By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. May 15, 2019

Something extremely valuable took place last week at the Broad Theater in Santa Monica  — “Where Goes the Road to Solving California’s Housing Crisis?— a mature, deep and respectful discussion of a major political issue, our state housing crisis, and the controversial Bill SB 50 meant to address it.

In a major coup for the Public Policy Institute (PPI) of Santa Monica College – who hosted the event – SB 50 author State Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) flew down from Northern California to appear on stage. He was joined by his colleague and seat mate in the Senate, Santa Monica’s own Senator Ben Allen, as well as Santa Monica Mayor Gleam Davis.

Having been in the spotlight on this issue since he first introduced SB 827 last year – an earlier version of SB 50 – Weiner has a tight and well-reasoned presentation down, painting the depth of the statewide housing crisis and why he believes SB 50 is needed to address it.   

For many of us who have followed the SB 827/SB 50 debate at a distance through the news and social media, it was a chance to hear him address the fine points in much greater depth – in particular the highly debated issue over ‘local control’. For that we can thank the Public Policy Institute for organizing and hosting this event.

What is SB 50 about?

The core of SB 50 is that it would take a statewide approach to the housing crisis, by overriding local zoning in regards to height and density along public transit corridors.   A former San Francisco City/County Supervisor who dealt with local land use decisions, Weiner argued that such local control – while important and valuable – was not ‘biblical’; and with a statewide deficit of 3.5 million housing units, results needed come from wherever they could be found.

Allen expressed concern that SB 50 was not striking the right balance between state and local control, and wasn’t sure what benefits cities were getting in exchange for losing significant local land use discretion.  Weiner responded saying cities that already had impact fees would collect more fees, because more housing would be getting built.  But that missed the point.  Money wasn’t the benefit that Allen appeared to be talking about. Rather it was losing a degree of local democracy in land use planning — and determination of land is use the greatest economic, environmental and social justice decision local government and a local community normally makes.

Davis added that the one-size-fits-all approach of SB 50 meant that cities like Santa Monica who have an exemplary record of building new affordable housing are treated the same way as cities that fail to zone for and build any new affordable housing. Weiner responded that more housing should be seen as a good thing, not a punishment, and that the 3.5 million housing unit deficit needed to be made up everywhere. 

While right on this point, it also missed the bigger picture, because as Davis reminded, it has already taken a lot of political capital for City Councilmembers like Davis (and many others in Santa Monica going back to the 1980s) to stick their political necks out to promote and approve significant amounts of new housing through new development, and to substantial amounts of public funds for new affordable housing, as in Santa Monica. 

Allen added that even though SB 50 is meant to promote density along public transit corridors — and have the direct benefit of reducing CO2 emissions associated with climate change, it could backfire by making communities less open to new public transit, because it would automatically meant vastly increased densities along the new transit corridors.

Value of the SMC Public Policy Institute

We often count our blessings in Santa Monica for the depth of cultural and learning opportunities we have in our compact 8.3 square miles.  Among those blessings is Santa Monica College’s Public Policy Institute – perhaps unheralded, but of extremely high quality. 

The PPI’s housing crisis event at the Broad Theater was part of the PPI’s week-long 8th Annual Spring Symposium entitled “There Goes the Neighborhood, Part II: How might policy approaches prevent displacement in neighborhoods affected by gentrification?”

Led by PPI co-directors Dr. Richard Tahvildran-Jesswein and Shari Davis, it involved hundreds of young community college students (and other community members) in a series of hand-ons, reality-based learning experiences about the basic livability challenges facing so many millions in this state.

Those kind of public policy debates and trade-offs are exactly the kind of mental and spiritual nutrition we need for a healthy body politic.   

Thank you to all those who helped make it happen.

See the video of this event here.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).

Feinstein can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein


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