Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)

Legislative options to add more housing in California

A number of legislative options are on the table in California to encourage the construction of more housing and counter the actions of nearby residents:

Dozens of the solutions floating in the state Legislature aim to address that supply problem, including several that would streamline the process by which housing projects get approved (one, for example, would limit the circumstances in which a special permit could be required to build a granny flat). Others would not-so-subtly make it much harder for local residents and government agencies to block new projects, like by requiring a two-thirds vote for any local ordinance “that would curb, delay, or deter growth or development within a city.”

That latter bill epitomizes the frustration many young working people and families have as they try to attain what was once a milestone of adulthood—homeownership—that is now out of reach for even those making decent money. Some of those folks are YIMBYs, or supporters of a “Yes in My Backyard” agenda. “We know that our housing struggles are not the result of impersonal economic forces or lack of individual effort, but derive from bad policy and bad laws that have restricted housing growth for decades,” said YIMBY leader Brian Hanlon, co-founder of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, at an April Assembly committee hearing….

It’s unclear what the chances for each bill are. Though legislators seem eager to spur more housing construction quickly, some of their allies might not be. Many environmentalists, for example, want new projects to comply with CEQA, the state’s landmark environmental law that requires developers to study and possibly mitigate the environmental impact of whatever they build. And developers are never quick to embrace mandates that they include affordable units in their projects.

If the bills do pass, will any of them actually make a dent in what’s become a crippling problem all across the state? The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters recently wrote off the current proposals in the Legislature as “tepid, marginal approaches that would do little to close the gap.” Cuff admits many critics dismiss individual bills as a drop in the bucket. “But on the other hand, let’s put a drop in the bucket,” she says. “A drop is better than a drought.”

This is a long-term issue that may take decades to work out. The issue is complicated as it involves social class, race and ethnicity, understandings of local control, and property values.The article notes that some claim the legislative suggestions thus far are too small and I suspect a number of the bills would lead to lawsuits from communities and residents.

If I had to make a prediction (a near impossible task) based on what has happened in many suburbs throughout the United States, I would guess that the wealthier communities will find ways around these legislative actions. This could happen through the courts as they can better afford the time and money or there could be loopholes in the bills. Either way, the burden of the affordable or cheaper housing will likely fall on communities that are lower income and non-white.

A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.

Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

The continually green lawns of some California leaders and celebrities

The drought shaming continues in California. First, CBS highlights some of the biggest water wasters in the Bay Area:

The district released the names and consumption in response to a public records request by the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets covering the drought.

Beane released a statement through the Oakland A’s.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected. We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage,” Beane said.

Retired Chevron Oil executive George Kirkland tops the list by using more than 12,000 gallons of water a day – 48 times the district average. He also pointed to previously undetected seepage.

Here is an older gallery where CBS highlights the greenery outside the homes of numerous celebrities. This link includes a picture and this text:

Despite the sweeping water regulations imposed by California state officials this spring, Jenny’s “block” remains green.

And though the state has only issued eight $100 fines and two $200 fines to water wasters up until this point, Lopez may soon face a much heftier fine if she wants to keep her lawn this way.

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for legislators to enforce fines of up to $10,000 for residents and businesses that waste the most water, as California cities struggle to meet mandatory conservation targets.

I imagine reporting to the public about leaders and celebrities can be quite effective in reducing the water usage. Few famous people want to be seen as wasters of natural resources when others are sacrificing. (I suspect this would be quite different if there wasn’t much of a drought or if the owners could claim commercial revenues or jobs on these properties – this is what the Las Vegas casinos do.) Even the higher proposed fines, $10,000, wouldn’t matter much to some people. While the shaming might be more effective (reducing water usage and helping politicians look like they are standing up for the interests of everyone), couldn’t the state also use the money? If celebrities wanted to pay big fines, wouldn’t this help balance some budgets?

The difficulties of projecting costs for big tunnel projects

Cost overruns on big infrastructure projects are common but may be even worse for tunnel projects, as the case of the California high-speed rail project may soon illustrate:

“You have an 80% to 90% probability of a cost overrun on a project like this,” Flyvbjerg said. “Once cost increases start, they are likely to continue.”…

Although some large tunnels have been constructed elsewhere without difficulty, including the 3,399-foot Caldecott Tunnel in the Bay Area, others have encountered costly problems.

The 11-mile East Side Access tunnel in New York City, for example, is 14 years behind schedule, and the tab has grown from $4.3 billion to $10.8 billion. Boston’s 3.5-mile Big Dig was finished in 2007 — nine years behind schedule and at nearly triple the estimated cost.

Digging stopped on the 2-mile Alaskan Way tunnel under Seattle when a boring machine broke down in December 2013 and had to be retrieved for repairs, causing a multiyear delay with an unknown cost overrun.

The bullet train will require about 20 miles of tunnels under the San Gabriel Mountains between Burbank and Palmdale, involving either a single tunnel of 13.8 miles or a series of shorter tunnels.

As many as 16 additional miles of tunnels would stretch under the Tehachapi Mountains from Palmdale to Bakersfield.

All told, this is a major project that might just draw attention from the public and scholars for decades to come. Is it possible to even finish it? What will be the end cost? Will it enhance transportation and life in California? There is a lot at stake here and big costs will not help. From the article, it sounds like part of this is due to falling behind schedule – this adds more money as the project takes more time and costs tend to go up over time – and is also due to the unique geological features of California – fault lines and possible earthquakes – which produce additional complications.

I’ve seen numerous people suggest that projects like these illustrate how difficult it is for the United States of today to complete major projects. This may be needed and/or helpful but a lot of good things have to happen before the line even becomes operational.

Californians to be free to hang laundry on clotheslines

In a move toward energy conservation, California will soon have “laundry liberation“:

In what a legislative analysis called a “modest energy conservation and freedom of choice measure,” Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed legislation requiring property managers to let renters and homeowner association members string clotheslines in private areas.

Assembly Bill 1448, by Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, comes amid heightened concern about greenhouse gas emissions in California – and the energy consumption of driers.

One columnist notes the class dynamics at work:

As a class signifier, the clothesline has always been highly charged. In the late 1960s, tumble dryers began to creep their way into middle-class households — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fewer than half of American households had dryers in 1980; by 2009, it had jumped to 80% — the clothesline has connoted a certain unsophistication if not downright poverty.

That’s especially true in big cities, where clotheslines hanging between buildings are an indelible marker of tenement living and overall blight. I visited Beijing a couple of years ago, and hanging laundry was ubiquitous even on the balconies of expensive high-rises. During the 2008 Olympic Games, I was told, the Chinese government prohibited outdoor clotheslines as part of an overall image-control effort. As soon as the Games were over, the laundry went back up.

The primary argument against clotheslines is the perceived effect on property values. Yet, why not give people the choice to dry clothes outside rather than put it in the hands of homeowner associations or local governments? I would guess that many middle and upper class residents still won’t hang clothes outside even if they can. At the same time, it could be a nice economic benefit for households with less money.

Is the status tied to using a clothes dryer in your own home more about consumption (having the ability to buy such an object and pay for its ongoing use) or the ability to keep personal items (like dirty laundry) within private areas?