Opinion: Housing bill redux — when will true believers learn?
Sign outside the Water Garden, a sprawling Santa Monica office complex: Space available — 360,000 square feet.
That’s a lot of vacant space in a prime location just blocks from the Pacific Ocean which features 17 acres of modern six-story buildings, fountains and basketball courts, a luxury gym, hallways of Italian and Brazilian marble, restaurant and commercial spaces and more. But so far, no takers.
Similar signs and no-taker situations no longer merely dot the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and other centers of California commerce; they have gradually become ubiquitous.
It’s inevitable the real estate investment trusts which own most of these buildings will realize — as some commercial building owners already have — that housing is the main future use for billions of square feet left behind by white collar companies who have sent much of their staff home to work.
Already, some conversions like this are underway in Los Angeles. They often require zoning changes, but a bill now active in the Legislature should soon make approvals for commercial-to-residential switches almost automatic. For if these large structures are left fallow very long, their values will drop — and so will the property tax revenue they produce for cities, counties and the state. The current proposed law would make the needed zoning changes a “by-right” matter, meaning owners would only need to apply for the change to happen.
But all this appears to have gotten by several state senators, whose current proposed housing package includes several rewrites of bills rejected at the end of last year’s legislative session, measures that take dead aim at single-family neighborhoods.
As before, the leader of this movement is the recently reelected Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, whose own district includes sections of Market Street (one of the city’s main arteries) where vacancy signs advertise space in buildings fully occupied not long ago by the high-tech likes of Twitter and Mozilla, progenitor of the Firefox web browser.
This makes little apparent impact on Wiener, whose crusade against single-family neighborhoods has persisted through more than four years, even though few of his proposals have ever passed.
He is daunted neither by the many defeats his plans have suffered nor by the new reality, with more than enough room in existing buildings to solve the state’s entire housing shortage of as many as 3.5 million units.
So he’s revived his plan to allow 10-unit apartment or condominium developments on any lot almost anywhere in California with no more than simple majority votes by city councils, even if local voters pass measures forbidding it. Wiener’s plan lost badly as Senate Bill (SB) 902 last year, but it’s back again under the title SB 10. The bill forbids reviews of such massive changes under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.
Also back is Wiener’s previously defeated plan to allow new housing for low-income families on any property owned by any religious institution, no matter how far it may be from the main facility of that church, synagogue, mosque or other institution. No one knows exactly how much land in California is owned by such groups, which often receive them as bequests, or where it all is. This amounts to sight-unseen approval of almost anything.
It’s all part of that crusade against single-family neighborhoods, where most Californians aspire to live, but which Wiener condemns as “exclusionary” and which he says have “exacerbated income and racial segregation.” By which he means that he’d like all of California to look like the overcrowded Castro District where he lives, filled as it is with old wooden, potential firetrap buildings.
Wiener apparently doesn’t care that if cities begin reclassifying R-1 neighborhoods into areas where 10 units can suddenly arise on “any parcel,” as his bill says, many of those neighborhoods could be flooded with developers knocking on doors, carrying fat bankrolls. It might become common for properties to sell for much more than any current listed value.
On the other hand, all that ready-made, now vacant and easily converted square footage in office buildings may eventually combine with California’s slowed growth to discourage new building. Which could make the entire notion of a housing crisis obsolete.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.