Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing Debate Pits California Cities Against Suburbs. Both Need Freer Markets.

A flaw in a proposal that would let developers build more high-density apartments and condos is that it doesn't go nearly far enough


Whatever one thinks of Sen. Scott Wiener's controversial bill that would make it easier for developers to build high-density apartments and condos around bus and rail stations, this much is clear: It has jump-started a much-needed conversation about housing construction and the way that limited supply is driving up home prices.

It's a close call, but I overall like the measure because, hey, it can't hurt to make it easier to build any type of new housing. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 50 ladles on layers of new mandates in exchange for the regulatory rollback—and it promotes only the one particular type of housing that planners prefer. The measure only deals with a small portion of the problem: rules that restrict higher-density construction in many suburban areas.

My Southern California News Group colleague Susan Shelley encapsulated her opposition to the bill in her recent column: "So if your neighborhood has a community college and a bus stop, you could wake up one morning to find the house next door surrounded by a construction fence and about to become a four- or five-story apartment building with no parking spaces."

I get the concern and rarely disagree with Shelley, but there's nothing free market about current single-family zoning rules. The suburban landscape largely is a creation of subsidies and zoning rules, which mandate only one house per certain size of lot and require umpteen parking spaces for every new shopping center, restaurant, office and church. Everything is micromanaged in the planning department.

I'm on the building committee of our church and have closely examined many proposed construction projects. It is so hard to build, expand or try any new development ideas because these planning edicts—designed mainly to protect our suburban way of life, and backed by residents trying to bolster their property values—are costly and inflexible.

Many suburbanites are aghast at "New Urbanist" efforts to create walkable, transit-oriented communities in their backyard. They never bargained for this change in philosophy, but those who live by government rules need to be prepared to die by them. On the other hand, I've got nothing against what my urbanist friends decry as "urban sprawl," and staunchly oppose their use of those same planning rules to force us to live like ants on a hill.

The debate over Wiener's bill is, on the surface, about housing supply. As the Legislative Analyst's Office has found, California is vastly underbuilding the number of houses needed to meet our population growth. It's a supply and demand issue. Land-use regulations and fees, which account for as much as 40 percent of the cost of every home built, are artificially restricting supply. That's why you need $800,000 for a modest home in Orange County.

But the underlying debate is about two visions of our California landscape. One side wants to protect our suburban model and the other side wants to urbanize. It's a false choice driven by their own personal preferences. We need more apartments and condos. We need more single-family neighborhoods. We need to allow builders to provide the housing products people want, and different people want different things. The same people want different things at different stages of their lives. I live on an acreage, but now that we're empty nesters, my wife and I plan to move into the city. That's why I'm squarely on neither side.

After my housing column last week, I've heard from readers who oppose the legislation. Frankly, I'm frustrated by some of their arguments. To summarize some comments: If you can't afford to live around here, then maybe move someplace else. There are too many people here already and too much traffic congestion. If your kids can't afford California, they should consider less-costly states. Such views transcend political affiliation.

Obviously, home prices in California, and especially in picturesque coastal communities, are going to be pricier than in the Great Plains. But critics often miss this point: Those prices are much higher than they need to be because of building limits, backed by Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) attitudes. I'm sorry, but the "I like how things are now" argument does not make for sound public policy.

However, advocates for the SB 50 approach ignore how their own preferences, which have been guiding California land-use policy for at least two decades, are the main cause of the housing shortage. Housing markets are regional. Wiener is from San Francisco. You can build all the multi-family dwellings imaginable in that city and nearby Oakland and not make a dent in the Bay Area's shortage. Earth to New Urbanists: By setting aside the bulk of that area's land as open space, you've constricted supply more than the suburban advocates.

The Wiener bill's flaw isn't that it goes too far in allowing more construction, but that it doesn't go nearly far enough. It's time to open housing to market forces.

This column was first published by the Orange County Register.