Victory for Low Expectations! New California Housing Bill Isn't Terrible!

A positive but marginal reform to the Golden State's byzantine housing regulations


Viorel Dudau/

California has passed a half-decent housing bill, if you can believe it. I wouldn't call it libertarian bill, but it at least evinces an awareness that it's a problem when local officials to block housing projects they don't like.

A.B. 829—sponsored by Assemblyman David Chi (D–San Francisco) and signed into law yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown—denies state funding and federal tax credits administered by the state to any city that requires local elected officials to sign a "letter of acknowledgement" before a subsidized housing project can move forward.

The target of the bill is Los Angeles, where city councilmembers must issue just such a letter before any new affordable housing funded by the recent Proposition HHH can go up in their districts. This veto power has unsurprisingly been used to wither keep unwanted housing out or to demand various perks and concessions from developers.

Needless to say, publicly funded housing is not the libertarian approach to sheltering low-income Californians. Nevertheless, it is the solution California is sticking to for the moment, and these arbitrary and politicized letters of acknowledgement have only made the process more sluggish and bureaucratic.

A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found examples of city council members refusing to issue these letters of acknowledgement because they felt their district had already accepted its "fair share" of affordable housing projects, or because they did not like the façade of planned apartment buildings. One councilman, Curren Price, even developed his own set of guidelines for what affordable housing developers would have to do in order to earn his letter of acknowledgement, including a requirement that projects on commercial corridors provide community benefits like pocket parks.

Essentially allowing every member of the city council to write their own rules for new development has been incredibly frustrating for L.A.-area developers.

"With no standards to govern when the letter is issued, in one district a developer could get a green light; in another, the exact same project meeting objective criteria could be killed for no stated reason," Shashi Hanuman tells the Times. Hanuman, an attorney for the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel, is helping to sue the city of Los Angeles over these letters.

Using the carrot that is state affordable housing funding to get localities to drop one small part of their byzantine rules for approving new housing is thus welcome. But it's hardly sufficient, says Faizah Malik, another attorney with Public Counsel.

"We welcome the Governor's signature on this important bill," said Malik in a statement. But A.B. 829 "hasn't removed any other processes that permit backroom vetoes, and it hasn't taken steps to remediate for the harm that this illegal policy has caused."

Indeed, even when affordable housing projects have the full-throated support of their local representative, California's voluminous regulations give neighborhood NIMBYs ample opportunity to stall, shrink, or stop unwanted development.

One need only look at the controversy surrounding a planned apartment building for formerly homeless people in East Los Angeles, where a decade-long battle has been waged between local residents and Los Angeles County's main transit agency, which is trying to get approval to build a below-market rate apartment building on a vacant lot it owns.

Despite having secured the support of Councilman Jose Huizer—whose district includes the proposed building—in early 2016, the project has gone nowhere, stalled first by appeals from angry neighbors who wanted a park on the site instead, later by a lawsuit from business owners worried about shadow and construction dust. The Los Angeles Times has called that suit "NIMBYism at its worst."

A.B. 829 does nothing to address these kinds of roadblocks. Nor do they tackle some cities' informal practices that impose a letter of acknowledgement requirement in all but name.

Take bill sponsor Chui's own city of San Francisco, where a practice known as "supervisorial prerogative" has seen individual supervisors (San Francisco's version of city council members) exercise an effective veto over new housing projects in their district.

Back in July, the Board of Supervisors bowed to this prerogative in voting to further delay approval of business owner Robert Tillman's plans to convert a laundromat into a zone-compliant apartment building in the city's Mission District after Supervisor Hillary Ronen—who represents the Mission—demanded a third shadow study be conducted on proposed building.

Tillman is now suing Ronen and the City of San Francisco over this delay.

In response in A.B. 829, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and members of the city council have begrudgingly said that they'll repeal the "letter of acknowledgement" requirement for the approval of new housing projects.

To reiterate, publicly funded construction is hardly the ideal way end California's housing woes. But absent some sort of free market revolution, making the approval of such housing subject to fewer political roadblocks, however marginal the change may be, is a small step toward sanity. This is California we're talking about. It's a miracle when anything gets built.

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  1. I worry this is going to have a chilling effect on the chilling effect that letters of acknowledgement have on new developments.

    1. So you're worried it'll have a warming effect?


  2. Here's how San Francisco earned it's housing crisis.

    Pure, undiluted racism/classism. The "other" will drag us down with their ______ness

    It's the same impulses everywhere.

    The thing is how do you fight this?

    For most people when they buy a house in an area it's because they like how the area is. Therefore they want it to stay the way it is. That means they will fight any changes.

    This is never not going to be the case.

    And I'm not saying I wouldn't use the same tactics. If I think new building will lower my quality of my life I'll fight it. So I'm not up on some high-horse moralizing to the rest of you.

    Really I'm curious as to how a government made up of and influenced by people with all their biases, prejudices, self-interests etc will exterminate or even moderately check the impulse towards NIMBYism.

    What can be done? Realistically?

    1. This is a classic example of what is wrong with government and why society is so politically polarized these days. If the government had no power over our daily lives in cases like this, people would just shrug their shoulders, maybe write an angry letter to the developer, and get on with their lives. But because government can be abused like this, in fact politicians encourage this abuse and love being enlisted like this, people can always be found who have enough idle time on their hands to use government to abuse society like this.

    2. We can stop giving random people rights to someone else's property. You shouldn't even have the option to fight with your neighbor about whether or not he builds a 1 story or 20 story building.

      More realistically, if states switched to a land tax instead of an income tax it could disincentivize the inclination to halt development, as land becomes more valuable only the truly rich would be willing and able hold a single unit house on a multi million dollar parcel.

      1. I have a friend whose grandparents bought a house to retire in (2 bed, 1 bath) on the beach in Newport, California in the 1950s and his grandmother was still living there into the 1990s. Spent many a summer day there with my friend and property values increased significantly over that period. She didn't have a lot of money- the only sense in which she was rich was what beachfront property had come to be worth. Taxing people like this based on the value of the property, as though they have a shit-ton of money, would only force them to sell to a developer and move. Seems rather cruel and uncaring to me to put someone in the position where, at the end of their life, they're forced to sell their home and find another place to live because the government wants a bigger piece of the pie.


        Sorry, didn't mean to yell, but damnit stop thinking TAXEZ are a solution to anything.

    3. The answer is abolish government zoning, and allowing covenants with zero restrictions.

      The problem is current cities aren't setup like this. Frankly I don't understand how older cities that were built pre zoning laws didn't end up being mostly covenant areas. People always cared about such things, and it seems odd.

      That said, one could retroactively create covenant areas by opting in.

      Thing is, this won't achieve what you want. It will likely be very NIMBY... But what's wrong with that? Poor people don't have a right to live in highly desirable areas any more than anybody else. But it would respond to market forces better.

      But you would probably see lots of areas staying low density. Probably de facto keeping out foreigners via income requirements, English proficiency requirements, or even outright racial stuff. Freedom is freedom, not everybody will agree with everything.

      1. I wouldn't require it as a main criteria, but I'd have no problem living in an area where fluent English was required. It'd be pretty nice actually. I'd definitely want to live in a low density area.

        After this had been happening for awhile, cities would expand to areas that were willing to be built out. Or people would go to other cities altogether. Nobody is owed living in SF or Beverly Hills. In short, it wouldn't be the Utopia some think is possible, but the market would work it out.

        1. I wouldn't require it as a main criteria, but I'd have no problem living in an area where fluent English was required.

          A requirement of familiarity with standard English, and rejection of pronounced drawls and the speech habits of the poorly educated, would create a community of liberals and moderates. Are you certain that is what you want?

          1. Well, I'm not too crazy about things, so I wouldn't much mind a brotha who can afford to live in a nice neighborhood moving in who happens to retain a little jive talk in his speech, they crack me up actually! And I like some of the white southern accents too!

            I was more talking about Mexican or Asian immigrants that just smile and nod when you speak at them because they have NO CLUE what you're saying. That shit irritates me. As I said it wouldn't even be a 100% pre-req for me, but it wouldn't be a bad thing either. Middlin' English skills, like what a native born middle school kid should have, are OKAY with immigrants, I just can't stand the ones who know nothing.

            But as far as your obvious jab implying right libertarians or conservatives are all idiots... LOL Keep in mind you're saying this to a high IQ right leaning libertarian who makes multiple times the national average income... I'm not the only one. Contrary to popular belief I seem to recall Trump having WON the majority of the vote for $100K a year on up income earners... There'd be no shortage of conservatives in such a neighborhood.

            So try your nonsense with people who don't know any better Rev.

  3. S.B. 829 ... denies state funding and federal tax credits administered by the state

    What percentage of public housing funding falls into those categories?

  4. Grammar police: Did anyone else notice an extra "to" in the first paragraph, and one missing from the last paragraph? This isn't an entropy experiment, folks!

    1. Can you please answer this. English is difficult for me this is not. We all have areas we're good in.
      Given a composite number N, find a nontrivial factorization of N.
      "Factor 36".

  5. Commiefornia doesn't need anymore housing. If the Federal Government ever enforces Constitutional LAW cleaning out the Illegal will leave much of the State covered with ghost towns.
    Something else to ignorant choose to over look. You can't dig up, turn under, cut down, and tear out Hundreds of Thousands of Square Miles of Life sustaining, humidity holding, oxygen producing Flora and replace it with Heat Reflective Asphalt, Concrete, and Stucco to provide amenities and housing for another 30 million carbon producing humans without affecting weather.
    Here in Commiefornia the RATSD that declare themselves the most environmentally forward have created warming across the entire West Coast!!!!!!!

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