On Jan. 7, an inspired group of homeless working mothers called Moms 4 Housing boldly disrupted a press conference by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and other Democratic Party leaders promoting state Senate Bill 50.
The moms spoke out because they saw SB 50 as a ploy by speculators like Wedgewood Properties, which was threatening to evict them from the home they moved into in Oakland with their children in November. The moms pointed out that California’s problem is not so much an absolute shortage as a problem of housing distribution. Most California cities routinely exceed their market-rate and luxury housing production goals, but create only a fraction of the low-income housing needed to house the working class.
Virtually all tenant-led organizations in California oppose SB 50, a real estate deregulation bill that is returning to the Legislature for reconsideration after being shelved in 2019. Tenants Together, a statewide network of 50 local tenant organizations with which Affordable Housing Network is affiliated, voted unanimously to take an oppose position on the bill when it was presented to the Legislature last year.
Renters have grave concerns that SB 50 will worsen, not improve, the displacement crisis that is devastating marginalized communities in San Jose and across the state. About 54% of tenants recently surveyed by San Jose’s Anti-Displacement Policy Network stated that they fear displacement in the future; 72% said they know someone forced to move out of San Jose against his or her will.
The crisis has already forced 1.5 million people to move out of the Bay Area from 2010 to 2015, and has especially severely impacted Latino, African American and low-income communities. Tenant groups fear SB 50 will accelerate this displacement by unleashing real estate speculation and driving up rents, especially in cities like San Jose that have relatively weak tenant protections. The ties of SB 50 sponsors Wiener and California YIMBY with the real estate lobby are well documented.
Renters are rightly skeptical about SB 50’s tenant protections and the five-year exemption for “sensitive communities.” It is little comfort to know that you have only a five-year reprieve before your family will be banished from your community, your children’s schools, your churches and your extended family. The provisions for local control are equally disconcerting, as they do not clarify what constitutes “local.” Will East Side displacement be planned by a Willow Glen-dominated Planning Commission? Or by today’s City Council majority, which has a history of ignoring East Side concerns?
The Affordable Housing Network agrees with the need to tear down exclusionary zoning barriers in historically segregated wealthy communities, but SB 50’s targeting of neighborhoods near transit corridors puts at risk many of the poorest and most predominantly minority working-class communities in the state. A much better approach is AB 1279 by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.
AB 1279 would target state zoning overrides at high-resource areas where housing development is largely low-density and would specifically exempt places that already embrace racial and economic diversity, and places that are at high risk for gentrification and displacement, like downtown and East Side San Jose.
Renters are also skeptical about SB 50’s claim to be environmentally friendly. Increased transit-oriented development within the Bay Area will not offset the climate impact of hundreds of thousands of supercommuters likely to be created by SB 50 and the Bay Area’s lopsided jobs-housing imbalance. San Jose’s current general plan is designed to displace some 415,400 San Jose residents by 2040, an unthinkable debacle that will gridlock our freeways and poison our Earth.
Moms 4 Housing is absolutely right when it points out that the housing crisis’ real cause is not zoning regulations, but out-of-control real estate speculation. Relaxing local zoning laws will not cause substantial increases in low-income housing supply. The incremental amounts of “inclusionary housing” units called for by SB 50 are not sufficient. The number of affordable units produced will not be enough to meet the need, and most “affordable” housing is not affordable to low-income people. Excess luxury housing will also crowd out low-income housing from the available residential land.
There is also no evidence to indicate that even SB 50’s promised increases in market-rate housing will alleviate the crisis. Current industry practice suggests that many of them will be used as purely investment vehicles and not for human habitation.
According to author Aaron Glantz, 25% of all residential real estate transactions in America are now made with cash, and 3 million homes and 13 million apartment units are owned by LLC, LLP, LP or shell companies. A recent study by ACCE and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy found that 41% of residential property in Los Angeles is owned by corporate entities, not individual human beings, and 103,000 housing units were unoccupied and vacant.
The Atlantic reports that almost half of all luxury housing units built in New York City in the last five years are empty.
Asking the real estate industry to solve the housing crisis is like asking the fossil fuel industry to end climate change. The real estate industry invented the housing crisis, including its segregation, subprime mortgages, foreclosures, evictions and out-of-control rent increases. The real solution to the housing problem is the kind of massive public investment proposed by some of the presidential candidates: take $2.5 trillion by taxing corporations and build 10 million units of the low-income, socially owned housing that people need.
Homes were invented to provide human beings with security for our families and protection from the elements. It is time to restore them to their proper social function and end the out-of-control commodification that uses them primarily as instruments for commercial profit.
Sandy Perry is the president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County.