Ryan McDonald

Density Bonus: Can the South Bay learn to love more housing?

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A painting of the former Third Street apartments in Manhattan Beach, which came down in 2000. There were four parking spaces for the eight units. Painting by Nancy Grenier

Second of two parts

by Ryan McDonald

In the past year, South Bay residents have appeared at City Council meetings and invoked “density” as reason for concern over, among many other things, outdoor dining, commercial truck delivery schedules, and a proposed slackline park on the beach. None of these would have increased the number of people living in a fixed amount of space. But in local politics, density is the bad hangover of development: it is an all-purpose reason for why, having done a certain amount of something, people may suddenly feel like doing nothing at all.

In the South Bay, concern over density has become even greater than usual lately, thanks to a controversial piece of state legislation, Senate Bill 50, proposed by Sen. Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco). SB 50 would have limited cities’ ability to prevent mid-rise apartment buildings near transit hubs and jobs-rich areas and allowed up to four units on parcels zoned single-family throughout California. The bill was shelved last month in the Senate Appropriations Committee, but it, or some version of it, is expected to return by January.  

All three Beach Cities opposed SB 50 out of concern that it would burden them with added density. They point out that their cities are already dense by California standards. And although apartments have gradually been converted into condos and single-family homes since the ‘70s, the region has a long way to go before it starts looking like Bel Air, where front yards have water bills that compete with those of golf courses. Manhattan Beach, the most spread out of the three, is still more than four times as dense as La Cañada Flintridge, the tony San Gabriel Valley suburb that is home to Anthony Portantino, the state senator who held back SB 50.

This has created resentment from South Bay cities, who argue that SB 50 and other efforts lifting local controls over development fail to distinguish the area from others in the state that are more deserving targets of pressure to boost housing production.

“This one-size fits all approach to land-use regulation, if enacted as written, would have significant adverse impacts on our community and its character,” Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand wrote in a letter of opposition to Wiener.

As it stood when shelved, there are two criteria under which a development, located outside of the coastal zone and in a larger county like Los Angeles, could be eligible for the eased approval process for four-to-five story apartments. One is proximity to public transit; this would include portions of Redondo and El Segundo that are close to stops on the Metro Green Line.

The other is for the project to lie in one of the state’s “jobs rich” areas, which would be selected by the Department of Housing and Community Development, under Gov. Gavin Newsom. There is some language in the bill guiding the type of area that would qualify as jobs rich, but not an exact definition. Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, communications director for Wiener’s office, said in an email that while the governor’s office would have the final say, maps created by the Urban Displacement Project and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley “serve as a preliminary example of what areas could be covered by the bill.”

According to these maps, every census tract in the Beach Cities would be eligible for upzoning.

This will doubtless come as a shock to some people, not the least of whom are city staff and elected officials in the South Bay, several of whom objected to the bill even as they seemed convinced that its more dramatic provisions would not apply to their cities. The deeper reason for the surprise, though, is likely not statutory interpretation, but principle: how could the South Bay possibly be a good candidate for more density? Have these cartographers ever tried to park here on a summer Saturday?

Elizabeth Kneebone, research director at the Terner Center and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the mapping effort began after the failure of Senate Bill 827, a similar housing bill, also written by Wiener, which died last year before making it as far in the legislative process as SB 50 has. The center, Kneebone notes, is not taking a position on SB 50. Instead, it starts with the by-now unavoidable assumption that more housing will be built to address the housing crisis. The mapping effort, she said, is an attempt to use data to determine where it ought to go.

The map identifies tracts as “areas of opportunity” based on a half-dozen criteria, including the education level of residents, share of the population earning more than 200 percent of the poverty level, and the performance of nearby schools. Then, among those tracts that qualify, it cross references job availability and commuting patterns, measuring, for example, the share of people working lower-wage jobs against the number of affordable rental units nearby.

This analysis does not take into account the state of infrastructure in these zones, such as roads and sewers and utilities, which elected officials in the South Bay say would buckle under added density. But Kneebone, who took a look at the area’s data before being interviewed, said that “a modest increase in density” could “really do a lot to improve commute patterns, and the balance between jobs and housing.”

“Regardless of what historical building patterns have been, if we’re thinking about where to build and we’re thinking about places that would be good for kids to live in and help workers get to their jobs, these should be part of the solution as well,” she said.

Who decides

Ben Allen, who represents the South Bay in the California State Senate, opposed SB 50. At a recent conference on housing issues, he said it was “simplistic to blame local government alone for the housing crisis.”

Allen ticked off a list of factors driving up the cost of housing that have little to do with decisions made at city halls: the abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, the shrinking sliver of funds cities get from property taxes, and a diminishing pool of construction workers, some of whom have left the state out of exasperation with the high housing costs their labor is supposed to remedy.

His diagnosis was leavened with sympathy for those who have to face voters just like he does, usually in the more intimate setting of a council chambers.

“The young homeowner is hypothetical. The angry, old one is very real,” said Allen, a former school board member.

Allen was hinting at a broader issue. While SB 50 targets actions by local government, these decisions do not emerge from thin air. They embody the priorities — and prejudices — of the people who write letters, show up at meetings, and go to the polls. Reform as far reaching as the type called for by SB 50 will require changing minds, not just laws.

More than three decades ago, Dartmouth economist William Fischel developed what has become known as the “homevoter hypothesis.” Over the course of several books, Fischel demonstrated that local governments respond in “rational if not always admirable ways” to the will of their constituents, which can be neatly mapped onto a single priority: protecting home values.

This is true even though cities, including those in the South Bay, are full of people for whom rising home prices are not desirable: renters. Kenneth Stahl, a law professor at Chapman University who writes frequently on housing issues, attributes this to the way local government tends to emphasize certain perspectives while excluding others.

Stahl pointed to the “exit and voice” theory from political science, on how individual participants can influence the behavior of institutions. When renters are dissatisfied, they tend to respond by leaving, Stahl said; the “exit” option. In the case of an in-demand housing market, like most of coastal California, they will be quickly replaced, and local government may not notice.

Homeowners, on the other hand, use their “voice”: they go to the city council. Stahl has a powerpoint with images of a line of people in matching T-shirts protesting a proposed housing development. The photos depict a La Habra Heights City Council meeting, but could easily have been the South Bay.

“By and large, the people who show up at city council meetings are older, whiter, and highly opposed to any more housing,” Stahl said.

The Hermosa Beach Renters’ Association formed in 2017, with the intent of advocating for policies on behalf of the city’s renters. It is not yet the lobbying force its creators may have hoped for: the organization has not yet taken a position on SB 50, or on any pending issue before the City Council. Co-founder Jonathan Wicks describes it as “loosely organized,” and said that it is not easy to corral his fellow tenants.

“Most people don’t really know what’s going on. Younger people are working harder for longer hours. They have less free time to put toward what’s happening locally,” Wicks said. But he said that when housing issues do come up, they tend to provoke a strong response. “I think people are frustrated. They definitely understand the cost of living is going up.”

Allen acknowledges that politically active homeowners have not always had the most noble of motivations. He is the coauthor, along with Wiener, of a bill to remove Article 34 from the State Constitution. That provision requires any city wishing to create a low-income government housing development to put the project to its voters. If it clears the legislature, repeal of Article 34 would appear on the November 2020 ballot.

Along with lowering the cost of new public housing, Allen said he is motivated by the “nefarious history” of Article 34. The year after the federal Housing Act of 1949 banned racial segregation in public housing, homeowners groups and the California Real Estate Association pushed through Article 34. The campaign kicked off a period California historian Kevin Starr describes as one of “schizophrenia,” in which the state’s residents supported liberal politicians, but also embraced racism in the zealous defense of property values. This culminated in Proposition 14, a voter initiative, also sponsored by the California Real Estate Association, which repealed the state’s Rumford Fair Housing Act.

Prop. 14 won overwhelmingly. Beach Cities residents supported it at nearly twice the rate of the state as a whole; Hermosans backed it in a vote only slightly less lopsided than the one by which the city rejected oil in 2015. But the initiative was declared unconstitutional in 1967, and the following year saw the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Act. Today, the California Real Estate Association is no more, replaced by the California Realtors’ Association. Last year, members of the South Bay Association of Realtors appeared at city council meetings throughout the area in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

More recently, the state Realtor’s group has come out in support of SB 50. Jeli Gavric, a legislative advocate with the association, said that the association has “historically been in support of local control.” But not this time.

“We believe in local control until the locals get out of control,” Gavric said.

The sprawl

In part because of long commutes, Californians are logging more vehicle miles traveled (VMT) than ever, threatening the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions goals. Image by California Transportation Commission

Hermosa Councilmember Justin Massey was the only elected official in the Beach Cities not to join his colleagues in opposing SB 50.

“I don’t think the League of Cities and local government have done enough to address the issue. This is a bill that seeks to accomplish infill housing. I prefer that to building in places like Tejon Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo and continuing regional sprawl,” Massey said.

Massey’s stance was in line with that of environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council. Amanda Eaken, director of the NRDC’s transportation and climate program, said that the bill would “help the state meet its climate change goals.”

This was a rather tepid endorsement compared to the arguments that have been made in the past. Many in the environmental community have said that it will be impossible to meet the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals without the kind of dense housing called for by SB 50.

Just before Thanksgiving last year, the California Air Resources Board released its 2018 Progress Report for California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. Its conclusions were grim. The state is not on track to meet future greenhouse gas emission goals,  the air resources board wrote, including reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The reason is driving. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, both in the state and the rest of the country. California residents are logging more miles on the road, increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Californians are driving so much more that emissions have increased even as fuel composition standards have tightened, and the growing popularity of electric vehicles has boosted average fuel economy. This prompted the board to conclude, “California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built.”

The connection between SB 50 and the air board’s conclusions is apparent even to the bill’s opponents. SB 50 had its first reading about a week after the report’s release. The next day Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) criticized the Air Resources Board at a meeting of the California Transportation Commission, Politico reported, accusing the body of politicizing science. He used some of the same talking points now deployed by South Bay officials to criticize SB 50.

“I’m concerned that this report could serve as a blueprint to undermine our citizens’ ability to make local zoning decisions in the best interest of their communities by replacing our current process with a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach,” Frazier said.

Many of the critiques of SB 50, including Allen’s, center on the fact that it is often state legislation, not local decisions, that add to the cost of homebuilding. But according to the legislative analyst’s office, for much of the last two decades, housing production in inland areas of California grew faster than the national average; it is on the coast that homebuilding has lagged. Job growth, however, has overwhelmingly been in coastal areas, and many of the people buying the inland homes simply brave long commutes. Environmental advocates have long argued that density, especially near job centers, is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to take public transit rather than drive to work and elsewhere. Cities like Los Angeles have passed local laws allowing for added density at “transit-oriented development” near rail lines, a provision mirrored by SB 50.

But among South Bay residents, public transit use remains low, in large part because of complaints that existing services do not take them where they want to go. This dynamic was at the heart of the decision by the South Bay Cities Council of Governments to oppose SB 50.

“The assumption that a significant percentage of the residents of TOH [transit-oriented housing] will use transit to reduce vehicle trips and carbon vehicle miles travelled will not work for this sub-region. Rather, a state mandate to build TOH in the South Bay, without substantial expansion of existing transit services, (and perhaps not even with it), will increase congestion rather than reduce GHG emissions,” reads a white paper the COG issued in December.

Instead of transit-oriented development, the COG is advocating for what it calls “neighborhood-oriented development,” involving reducing long commutes by encouraging teleworking through the construction of local office nodes with ultra high-speed internet, rezoning commercial strips to cluster desirable destinations less than three miles from most homes, and the widespread use of “micro-mobility devices,” like golf-carts and e-scooters, to access them.

The paper was co-authored by Wally Siembab, the COG’s research director. Siembab acknowledges that the group’s position flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But he said that COG is attempting to be realistic. Southern California is in the middle of a public transit building boom, even though usage rates have been declining for almost a decade. Siembab said technology, especially smartphones, has created an on-demand mindset in which people lack the patience to adopt public transit when it is less convenient than driving.

“People would rather have a golf cart in their garage than wait for a train,” Siembab said in an interview.

Siembab’s argument veers into surprisingly egalitarian corners. “Why is it equitable for wealthy people to take Uber while poor people stand in the sun waiting for a bus?” he asked. But it is hard to deny that a big part of the attraction of COG’s plan is its promise that nothing about meeting the state’s daunting climate, housing, and transportation challenges will require much sacrifice from the South Bay; real change can take place elsewhere. When Siembab spoke at a recent conference on South Bay housing he issues, he got some of the loudest cheers of the day when he called for “building affordable housing on affordable land, in places like Adelanto.”


Positively Third Street

Hermosa resident Jill Gottesman grew up going to the beach with her family at the southern edge of Manhattan. While playing volleyball or lying in the sand, she would often look at a set of apartments on the southern corner of Third Street and The Strand. There were eight in all, four tiny bunglows arranged around both sides of a central pathway. Small windows wrapped around the curved exterior wall of each unit, and cactuses dotted the dirt in between.

In the early ‘80s, fresh out of college and with a new job at The Beach Reporter, Gottesman managed to snag one of the apartments. She recalled that longtime owner John Hines, who lived in a slightly bigger unit just behind the apartments, cultivated a particular mix of tenants. He did not want layabouts, but he wasn’t interested in yuppies either, Gottesman said. And rent was reasonable enough that different kinds of people could live there. Her fellow tenants included a dental hygienist, a secretary, and a Campari-drinking tennis player from Amsterdam.

Gottesman vividly remembers her first night. Her mom came to help her paint. The sun had gone down, and voices of people walking by on The Strand drifted in and out as they worked. The constant, though, was the gentle noise of the waves washing over the sand.

“My mom and I were just looking at each other: are you kidding me?” Gottesman said, beaming as she recalled the moment. “It was the most amazing thing. And it never stopped being amazing.”

Today, the Third Street apartments are no more. After Hines died in the late ‘90s, former NHL Kings player Marty McSorley bought the property, intending to build a house. McSorley let the apartments stand for a while, then cleared the land in 2000. In 2001, the land was sold to tech entrepreneur Rob DeSantis, who combined it with two neighboring lots. Today, the land houses a Grant Kirkpatrick-designed home that is colloquially known as the “Tommy Bahama” house.

But the apartments live on in memory, like many of the quirky South Bay structures laid low by the bulldozer. On May 16, the same day that Sen. Portantino announced that SB 50 would be shelved for the year, Christine Post posted a painting of the apartments on the Facebook group “Manhattan Beach Haunts that No Longer Exist.” Eric Grenier wrote that his mother Nancy, a South Bay artist, went down to the sand and spent three days painting them after reading in the Daily Breeze that they would be torn down. Post, who along with her husband Kevin is a former teacher in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, said she grew up in Manhattan, and had fond memories of walking by the apartments.

She was not the only one. The post drew hundreds of responses, many of them nostalgic for the era the apartments represented to them.

Gottesman laughed as she looked at the painting. The apartments were a great place to live, but were not always as well-maintained as watercolors suggested.

“Everybody just idealizes the place,” Gottesman said. “They never looked like that.”

When the units did get a fresh coat of paint, it was sometimes thanks to Jim Madera, who moved into Third Street apartments in 1979, and stayed until they were demolished. (McSorley was a kind landlord, Madera recalled, giving everyone in the place several months of free rent once he had settled on a demolition date.) Madera would sometimes trade handyman work for a couple month’s rent. Today, Madera lives in Hermosa, and makes his living as a painter. He recently worked on a set of studio apartments in Redondo and was astounded when he found out they started at $2,500 per month.

“It makes me want to cry. But, as the landlord, if that’s what you can get, you’d be a fool not to do it,” Madera said.

Madera described the Redondo units as “bachelor apartments,” but the cost of housing means that may not be who ends up occupying them. People in their 20s — and their 30s and their 40s too — are leaving the South Bay. Between 2010 and 2017, the population of 25 to 44 year olds in the Beach Cities declined by 11 percent. (The nation’s population is getting older, but in Los Angeles County as a whole during those years, the 25 to 44 demographic grew by 3.8 percent.) The implications of this demographic change are unknown. Redondo Beach staff noted the shift in a document prepared for the city’s General Plan updates, and described it as a “significant decline in adult residents of prime working age.”

The Third Street apartments had been around for some four decades by the time Madera arrived. He moved in about the time cities across the South Bay were updating land use policies in ways that would make living situations like his impossible. The apartments, Madera recalled, had only four parking spaces, which Hines usually reserved for the female tenants. (Four, coincidentally, is the number of spaces the apartments would need under SB 50.) This did not bother Madera much; he simply parked a couple blocks away and walked. But today, the idea of building eight apartment units on The Strand with four dedicated parking spots would be dead on arrival.

There is no guarantee that SB 50 would result in a place like the one Gottesman and Madera called home; California has changed in ways that are impossible to undo. But the Third Street apartments are a reminder that the toxic character “density” has assumed in South Bay politics is neither inevitable nor even logical.

Gottesman eventually left Third Street, and the South Bay altogether for New Orleans. On a trip home to see her parents, she learned that Hines was dying. She returned to Third Street to visit him.

“I told him how much it meant to live in that place. It’s not often that you get an opportunity to live somewhere that affects you for the rest of your life,” she said.


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