It’s a simple idea: Everyone should have a place to live. But we are failing badly at this most basic of goals, in every part of the country.
In Brooklyn and Minneapolis, where we are city council members, skyrocketing prices push families out of the neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years. It’s impossible for young people to find a place to rent, much less own. Homelessness is at record levels, and in cities like Detroit, as many as one in five renters face eviction, part of a nationwide eviction epidemic.
As members of Local Progress, anational network of progressive elected officials from cities and other local governments across the country, on Thursday we began a three-day convening in Durham, North Carolina, to address these issues that are infiltrating more and more cities.
Seventy years ago, the Housing Act of 1949 set the goal “of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American,” but it has been decades since Washington was of any real help on affordable housing.
In the gap created by federal inaction, local elected officials have been taking the lead. Fifty of us are gathering today to reflect on what’s working, why we’re still falling short, and what we need to meet a simple but elusive goal—that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live.
Rather than seeing the housing crisis only as an issue of lack of supply, or only as a consequence of gentrification, we recognize the complex reality and the need to address both. On the one hand, many of our cities lack housing supply: We simply do not have enough homes for the people who want to live in our communities.
Getting rid of exclusionary zoning (long deployed by white homeowners to hoard the benefits of high property values and segregated schools) and building more housing is necessary to address the imbalance of supply and demand, but will not solve for displacement and eviction.
On the other hand, renters in gentrifying communities are traumatized by displacement and rising rents and skeptical of governments that have walked away from low-income communities for decades. They want stronger tenant protections to keep people from being evicted as rents rise and won’t support growth without meaningful reform.
It is not the case that any development will do. Good policies insure that housing meets the needs of those who need it most, and that we confront racist zoning policies of the past that produced and furthered segregation. Good planning can help make sure we’ve got the infrastructure needed to sustain growth, that we genuinely engage community voices to shape places where families will thrive, and that new units are built with the climate crisis in mind—near transit and energy-efficient.
But growth will be required. We’ll need courage to push past the fear of change, of loss of the familiar, that so often tethers us too strongly to the status quo.
At the same time, how can we ask people to support new development if they reasonably fear it will push them out of their own neighborhoods? That’s why it must come along with strong protections against rent hikes and unwarranted evictions so that tenants can stay in their homes.
Here too, cities and states are filling in the gaps. After New York became the first city to offer a “right to counsel” law, to make sure tenants are represented by a lawyer when facing an eviction proceeding, evictions dropped in just one year. Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., are working on their own versions of the law.
Oregon, California, and New York recently passed sweeping “rent regulation” protections for tenants that limit the rent increases landlords can charge. Illinois and Colorado are considering similar legislation.
At first, these policies sound radical, in a country where private property is considered sacrosanct. But do we really believe that a landlord should be able to raise the rent on a family however high they want, usually benefitting far more from broader neighborhood trends than anything they did, even when the cost is eviction, trauma, and homelessness?
Finally, seeing the limits of what the private market can do to create housing that is affordable to all, for the long-term, cities are expanding alternative models for housing ownership. As in higher education and health care, public options can complement what the market provides. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, New York City, and Jackson, Mississippi, are all experimenting with various forms of “social housing,” like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.
These social-housing models limit speculation. Rather than as a commodity, they treat housing as a right, something everyone needs and deserves, and that we should provide together when the market is failing to do so. Social housing can also help us push past resistance to growth, the frustration that new development usually enriches a small handful of developers, and too rarely meets community needs.
Right now, these experiments are miniscule compared to the need. And that’s where the federal government must come in. More inclusive growth, stronger tenant protections, and investment in social housing are the right way forward, as our cities are showing. But to do it at the scale of the crisis we face, we’ll need resources at the scale that only the federal government can provide.
As the presidential candidates put forward plans to address the housing crisis, some more ambitious than others, hopefully they will hear us: More housing is needed. But it must come along with mechanisms to ensure that current tenants are not displaced, that enough new units are truly affordable to those who need them, and that they are more integrated and more sustainable than what we’ve built to date.
The fate of America’s cities, communities, and families hangs in the balance.
Britain’s best new building is a public housing project, according to a major award announced yesterday. Goldsmith Street, a 105-home development completed by architects Mikhail Riches in the city of Norwich, has just received the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize, after being described by judges as “a modest masterpiece.” Although it’s the first time that public housing has won Britain’s most prestigious architectural award, the project’s success makes perfect sense.
That’s not just because affordable housing in general has been the subject of intense discussion and some public recognition in Britain recently, with the public housing architect Neave Brown receiving RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement shortly before his death in 2018, and the regeneration of a rundown Liverpool neighborhood becoming the unlikely winner of fine art’s Turner Prize. It’s also because Goldsmith Street’s attractive townhouses, built by Norwich City Council, could—in their matching of affordability with extreme energy efficiency—provide a standard model for developments all across Britain. Indeed, RIBA President Alan Jones called the development not just “a pioneering exemplar for other local [governments] to follow,” but also a “beacon of hope.”
You might not see all this at first glance. A pleasant, somewhat traditional-looking development that recalls the modest Victorian-era rowhouses found elsewhere in this city of 200,000 people, Goldsmith Street doesn’t look as groundbreaking aesthetically as it is in terms of its planning and construction. The new mini-district is nonetheless denser than it looks, concentrating 45 houses and 60 apartments on less than two acres, yet gaining a sense of spaciousness from a central, car-free garden alley with play spaces and greenery.
Above all, Goldsmith Street is extremely energy-efficient, constructed to ultra-low-energy Passivhaus standards. The pale-brown brick walls are all built to an insulating thickness of at least 23.5 inches, while the homes’ orientation is southwards, so as to maximize solar load. This is a useful energy saver in a region where (for now, at least) keeping homes warm is more of an issue than keeping them cool, and could make heating costs far lower for residents.
To further enhance this solar orientation, buildings were kept low-rise and roofs were tilted to a 15 percent gradient—both decisions intended to reduce overshadowing. Other small touches reinforce the drive for energy efficiency. Windows are partly shaded via aluminum brise-soleils, and in a country where most people still receive their mail directly through a drafty, heat-seeping slot in their front door, Goldsmith Street’s homes have been designed with a mailbox sunk sideways into the porch instead.
It’s great to see this level of care taken with housing intended for people on low incomes. But despite the recent recognition for public housing in the U.K., it would be a mistake to assume that the country is going through a golden age in this area. Finding funding for public housing remains extremely difficult, and the number of socially-rented homes in Britain actually dropped a dramatic 11 percent in the year 2016-17.
Meanwhile, the targets handed out to private developers that require them to produce a number of homes at sub-market rates have a habit of being diluted with impunity. And often, the sub-market homes end up being rented out at rates still beyond the pockets of many people they are intended to benefit. Norwich’s scheme avoided this pitfall by committing to all homes being rented at a subsidized rate not directly pegged to market prices, an approach that still ultimately recoups construction costs, but more slowly. Even here, however, the approach was made possible partly by funds gained by the council from selling off public housing elsewhere.
Developments like Goldsmith Street still capture the public imagination because many British people remember a time when public housing was built both in large quantities and (often) to high standards. While Britain has had its public housing disasters, the idea of state-built housing doesn’t have quite the shadow over it that exists in the U.S., cast by Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green. More than 40 percent of Britons lived in public housing in the 1970s, before Margaret Thatcher decimated the sector in the 1980s. So many people remember a time when living in well-built but cheap housing was something normal for those on lower incomes.
That memory has a powerful luster in today’s unequal, austerity-hit Britain, and helps explain why a likable but unremarkable-looking project like Goldsmith Street could win the country’s top architectural accolade.
Adeena Crape may be one of the last people in St. Louis to receive a housing voucher—at least for a while.
In summer 2014, Crape applied for housing assistance through the St. Louis Housing Authority. The Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, would subsidize her rent with federal funds. Crape had not planned on applying, but her participation in an outpatient program for people with depression and anxiety required her to register. “Honestly,” Crape says, “I was under the impression that it was only for people with children.”
Crape received a call late this past November from the Housing Authority. Upon learning she could pick up her voucher, she was taken aback. Years had passed since Crape put her name on the waitlist. She had dismissed the idea that a voucher would ever come. “I’m not even sure how I got it!” Crape says.
Crape applied the last time the St. Louis Housing Authority opened its waitlist—a fleeting five-day window in July 2014. Over the course of those five days, 27,708 residents of St. Louis put their names on the list. In other major cities, the demand for vouchers is just as extraordinary. The last time Chicago opened its waitlist for housing aid, 260,000 households applied. With that many people in the pool, the Chicago Housing Authority held a random lottery, advancing only one in every five families to the voucher waitlist. Nationwide, around 3 million families are on voucher waitlists. If the waitlists weren’t closed, the number might be as high as 9 million families.
In the coming months, Congress will make decisions that may dramatically shape Crape’s monthly housing payments, and possibly even her status as a voucher holder. With budget cuts looming, public housing authorities across the country are preparing to shrink their Housing Choice Voucher programs. Philosophically, staff in St. Louis and elsewhere will have to decide on the lesser of two evils: cut the number of vouchers or slash the value that vouchers provide.
Today, the St. Louis Housing Authority is working its way through the waitlist chronologically—and they have yet to review applicants who signed up after day one of that five-day reprieve back in 2014. That Crape spent years on the waitlist is strikingly typical. According to HUD, 35 percent of voucher holders spend more than three years on waitlists—and 15 percent spend more than five years waiting. “You know, it’s so hard out here. I know people on the waitlist 10 years, 8 years, 6 years,” Crape says.
St. Louis’s long line to a voucher is a testament to the pent-up demand for affordable housing.
Nationwide, only one out of every four eligible households receive support. For those without assistance, conditions are worsening; between 2013 and 2015, HUD reports, the number of severely rent-burdened households increased by more than half a million.
Against this backdrop, federal allocations are positioned to shrink services, shifting the costs to the individual. Cuts will disproportionately burden black women. In St. Louis, black people account for 94 percent of voucher holders. More than 80 percent are women-headed homes. For a city where almost a quarter of renters spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing, fewer federal dollars would mean more residents fighting housing insecurity.
Receiving a voucher does not necessarily ensure that recipients will be able to obtain safe, affordable housing. Folks like Crape are already navigating a rental landscape in St. Louis in which housing stock is increasingly limited and landlords regularly discriminate against voucher holders, despite the fact that this practice is illegal within city limits. Further, just last year during budget negotiations, more than a thousand vouchers nationwide were rescinded while families attempted to secure units, sending them back to the waitlist.
For Crape, the clock is ticking. “I wake up and look online every morning for new posts,” she says. “I have 120 days to find a place before the voucher expires.”
Cheryl Lovell, the executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, administers vouchers to just under 7,000 households in the city and neighboring county. Just before the new year, HUD notified housing authorities of possible budget cuts based on Congressional proposals. The letter told directors to anticipate anywhere from a one to five percent cut in voucher program funding. “I know our funding is going to go down, but I don’t know by how much,” Lovell says.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, under the last Senate bill, 25,000 households nationwide would drop off the voucher program in a year—this, even though the bill increases HUD’s overall funding. The House bill is significantly harsher, cutting an estimated 105,000 households from the program. Put into further perspective, the budget Trump gave to Congress would cut around 235,000 households nationwide as part of the largest proposed cut to HUD since the Reagan era.
But for Lovell, it’s not just the budget cuts that worry her—it’s the waiting game. Congress hasn’t passed a federal budget on time since 1997. Even though the fiscal year starts in October, last year’s budget did not pass until the following May. While Congress debates the budget from one resolution to the next, St. Louis and some 3,300 housing authorities across the country operate off their best guesses. “Sometimes they pass it so late, that you can’t really plan for what you’re supposed to do that year,” she says. “What business do you know that doesn’t find out their budget until after their fiscal year is over?”
While waiting for last year’s budget to pass, Lovell says industry groups predicted that funding would renew only 95 percent of her budget. The 5 percent gap would have been enough to create a small crisis, had it materialized. Given the uncertainty, Lovell was forced into the precarious position of cutting her own program.
To mitigate the potential damage, the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners decided to cut costs. They froze the waitlist for the first time since a nearly two-year period in 2014, meaning no names would come off the waitlist when vouchers became available. “Our first reaction, if the money gets cut substantially, is to just stop leasing to new tenants,” says Lovell.
Once the office stopped providing vouchers to applicants from the waitlist, attrition reduced the program. “Thirty-five to 40 households will fall off the program every month, and you hope that this makes up for the money that you’ve lost.” By not replacing these spots with families from the waitlist, Lovell’s program can be reduced by about 450 vouchers in a given year, if needed to fill a budget gap.
When the federal budget passed in May 2017, the St. Louis voucher program received more funding than expected. Still, the waitlist remained frozen for three months after the budget passed. “The leasing process itself takes a fairly long time to gear back up—so you stop and you start,” Lovell says. An uncertain budget increases inefficiencies.
Year after year, Lovell’s office stretches its budget as far as possible in an attempt to grow the program carefully and slowly. But when housing authorities pull back their budgets in anticipation of looming cuts, this can result in fewer funds the following year, even if the expected cuts are never actualized. “The funding you can apply for the following year is based on what you spent the previous year,” she says. “So changing the trajectory following a cut can be difficult. It puts you sort of in a downward spiral.”
The line Lovell walks was especially thin in 2013. That year, a gridlocked Congress triggered the across-the-board budget cut known as the sequester. As a result, housing authorities nationwide faced a 6 percent gap in voucher funding.
“We stopped leasing immediately,” Lovell says. “We dropped the payment standards. For well over a year we did all kinds of stuff to pull back costs to avoid having to take anybody off the program.”
When housing authorities run out of other options, they sometimes turn to watering down the payment standard, or value, of vouchers. Payment standards are the maximum amount of subsidy a household can receive. When payment standards go down, tenants have a harder time making ends meet. Plus, their pool of available units is further restricted.
For households moving between homes in St. Louis during the summer of 2013, the support they received plummeted. The Housing Authority’s idea was to reduce each voucher holder’s support just enough to avoid knocking anyone off the program. Instead of receiving vouchers worth 110 percent of an area’s fair market rent (the maximum), their vouchers’ values sank to 95 percent. Vouchers no longer stretched as far. For example, in fiscal year 2013, a voucher for a two-bedroom unit within the city covered up to $871 of rent and utilities. Under these new payment standards and the 2013 budget, only up to $788 would be covered.
“This shifts more costs onto low-income households, who either must pay more to remain in their current housing or move to lower cost, lower quality housing,” writes Douglas Rice, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As a result, in St. Louis, fewer families were able to move out of the region’s high-poverty areas, where vouchers are already concentrated within lines of racial segregation. Policy changes fenced them in: The Housing Authority denied all tenant requests to move to homes in higher-cost areas. This, despite the program’s promise in increasing residents’ choices.
“The payment standard has to actually be high enough to compete with market-rate tenants,” says Janie Oliphant, a housing mobility counselor who connects landlords in low poverty areas in St. Louis city and county with voucher holders. “No landlord is going to accept a lower payment for a unit when they can make more money renting to a tenant who does not rely on a voucher.”
In May 2013, the housing authority sent a letter outlining program cutbacks to landlords, appealing to their goodwill. Staff, bracing for cuts, planned to decrease payment standards for all tenants, thereby increasing rent burden, with as little as 30 days warning. The letter asked landlords to voluntarily defer rent increases and reduce rent by 5 percent. Lovell admits, “These two attempts to reduce cost were not very successful.” Only two landlords deferred rent increases. No landlords reduced rent.
When facing cuts, even housing authorities are less likely to meet tenants half way. Leeway within programs—such as a payment plan for shifting income—can make the difference between a family keeping and losing their voucher. “But when you’re trying to control the cost and get under this cap, all the nice things you do for people, you’re just like, ‘Nope, sorry, can’t do that anymore,’” Lovell says. Cuts to administrative funding over recent years have compounded the shrinking support that housing authorities provide to tenant-landlord relations.
And while budget uncertainty diminished the voucher program’s pledge of social mobility, it didn’t undermine it completely. St. Louis avoided the most extreme scenario: not a single voucher was taken from a family following this budget cut. For many housing authorities nationwide it was a closer call, with tenants’ livelihoods often hanging in the balance. “We do everything else before we do that, everything. We do not want to remove a family,” Lovell says. But if it has to happen, the rule is simple: Last in, first out.
Today, housing authorities everywhere, St. Louis city included, have narrower margins and shallower emergency funds than they did following sequestration. This makes the worst-case scenario—housing authorities revoking vouchers—all the more likely if the Trump administration succeeds in imposing radical austerity.
With uncertain cuts looming and an administration that is anxious to dramatically reduce housing support, Crape occupies the position of “last in.” Any future cost-cutting measures in St. Louis will be made in an attempt to keep her, and other households recently awarded vouchers, in their homes.
“I’m pretty excited about the voucher,” Adeena says. “It’s another plateau for me. A part of me is very nervous, but a part of me is like, ‘Nahh, what have you got to be nervous about?’”
Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.
What We’re Following
California, here we come: The Golden State is a smorgasbord of housing challenges. With record housing shortages and inflated costs, cities are grappling with how to absorb both an economic boom and growing homelessness.
Anxiety and absenteeism are on the rise in public schools with large immigrant populations, according to a new UCLA study, and academics are suffering.
Juan Pablo Garnham
Streetsblog USA highlights how cities can build bus bulbs without the wait—or the concrete—thanks to these more affordable snap-in-place platforms by the Spanish-company Zicla. As Angie Schmitt writes, New York, Pittsburgh, and Oakland have experimented with these ADA-compliant plastic bus islands that connect to the sidewalk. It’s a cheap fix to the “sorriest bus stop” problem that Streetsblog has highlighted before, and another tool in the toolkit for improving bus service. Maybe give it a shot if riders fall in love with your pop-up bus lane.
What We’re Reading
How Trump’s Hudson Tunnel snit threatens the national economy (Bloomberg)
Cities around the world are dealing with severe housing shortages and inflated housing costs. But nowhere is housing such a potent political issue as in California, whose unique geography, state policies, and activist culture have combined with a poorly distributed economic boom to create a “perfect storm”—the chosen words of multiple sources for this story.
California is home to more than one-fifth of the nation’s homeless people, and the numbers are continuing to grow. Los Angeles County saw its homeless population
Over the past several years, California has not only produced too little housing, but too little of the right kind of housing. Between 2009 and 2014, the state added 77,000 more households than housing units. The housing it has produced is often located far from jobs and transit, or is too expensive for low and sometimes even middle income people to afford.
“It’s a desperate situation right now,” said Dowell Myers, an urban planning professor at University of Southern California. “We really have to rethink everything.”
Activists and civic leaders from a diverse cross-section of backgrounds are doing just that. Their solutions must redress a long list of historical factors underlying the current crisis, many of which are intertwined in ways that have exacerbated it. The housing policies they pursue in the coming year—including the liberalization of local zoning controls, and new protections for renters—could prove to be trendsetters for the rest of the country, where the term “housing crisis” is becoming increasingly common.
Whether these solutions are put in place, however, may depend on the ability of a new breed of tech-savvy activists to work together with long-established affordable housing advocates against the forces that produced the crisis in the first place.
The rise of Yes in My Backyard
NIMBYism originated in California with the best of intentions. Some of the first people to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) were pioneers of the environmental movement, who fought against the development of lands that are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Many opponents of new development continued to advocate worthy causes, but some others began to use the state’s environmental protection laws for purposes that had little to do with protecting the environment. Politically powerful homeowners used the broad scope of the state’s environmental review process to invoke aesthetic and quality-of-life concerns about new housing, which often served as a pretext for race and class-based exclusion. These kinds of conflicts are ongoing: In one recent example, residents of San Francisco’s wealthy Forest Hill neighborhood are organizing against the construction of an apartment building for low-income seniors out of fear of “severely drug addicted people” and the mentally ill.
Anti-development preferences were gradually codified into local zoning rules that made it difficult to build denser new housing, especially in wealthy, activist enclaves along the coast. A state constitutional amendment passed in the 1970s protected homeowners from property tax increases on their increasingly valuable (and scarce) homes, incentivizing cities to generate revenues from retail and office development instead of housing. Those areas that remained zoned for denser housing development were often low-income, minority neighborhoods, like San Francisco’s Mission District and Downtown L.A., that have subsequently experienced extreme gentrification.
It was only a matter of time before this self-serving mentality would spawn its antithesis. Affordable housing and racial justice groups had long been fighting many of the adverse effects of NIMBYism, but it took a group of equally well-connected activists to provide a significant political challenge to anti-development homeowners. As super-educated young people poured into the Bay Area during the Web 2.0 era, they became infuriated that their generous paychecks were insufficient to afford decent housing. They saw how special interest groups had formed to systematically block, or at least substantially shrink, as many new developments as possible. If the NIMBYs could institutionalize their efforts, so, too, would the YIMBYs.
YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) groups are focused on increasing the production of all types of housing, fast. San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) was one of the first such groups. It quickly drew attention to itself with zany tactics including ironic signs saying “Stop Affordable Housing,” and controversial statements, like when the group’s founder, Sonja Trauss, compared resistance against tech workers living in the Mission to racist housing policies historically leveraged against Latinos.
Still, the pro-housing message resonated. Trauss was featured in last year’s Politico 50 as the face of the budding movement, and is now a serious candidate for San Francisco city supervisor. The YIMBYs’ clownish spirit helped provide visibility for the supply and demand problem that had long been the purview of policy wonks. “The problem is really a simple one,” said Myers. “If you don’t provide housing for rich people, they will take their housing from somebody else.”
One of the most effective ways YIMBYs advocate for more housing is by invoking jobs-to-housing ratios. A healthy ratio is approximately two new jobs for every new unit of housing. Nearly all California metros are way above that sweet spot, according to an analysis of census data by Apartment List; between 2010 and 2015 San Diego had a ratio of 3.9 jobs per housing unit, Los Angeles’ was 4.7, San Francisco’s was 6.8, and the Central Valley metro of Modesto’s was a whopping 11.4.
The tech industry, which has been one of the main drivers of the state’s massive job growth in recent years, especially in Northern California, was quick to embrace the YIMBY movement. Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder of Yelp, and Dustin Moskowitz, co-founder of Facebook, have become major financial backers of the cause. YIMBYism is in many respects a perfect complement to the tech ethos; it provides a quantitative solution to a societal ill that still manages to feel playful and subversive.
Like the environmental movement and digital revolution before it, the YIMBY movement started in the Golden State and quickly went global—there are now chapters across the United States, as well as in Canada and the U.K. Still, the movement’s vanguard remains concentrated in California, where it is poised to become a major political force in 2018.
A ‘radical’ new housing agenda
The YIMBYs have found their champion in Scott Wiener, who has made housing a top priority since he was elected to the state senate in 2016. Wiener was instrumental in the historic package of 15 housing-related bills passed by the state legislature last year. His contribution to the package, SB 35, expedites the process for building housing deemed critically needed by the state.
But for Wiener, last year’s housing package was simply not enough. “We made a strong start last year, but we have to build on that success to get back on track, because we have a huge crisis on our hands,” he said. This January, he responded with a new package of housing bills, including one aimed at making it easier to build housing for farmworkers, and another to improve city accountability for building new housing. Taken together, these bills would make it easier and faster to produce new housing in California, particularly in high-demand areas that have seen little new housing construction in recent years.
The most ambitious bill in the package, SB 827, co-sponsored by California YIMBY, would essentially rewrite local zoning controls across the state. The bill bans local jurisdictions from imposing certain zoning requirements that mandate parking and restrict density near mass transit and high-frequency bus stops. The idea is both to increase the housing stock, and bolster the state’s public transit services, some of which are bleeding riders. “You have these invaluable assets, major transit investments, where very few people get to live near them, and we want more people to live near them,” Wiener said.
New height limits in these areas would be no lower than 45 feet on narrow streets, and 85 feet on the widest streets. “What you’re going to see is more and more of these smaller apartment buildings, these four, six, eight units—what the Washington Post recently referred to as the ‘missing middle,’” Wiener said.
Who the hell approved this atrocious, neighborhood character crushing, souls wrenching 75’ apartment building in the Sunset and why isn’t the world falling apart? pic.twitter.com/IuUDGTV80o
Supporters of the bill point out that many of the neighborhoods that would be affected already have buildings at these densities from before stricter zoning rules were implemented. Los Angeles, for instance, went from being zoned for a population capacity of 10 million people in 1960, to a population capacity of 4.3 million in 2010. By once again allowing multifamily homes in huge swaths of California’s urbanized areas, SB 827 could ease development pressures on the neighborhoods currently bearing the brunt of new housing construction, which are often less politically powerful areas.
“We need to tear down these exclusionary zoning walls around these wealthier, bougie neighborhoods that fought very successfully to keep development out,” said Victoria Fierce, an organizer for the YIMBY group East Bay for Everyone. “SB 827 takes direct aim at that, and I think that is a radical thing.”
How to protect tenants now
By Wiener’s own admission, even if SB 827 were passed (hearings could begin in March), it would take years to make a significant impact on housing prices. Meanwhile, activists focused on tenant protections and affordable housing are more concerned with addressing the day-to-day impacts of the housing crisis. Most recently, that work has involved fights to expand rent control policies and other tenant protections.
Political will for rent control appears to be increasing, said Aimee Inglis, associate director of Tenants Together. Five California cities—Santa Cruz, Inglewood, Glendale, Long Beach, and Pasadena—have new rent control ordinances on upcoming ballots, potentially adding to the 15 cities with existing ordinances. And Housing is a Human Right, a low income housing advocacy group, is gathering signatures to repeal a state law that prevents rent control from being applied to newer units.
Rent control is viewed by most economists as a highly inefficient policy, and there is a very real concern that expanding its reach could depress housing construction. But there is also increasing acknowledgement that it—or something like it—is a necessary protection in such an extreme housing market. “It’s sometimes the only thing you can do, and so you have to do it, but it’s not ideal,” said Myers, the USC professor.
The need for rent control is compounded by the prevalence of evictions, which disproportionately affect low-income and minority tenants. A state law that allows landlords to evict tenants so they can convert their rental properties to for-sale units affected tens of thousands of tenants in Los Angeles alone between 2001 and 2017. A trio of bills was recently introduced in the state legislature that would make eviction more difficult.
As YIMBYs become a bigger part of the conversation around housing in California, there is increasing tension between the agendas of new, oftentimes more privileged housing activists and those who have long been focused on housing for the most vulnerable.
“I think what’s changed now is that we’ve got Wiener and a lot of the YIMBY groups that identify as liberal, some of them might even identify as leftist, but instead of pushing against the real estate industry, they’re out there pushing for a very neoliberal development agenda,” said Erin McElroy founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Damien Goodmon, Executive Director of Housing is a Human Right, called YIMBYs an “astroturf group” for the real estate industry, and has made more extreme critiques, like describing the potential impacts of SB 827 as “a 21st century Trail of Tears.”
Finding the political will
While their overall goals are largely the same—more housing near jobs and transit, at more reasonable prices—the two factions have some substantive disagreements. Affordable housing and tenants’ advocates, for example, tend to reject the notion that simple rules of supply and demand will fix the housing crisis, because an increase in the supply of housing doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the right kind of supply. Statewide, there is a surplus of high-income homes for rent, while every other income category is under-supplied. And the problem is even worse in expensive cities like San Francisco.
Opponents of SB 827 say that despite the inevitable increase in housing supply, the bill would actually increase rents and home values in low-income, transit-adjacent neighborhoods by signaling that they are open for luxury development. In response to these concerns, Wiener released a series of amendments to the bill, which include policies that protect residents of rent-controlled housing, and provide tenants of demolished buildings the opportunity to rent in the newly constructed buildings at the rate they previously paid.
The bill’s biggest threat will likely be powerful homeowners’ groups—the historical practitioners of NIMBYism—and their old-school environmentalist allies. The Sierra Club of California was one of the first major political groups to come out against SB 827, citing concerns that it could fuel opposition to transit. (The organization has also signaled openness to supporting an amended version of the bill, saying in a statement, “this bill has the right aim, but the wrong method.”) Wiener, a self-described environmentalist, says the bill would lower the state’s carbon footprint by encouraging transit-oriented development.
In order to achieve radical action on housing, YIMBYs and other housing activists will likely need to find a way to work together against the state’s more established interest groups, and mobilize the homeowners and environmentalists who do support ambitious new housing policies.
For YIMBYs this could mean more inclusive messaging, and a greater acknowledgment of historical injustices. “I’m a nice white lady with a nonprofit,” Fierce said. “I don’t have any right to tell these people of color, ‘You just trust me on this.’” YIMBYs have been criticized for failing to advocate for issues like rent control and eviction. More solidarity could go a long way.
Conversely, YIMBYs might be more receptive to tenants’ rights and affordable housing activists if they were more transparent about their alliances with traditional anti-development groups, and more open to market-rate development as a way to generate funds for affordable housing.
Meanwhile, these groups still don’t have their equivalent of a Scott Wiener or an SB 827—and it’s not for a lack of big ideas. Among their proposed policy goals, articulated by Goodmon and Inglis, are a massive mobilization of public funds for affordable housing construction; the implementation of community land trusts, which acquire and hold land for the benefit of the community; and much stronger rent controls and tenants’ rights, similar to those seen in many other countries.
Progress might be on the horizon. In addition to the potentially transformative long-term effects of SB 827, the three leading candidates in the November gubernatorial election have each said they would create approximately 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, a many-fold increase on the current rate of production. Political observers have called these plans unrealistic; indeed, the only way to make them a reality would likely involve the kind of public spending affordable housing advocates have long been dreaming of. Pent-up frustration on homelessness, and ever more widespread concern that young Californians will never be able to afford their parents’ homes could foster the political will for big changes.
California, described by many of its leaders as a “state of resistance,” is positioning itself as a model for progressive policies on issues like the environment, wages, and immigration. But the state’s current housing crisis may undermine its leadership in other areas. If California wants to be a progressive bastion, it needs to be consistent about it, Goodmon said: “We need all these so-called progressive politicians who are busy talking about how they are against the deportations and Trump to take the same approach when it comes to people being pushed out of their homes.”
Of all that came out of the mid-20th-century liberal consensus, perhaps nothing ended up so reviled as public housing. Bedeviled by hyper-segregation, urban decline, de-industrialization, and other social ills, government-funded affordable housing in large cities of the United States suffered from decades of bad press. By the 1990s, its failure was so broadly assumed that most of America cheered on the Clinton administration when it demolished huge swathes of the nation’s public housing.
Ben Austen’s new book and or Good Times. The truth is a mix. You have to get people to talk more, to learn that it could be family members that shot at [them].
Then there’s the feedback loop of how the storytelling about a place affected the reality of it. I write about this moment in 1970 where these two cops are killed, and everyone is writing about Cabrini-Green as this hellish place. Some people who live there are then like, “Man, I’m getting the f— out of here.” A third of the population leaves in a couple months, and then it’s suddenly, wildly vacant. Streets and Sanitation refuses to go there to pick up trash. Everyone in the city is reading about this terrible place, so people on the waiting list don’t want to move to Cabrini-Green. So the reality is shaped by the media, and it really does become worse.
How did you find the people who form the heart of your story?
I started this in 2011, when the last high rise in Cabrini-Green was coming down, as a magazine feature for Harper’s. I met many of the people then while doing that reporting. In the course of interviewing all these people, there are the four people I talk to the most in the book. They are people who both ended up trusting me enough to do many, many interviews, and who are good storytellers who all fought for their home.
Almost everyone I spoke with, you could find a moment where they were interviewed by someone else. Something would always come up because reporters were always around Cabrini-Green. It showed the way the outside world was always observing Cabrini-Green and picturing it, and residents were always reacting to those images.
The social and political history of public housing has been told before. What new ground does your book break?
[My work is] compared a lot to Alex Kotlowitz’s book [There Are No Children Here], which is first-hand reporting about two brothers in the Henry Horner Homes. His book, [set] in the 1990s, is more that Jacob Riis moment: here’s how the other half lives, this terrible injustice happening in the city.
Now, I’m telling it from a different vantage point. Yes, there was this great ill of concentrated poverty that we needed to get rid of. But we still have that in the city. We still have concentrated poverty and social isolation, it’s just the city doesn’t own the land anymore. Now it’s less visible, there is less collective outrage, and there is less advocacy by the people who are suffering it.
I hope my book tells that broader story, that sad irony that the same reason we tore down public housing was the reason to build it in the first place.
In Evicted, Matthew Desmond argued that a lot of attention has been focused on public housing, but most poor people live unassisted in market-rate housing. Why do you think the story of public housing should be better known, even if it isn’t that relevant to the lives of most poor people?
I think of public housing as the idea of us collectively as a country, the state, grappling with this issue of need, [with] the huge demand and lack of supply of affordable, decent, low-income housing.
Public housing’s fate still shows powerfully and painfully the evisceration of the idea of the state doing anything. So we are left with the people in Milwaukee in Matt Desmond’s book. Those aren’t people seeking public housing, and when they do, the waitlist is endless. Two hundred and eighty thousand families in Chicago applied for a lottery to get on the waitlist for a [Chicago Housing Authority] unit. That’s one in four of all renter households. That’s crazy, and it shows what the need is.
Public housing helps us think about possible solutions. It doesn’t have to be towers, but what does that experience mean for Section 8 housing, smaller developments, or mixed-income housing? It’s part of thinking about the basic idea of providing a decent home for everybody, which shouldn’t be so radical.
One thing I wrestle with, that I don’t think people on the left wrestle with enough, is that public housing is the story of the public sector doing a bad job of delivering goods and services. Pruitt-Igoe is only open for 18 years before they are tearing it down because it’s such a mess. We talk about these housing authorities that weren’t managing their properties, and now you have New York City, which is in this mess of $18 billion of unmet repairs.
That example is directly linked to the failure of the federal government to adequately fund the public housing capital program.
But we are the federal government. How can we make the case for these federal and state programs when they are all f—ed up? If the federal government didn’t do it, how can we be asking for more federal or state programs?
Not that the private sector is going to do it. We know from experience the opposite is true, that the market cannot dig that deeply because there is no profit in it. [Desmond’s] book is such a painful example of that. Or the foreclosure crisis. But we can’t just say, “Let’s do public housing again,” or “Let’s do something bigger.” How do you do it better?