Sacramento Has Declared War on You, Let Me Explain

MOMENTS IN TIME-(Editor’s Note: This is the first of an ongoing series.) There are moments in time that are transformative. January 3, 2018 was one such moment.

On that day California State Senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 827 exposing for everyone who wished to see Sacramento’s truly callous legislative process. In that moment many of us realized that something very dark was happening to California. If you are a homeowner or renter living in a rent stabilized building you need to know that the State Legislature in Sacramento and their allies have declared war on you. 

SB 827 was breathtaking in its disregard of the democratic process, its indifference to the less fortunate and the favoritism it showered on the wealthy. It was so favorable to the business community, especially the tech industry, that former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky coined the word WIMBY (“Wall Street In My Back Yard”) to describe the proposed bill. 

Silicon Valley decries the lack of housing in California and how it is costing them money. With the help of some Sacramento politicians and others they have decided that zoning is the problem and they intend to end it and make our cities much denser. That should raise some eyebrows given the following U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 figures: 

  • The nation's most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile. 
  • The San Francisco-Oakland, Calif., area is the second most densely populated at 6,266 people per square mile. 
  • San Jose, Calif. (5,820 people per square mile) is third. 
  • Delano, Calif. (5,483 people per square mile)." (just north of Bakersfield on Highway 99), Bakersfield is fourth. 

In order to get even more density in California, Wiener and his backers decided to end any kind of zoning within one-half mile of a transit stop that would prohibit four-to-five story buildings from being erected. It was a one size fits all regulation that meant not only the end of single family residential zones but the end of rent stabilized duplexes and small apartment buildings.

Initially it was thought that SB 827 was a slam dunk. But through a truly historic effort, those opposed started to find each other across the state and exchange ideas. Traction began to take hold with various groups; letters were written, phone calls made and slowly, elected officials in many cities began to oppose the bill. 

Finally, people from Southern and Northern California converged on Sacramento to speak against the bill in front of the State Transportation committee where it died – at least for now. I say “for now” because that is the Sacramento way. Ideas are never thrown away, they are simply repackaged. 

The one thing I think we all discovered during this battle is that one size fits all does not work for California cities. Los Angeles is not San Francisco and Oakland is not San Diego. Ditto for all the others. Cities do not spring up full grown, they develop over time and any process to change them must reflect that. The history of Los Angeles expanding from the first business district is well chronicled. So is the history of the other cities in Los Angeles County. There is a history for all cities in California – if people take the time to look. These are cities developed according to the land available for them to expand into. 

A 1915 City of Los Angeles report described it this way: the general plan of all cities is naturally regulated by the prevailing topography and such plans may be roughly classed in the three following types: 

  • Peninsular, such as New York or San Francisco, the city area being surrounded on three sides by water channels or natural barriers practically impregnable to civic growth. 
  • Valley, such as Pittsburg or Cincinnati, the first settlement and future congested area lying in the bottom of a natural depression, from which point business reluctantly ascends the surrounding elevations, and 
  • Circular or radiating type, where natural boundaries are, practically speaking, non-existent, and the cities are free to spread at will in all directions. 

Los Angeles was the latter type. Its growth was driven and directed by the business community of the day and by its elected officials. Now those same groups want to expand even more to become denser. They (like their predecessors) will only be here for a time and will be long gone before the consequences of their decisions are fully known. We need to make sure that what they do is best for all the people, not just the few. We also need to make sure there is a full discussion about density and infrastructure because our lives and wellbeing depend on it. Infrastructure relates to public safety and must not be compromised. 

California already faces serious infrastructure challenges based on our current density figures and now they want more density? Does anyone think that things like decrepit sewers, dams and bridges can be ignored forever? Does anyone really think there will never come a day of reckoning regarding our water supply? Driving on California’s damaged roads costs each driver $844 in repairs per year and 5.5% of our bridges are rated structurally deficient. Drinking water needs in California are an estimated $44.5 billion and wastewater needs total $26.2 billion. Inspectors have designated 678 California dams as potential high-hazards and the state’s schools have an estimated capital expenditure gap of $3.2 billion. Add to this the fact that many of our water and sewage pipes across California are at the end of their life expectancy and we have a real public safety problem on our hands. 

The next time your power goes out due to rain or wind or you see water gushing out of one more broken water main, think infrastructure. These are signs of aging systems and everything has a breaking point. Ask yourself, how much more density can California truly afford given the state of its infrastructure?


(James O’Sullivan is President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association and co-founder of Fix the City … a non-profit, citizen association whose stated goal is its name … to Fix the City. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.