Tensions Rise Amid Housing Crisis Debate

On Thursday, May 9, Santa Monica College's (SMC) Public Policy Institute hosted a panel discussion on potential solutions to California's housing crisis. The keynote discussion, which took place in the Broad Stage at the Performance Arts Center, was the culminating event of this year's Spring Symposium. The three speakers were state senators Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), and Santa Monica Mayor Gleam Davis.

At the heart of the discussion was a debate over the controversial Senate Bill (SB) 50, which if passed, would override local zoning laws to allow for the construction of denser housing near transit stops. Proponents of the bill argue that it is designed to make housing more accessible, while opponents argue that more housing does not necessarily mean affordable housing.

"In 80 percent of California, it is illegal, prohibited, to build any type of housing except for single-family homes," Weiner explained. SB 50, Wiener argued, would allow for different types of housing, including single-family homes, apartment buildings, and multi-unit housing.

Audience members were overwhelmingly against SB 50. Some carried signs decrying Wiener, the author of the bill, as being bought off by developers. "There are a lot of different opinions on housing," Wiener acknowledged, "but I think it's so important when we talk about housing to always remember that this debate is about real people and the effects on real people's lives when we have housing crisis."

At the crux of the argument was the question of local versus state government. Proponents of the bill argue that although SB 50 is extreme, such measures are necessary given the gravity of the situation.

"Local control is good when it delivers good results," Wiener said. "And I would posit that California, our approach to housing of almost pure local control with almost no state role has not worked out."

SMC student Lucia Aguilar-Cole, a political science major, expressed support for the bill. "Of course there are problems with it, but…we can't just hope that developers are going to be incentivized to build low-incoming housing," she said. "The city that we have built doesn't function, that's why there's 60,000 people without homes…If you go to downtown Los Angeles, it looks like an apocalyptic site. That is inhumane."

Detractors of the bill argued that SB 50 is a case of state government overreach and that its one-size-fits-all approach would prove to do greater harm than good.

"At the end of the day, the idea that we're just going to take away so much of the basic, fundamental power of understanding the local dynamics associated with development and kind of give it to a by-right system run out of Sacramento just doesn't feel right to me," Allen, who opposes the bill, stated.

Davis, like Allen, expressed concerns with the bill. "We are working on this issue locally," she said. "First, we actually have been investing as a community in the production and preservation of affordable housing. And second, we have used our local control, regulatory mechanisms to support the creation of housing with an emphasis on affordable housing."

Another concern about SB 50 is the potential threat it poses to historical neighborhoods. Lesley O'Toole resides in a small neighborhood near Hollywood which is designated as a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. "When the film industry started here, all the silent actors and directors lived here," O'Toole said. "We're tiny little houses. We're a hundred years old…This bill will destroy all of our historical neighborhoods."

The atmosphere in the Broad was tense throughout, but when Wiener left before the Q&A portion could begin, the audience turned near mutinous, shouting in anger and dismay.

SB 50 is currently in the committee hearings stage. Students interested in learning more about the bill may visit the California State Legislature website.