I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.
The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.
Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.
I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.
At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.
Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.
But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.
So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.