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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 3, 2023

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It's Morning in California. Rather, it's Morning in the legislative season, a time when big ideas seem possible, before they disappear into a swamp of obscure pitfalls and shenaniganry. Here's my understanding of the current roster of big housing bills this year, and the threats and potential involved. See also Alfred Twu's very detailed writeup (PDF).

(Part of an ongoing series on housing, mostly in California, also at theschism.)

Some common themes:

  • CEQA, the California version of NEPA is a problem, and though it's right up there with Prop 13 as a Third Rail in California politics, many of the housing bills this year center around exempting projects from CEQA, especially after a particularly egregious use to block student housing because the students themselves would constitute an environmental impact. (I'm reminded of SourceWatch's very cursed Precautionary Principle chart.)

  • Last year's AB 2011 was a particularly big deal, not because of its contents, but because Assemblymember Wicks (previously seen here) managed to get the carpenters' union on board. The Building Trades have been adamant in their demands (basically, require that workers on streamlined projects attended a particular union training program), which the YIMBYs consider a dealbreaker. The compromise in AB 2011 was to provide various benefits to any worker on those projects, and to give preferences to graduates of union apprenticeship programs. There's a huge difference in California politics between "the unions oppose" and "the unions are divided". This mainly applies to SB 423, but the model will likely be tried in plenty of other bills.

The major bills:

  • AB 68 (CA YIMBY), the Housing and Climate Solutions Act. (Not to be confused with 2019's AB 68, part of the push to legalize ADUs). This will likely be a two-year bill, but it's a mass upzoning in the vein of SB 827 and SB 50. Those bills failed, so the YIMBYs are taking a different tack: this is a collaboration between California YIMBY and the Nature Conservancy, as it would not only make it easier to build in cities, it would make it harder to build in the wilderness, under the Gain/Maintain/Sustain rubric outlined here. Details are still in flux, but Livable California is furious. Much of how this goes will depend on how labor gets on board.

  • SB 423 (CA YIMBY), an extension of 2017's SB 35 (previously seen here). The original SB 35 streamlined approvals (including CEQA exemptions) for general plan-compliant projects in cities behind on their housing goals. It was a compromise, which got the Building Trades on board: all-subsidized projects could pay prevailing wage, but market-rate projects had to use "Skilled and Trained" labor, which is extremely scarce. As a result, the only SB 35 projects completed as of this point are subsidized. SB 423 would apply AB 2011-style labor standards to all projects and indefinitely extend the streamlining. The intra-labor fight has been intense. The carpenters are supporting in droves; the remaining trades are stopping just shy of calling them scabs.

  • SB 4, a revival of 2020's SB 899, which would allow churches and nonprofit schools to build housing on their land. This is enormously popular, and was killed for unclear reasons last time. There's been some remarkable cross-pollination with SB 423 at the Capitol, with religious leaders supporting SB 423 and the carpenters supporting SB 4.

  • AB 309 (CA YIMBY), a revival of AB 2053, which would take the first steps in establishing a statewide social housing agency.

  • AB 1630 would exempt student housing within a thousand feet of a school from CEQA, as well as from a variety of building standards such as floor-area ratios, parking minimums, density limits, and height limits under forty feet. This is a direct response to the Berkeley ruling earlier this year.

These bills will of course change going forward, and some will certainly fail to advance, but this is the state of things at the top of the year.

a particularly egregious use to block student housing because the students themselves would constitute an environmental impact

Yeah, humans tend have an impact on environments they live in. Seriously, how did we get a system that is so self defeating? It's insane that Califorians can't build houses.

Seriously, how did we get a system that is so self defeating?

Remember that feeling. Hold on to it. One thing I've learned from working in this space is that the systems are always stupider and more vile than you think.

One thing that helps is to remember that at this point, a society that builds is not in living memory for any but the very oldest of Americans.

"And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half generations, the builder's mindset passed out of all knowledge.”

The YIMBYs are envisioning a wonderfully abundant future, and at the same time, doing a lot of Slow Boring of Hard Boards. In practice, the tip of the spear involves showing up at community meetings to politely ask your local officials to knock it off, or calling your legislator to politely ask them to take your local officials' toys away, or to pore over your city's state-mandated reports and politely tell the state that the city is lying. Roughly none of it looks like Punching The Bad People. (There's an excellent, unfortunately Patreon-only, episode of "The War on Cars" interviewing Matthew Lewis that covers a lot of this.)

Sometimes there are wins, and they're worth celebrating. My city's downtown is replacing a closed donut shop with a small apartment building with ground-floor retail. It's only a few stories tall, but it has a cool roof deck, and it'll make our downtown a little nicer. It's only possible because AB 2097 says the city can't require fifteen parking spaces, which would make the project unconstructible. It's not loud, it's not huge, but it's something. And piling up more and more of those will eventually matter.

Hello, sorry for commenting on this out of nowhere, but I found the podcast you suggested and wanted to ask you a question, if you don't mind.

The host of the podcast retweets groups of vandals who slash car tyres and smash people's headlights. Links:

Can you explain? Are you acting as the public facing moderate voice of a violent extremist movement?

Can you explain? Are you acting as the public facing moderate voice of a violent extremist movement?

This does not look to me like a question asked in good faith. Why would someone who recommends a podcast be obligated to answer for whatever the host of the podcast might do elsewhere on social media? How do you know he's even aware of these tweets? You've made quite a leap to accuse him of being some sort of shill.

Coming from a "new" account that seems to have been created just for the purpose of asking this question, I almost didn't let your post out of the new user filter, but decided to do so just to point this out as something not to do.