NOTE: SB 827 just died in committee. But I was almost done with this piece when that happened, and still think it’s important to point out its flaws — the thought-process that led to this dead-for-now bill isn’t going anywhere.
The market-friendly propaganda is strong in our housing debates. Due to clever branding and an uncritical media, SB 827 supporters have been able to cover their deregulatory, pro-gentrification agenda with a veneer of racial-justice progressivism.
Supporters of State Senator Scott Wiener’s bill — which allows for taller and denser development (“upzoning”) around mass transit stops — have framed it as a revolutionary challenge to the exclusionary zoning that’s been used in the past several decades by rich white homeowners to keep poor people of color out of their neighborhoods. Most recently, 17 academics (including Color of Law author Richard Rothstein), in an open letter praising the bill, proclaimed it to be “one of the most innovative and important efforts in the nation to attack restrictive and exclusionary local land use policies that maintain and exacerbate segregative patterns.”
But this narrative is blatantly and demonstrably false. SB 827 poses no threat to the vast majority of wealthy homeowners. The fact is that most rich, white, single-family home (SFH) neighborhoods are located nowhere near mass transit, and are thus unimpacted by the bill. On the contrary, it would be difficult to devise a re-zoning formula that systematically excludes the richest and whitest neighborhoods to a greater extent than SB 827 does. This is especially true in Southern California.
YIMBYs can fairly claim that their bill will add density near transit and increase the overall supply of housing. But presenting it as a radical measure to counter exclusionary zoning is, to me, intellectually dishonest.
I’ve already shown that this is the case for Los Angeles. (Real quick: pointing out that some of Beverly Hills and Westwood are upzoned is like claiming that tax cuts for the 1% are good for Black people because Kanye and Oprah benefit — it’s purely coincidental and clearly misses the broader pattern. Literally the 10 richest areas of LA, and more, are untouched by SB 827.)
Now I’ll do the same for Orange County (OC), which has over 3 million people — larger than the combined populations of SF, Oakland, and San Jose — and contains some of the wealthiest, whitest cities and suburbs in the whole country. (Remember the TV show?) If you wanted to target exclusionary zoning, these are some of the places you’d start.
The cities I’ll look at come from these three links: the 5 OC cities ranked within the top 20 wealthiest in the whole country; the “top 10 best OC suburbs to live in”; and the 5 most expensive neighborhoods in OC. These lists contain 12 cities in all. I’ve added Huntington Beach because it’s big (190,000 people) and rich.
These, then, are the 13 most exclusive cities in OC: Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Yorba Linda, Dana Point, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, Coto de Caza, San Clemente, Aliso Viejo, Irvine, Seal Beach, and Huntington Beach. They contain 32% of OC’s total population, but 73% of its homes worth over $1 million. (For some census data on each city, see this chart.)
As the maps below and above show clearly, most of these 13 cities are absolutely untouched by SB 827’s upzoning. And in the places that are impacted, like Irvine and Newport, it’s usually just a tiny circle of upzoning that’s less than 1 square-mile in area — for comparison, Irvine is 65 square-miles in all, and Newport Beach 24 square-miles.
The maps I’m using come from sb827.info, a site made by CA YIMBY (“Yes In My BackYard”), the bill’s official sponsor. They have lots of money, 90% of it coming from tech executives (no joke), so I’d hope their maps are pretty good.
The maps speak for themselves, and make it clear that YIMBYs can’t have it both ways: SB 827 can’t both upzone land adjacent to transit AND target exclusionary zoning used by rich white homeowners, except in very few cases.
The map immediately below is especially striking because it shows the stark difference between how the wealthy suburbs of OC and the low-income communities of color in LA are treated by this bill. Places like Boyle Heights, Koreatown, Westlake, South Central, and Crenshaw are all upzoned, which will increase land values, making them more profitable to gentrify.
If you actually want to take power away from rich white homeowners, SB 827 is not the way to do it.
(This debate is for another time, but I also take issue with the very idea that upzoning takes substantial power away from white homeowners. How about we try some straight up redistribution?)