California housing reforms won’t work

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Thomas elias

Sign outside Water Garden, a large office complex in Santa Monica: Available space – 360,000 square feet.

That’s plenty of vacant space in a prime location just blocks from the Pacific Ocean that includes 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 Suite. But for now, no takers.

Similar signs and no-taker situations no longer just dot the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and other California trading centers; they have gradually become ubiquitous.

Inevitably, the real estate investment trusts that own most of these buildings will find – as some commercial property owners have already done – that housing is the primary future use of the billions of square feet left behind by white-collar workers 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 currently in force in the legislature is expected to make approvals for commercial-residential switches almost automatic soon. If these large structures are left fallow for very long, their value will drop – as will the property tax revenues they generate for cities, counties and the state.

The current bill would make necessary zoning changes a matter of “law”, meaning that owners would only have to apply for the change to occur.

But all of this appears to have been achieved by several state senators, whose currently proposed housing package includes several rewrites of bills rejected at the end of last year’s legislative session, measures that directly target neighborhoods. single-family.

As before, the leader of this movement is recently re-elected Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, whose own neighborhood includes sections of Market Street (one of the city’s main thoroughfares) where vacancy signs announce space in buildings fully occupied not long ago by the high-tech likes of Twitter and Mozilla, ancestor of the Firefox web browser.

This has little apparent impact on Wiener, whose crusade against single-family neighborhoods persisted for more than four years, even though few of his proposals were passed.

He’s not intimidated by the many defeats his plans have suffered or the new reality, with more than enough space in existing buildings to solve the state’s entire housing shortage, until to 3.5 million units.

So he revived his plan to allow 10-unit apartment or condominium developments on any lot almost anywhere in California with only simple majority votes from city councils, even if local voters pass measures. forbidding it. Wiener’s plan was badly lost as Senate Bill (SB) 902 last year, but it is back as SB 10. The bill prohibits consideration of such significant changes under CEQA, California Environmental Quality Act.

Also back is Wiener’s previously rejected plan to allow new housing for low-income families on any property owned by a religious institution, regardless of how far it may be from that church’s main facility, synagogue. , mosque or other institution. No one knows exactly how much land in California is owned by such groups, who often receive it as bequests, or where everything is. This equates to an invisible endorsement of almost everything.

It’s all part of this crusade against single-family neighborhoods, where most Californians aspire to live, but which Wiener condemns as “exclusive” and which he says have “exacerbated income and racial segregation.” By that he means he would like all of California to look like the crowded Castro neighborhood he lives in, filled with old wooden buildings that could potentially be fire traps.

Wiener apparently doesn’t care that if cities start reclassifying R-1 neighborhoods into zones where 10 units can suddenly appear on “any parcel,” as his bill says, many of those neighborhoods could. being inundated with developers knocking on doors with big funds. It might become common for properties to sell for much more than any current listed value.

On the flip side, all that ready-made area, now vacant and easily converted into office buildings, may possibly combine with California’s slowing growth to discourage new building construction, which could make obsolete any notion of housing crisis.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]

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