Four Tips for Advocates of Abundant Housing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Slowly but surely, the political climate in California is shifting to encourage more housing in the cities where skyrocketing prices are putting rents and homeownership out of the reach of all but the wealthiest residents.

Last week’s election of London Breed as mayor of San Francisco was a headline win for abundant housing. “We have to build more housing. We have to build more housing. We have to build more housing, and I will be relentless in my pursuit to get the job done,” Breed said in her victory speech. In a post-election interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she cited her support for more housing as a decisive issue in her favor. Unlike her rivals, she backed a state bill, ultimately unsuccessful, that would require cities to allow new multi-unit housing near bus and rail transit stops. Her housing platform expressed the radical notion that “supply and demand are real.”

The same night Breed was elected, a quieter housing victory took place on Los Angeles’s Westside. As young families enjoyed the playgrounds and picnic areas of the Mar Vista Recreation Center, an older group of about 40 locals gathered in the center’s auditorium for the neighborhood council meeting. On the agenda was a resolution opposing a new mixed-use building with 32 apartments, including three reserved for low-income residents, on a commercial corner now occupied by an art and furniture store.

Mar Vista is a neighborhood in transition. Modest bungalows built after World War II sell rapidly for $1.5 million to buyers who tear them down in favor of new two-story construction. Convenient to major studio, video game and technology job clusters, Mar Vista is a largely single-family area with apartments on major arteries. Aside from turning backyard guest houses into rental units, the main hope for keeping this job-rich neighborhood affordable to middle-class residents lies in building on those streets.

With no law-making powers, neighborhood councils are essentially official lobbying groups, established under the L.A. city charter and courted by local elected officials. On the Westside in particular, the councils tend to be dominated by anti-development homeowners. Based on history, public opposition followed by a council vote against the new apartments seemed like a foregone conclusion.

But that’s not what happened.

The first person to speak in the public comment period was the owner of the furniture store, who said you might expect her to oppose the project. But she supported it. The building was on its last legs, she said, and her landlord had always made it clear that she could only expect to operate there for a year or two. With ground-level retail, the new project would be good for the neighborhood, which could use more gathering places. Some people come to her store, she said, just to have a place to hang out.

Also speaking in favor of the project were a half-dozen representatives of Abundant Housing LA, a volunteer group that describes its mission as “working for more housing of all types to improve the lives of all” and sometimes uses the slogan “Legalize Housing.” Mostly in their 20s, they were the youngest people in the room. Some lived on the Westside. Some didn’t. They were the people an opponent alluded to when asking the council to “please represent your community” rather than the city as a whole. (As a Westside homeowner who spent a decade working in Mar Vista, I spoke in favor of the project.)

The developer’s representative explained how they had addressed neighborhood concerns about traffic flow, redesigning driveways to permit only one entrance and one exit, and allow only right turns. The building also stepped down in the back so that the part adjoining the single-family home next door wouldn’t dwarf it. The consideration impressed many in the room, including some who usually oppose new housing.

In the end, the council amended its original resolution from opposition to support for the project. It passed with seven yeas, two nays and two abstentions. Witnessing this grass-roots victory, I came away with several lessons for supporters of more housing:

  1. Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to.

    Abundant Housing LA’s strategy, says Nick Burns, a member who spoke at the Mar Vista meeting, “is just pounding the pavement, talking to people, and being polite and respectful and constructive. Especially now, that’s a message and a tone that people are really attracted to.” After the meeting, an activist who usually opposes new developments came up to him to say, “See, I’m not against everything.” Many Americans are craving opportunities to get along.
     
  2. But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.
     
  3. Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.
     
  4. Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

Just because someone is a homeowner or an old-timer doesn’t mean they’re against new housing or new neighbors. “I’ve been in the neighborhood since I was 6 years old — since the 1940s,” said a Mar Vista man. As he recited some of the stores that had once been in that spot, I expected him to wax nostalgic about how things used to be so much better. But sometimes people who’ve seen a lot of change are happy to see more. “This,” he concluded, “is by far the best iteration over all those decades.” Thirty-two new apartments won’t solve the L.A. housing crisis, of course, but they could foreshadow changes — in policies and in attitudes — that will.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.