing is going to cater to the wealthy, who are the least likely to use transit no matter what. Density does transit little good if all the people who use transit get displaced.
Now, some people have defended SB 827 by pointing out that it could potentially be amended to include more provisions for affordable housing. But this just speaks to the limitations of relying on the speculative real estate market to address our housing crisis. The reality is that nothing short of forceful interventions into that market are going to bring costs down. Mandating affordable housing in new developments is a baby step, and one that doesn’t go far enough because the market is never going to produce enough housing to meet the huge demand for affordable housing, even if you throw all zoning regulations to the winds. What is needed is an ambitious project to construct enough affordable housing units to meet this huge need—something most easily accomplished through a massive public housing initiative—coupled with tenant protections and rent controls to ensure that these new units remain affordable for years to come. Only by taking housing outside of the parameters of the market will you make it accessible to the masses.
These are the battle lines now being drawn in the housing debate, and the fight over SB 827 is just the first of many to come. YIMBYs are hardwired to think of every single one of their opponents as a NIMBY, but this is not going to be a battle between those who think development is bad and those who think it’s good. This is to be a battle between those who are fighting for their right to remain in their homes, and those who are merely content to watch developers toss out a few scraps for the rest of us.