Culver City is at a crossroads, and it’s time to act

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following letter is a transcript of remarks made by Mayor Alex Fisch at the June 28 city council meeting.

The question this evening is whether we will embark on a year-long path of outreach and study to determine how to create missing middle housing throughout our city in a way that preserves what we love about our respective neighborhoods, or whether we will kill the very idea of change right now for just one specific type of neighborhood.  Fundamentally, we will decide tonight whether we are going to use the General Plan to reinforce once again the wall that was built around some Culver City neighborhoods by segregationists many decades ago.  We are doing this in face of almost certain state preemption on this exact question, which very likely will be effective on January 1, 2022.

The meeting on this topic has been a microcosm of what has been happening for 50 years in every successful coastal city in the country.  The result of this process, repeated across 472 California municipalities for far too many housing proposals has been incalculable human misery — rent burden, displacement, perpetuation of racial disparities, soul crushing commutes, planet burning auto dependency, entire exurban towns consumed by wild-land fires — social and economic impacts so severe that Democratic presidential candidates across the ideological spectrum included proposals to encourage an end to exclusionary zoning in their platforms.  The White House has even proposed an incentive program for cities to eliminate exclusionary zoning.   

This consensus is unsurprising.  Calls to pare back exclusionary zoning rules have appeared repeatedly over the last 3 years in the pages of the nation’s most trusted newspapers.  I also call your attention to the “Blueprint for More Housing 2020” by the League of California Cities, which is an association that lobbies for cities and local control.  The League released its Blueprint after it opposed a variety of state housing bills in recent years, and in it the League commits that “cities will take immediate actions to help spur production.” It specifies that “the League . . . supports requiring cities to take some of the following immediate actions . . . designed to help spur housing production [including] Allow up to fourplexes in single-family zones.”  <https://www.cacities.org/Resources-Documents/News/News/2020/Housing-Production-Proposal-Factsheet.aspx>

I understand that this is a very personal and important issue to everyone here.  We’re talking about home.  I respect concerns about privacy, aesthetics, and parking.  But I also think that we can address these concerns while affirmatively furthering fair housing, increasing affordability and access to opportunity, reducing our city’s per capita climate footprint, making even better neighborhoods, enhancing the city’s ability to invest in its public realm, and getting ahead of state preemption of land use.

Let’s talk about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.  It’s been federal law for more than 50 years, but the promise of desegregation remains unfulfilled.  More than 80% of US cities are more segregated today than they were in 1990.  California recently stepped up and made affirmatively furthering fair housing a requirement of state law, and our housing element has to explain how we will do it.  California Department of Housing and Community Development has specified in its “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: Guidance for All Public Entities and for Housing Elements (April 2021 Update)” that affirmatively furthering fair housing includes “promoting housing supply, choices and affordability in areas of high opportunity and outside of areas of concentrated poverty” such as by providing for “[z]oning, permit streamlining, fees, incentives and other approaches to increase housing choices and affordability (e.g., duplex, triplex, multifamily, accessory dwelling units, transitional and supportive housing, group homes) in high opportunity areas.”  <https://www.hcd.ca.gov/community-development/affh/docs/affh_document_final_4-27-2021.pdf>  The Director of HCD, Gustavo Velasquez, left little confusion about this issue at a recent workshop regarding our obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, stating that “single family zoning today has replaced race-based zoning from the recent past.”  <https://twitter.com/louismirante/status/1404865577848508419>

It was only a few days later, as part of a series of Juneteenth announcements, that the White House called on cities to reform exclusionary zoning because such practices impose unnecessary housing cost burdens, reduce labor mobility, create measurable and escalating racial disparities in measurable outcomes, and contribute to the racial wealth gap. <https://www.whitehouse.gov/cea/blog/2021/06/17/exclusionary-zoning-its-effect-on-racial-discrimination-in-the-housing-market/>

I was pleased to hear supportive testimony last week from the Inner City Law Center.  Legalizing missing middle housing can be complicated in neighborhoods that are majority nonwhite or have historically experienced disinvestment, but in a relatively affluent enclave, the missing middle expands opportunity.

Finally, we’ve had a couple of land use reform skeptics reference the Homes Guarantee by Data for Progress as a good plan for us to review.  The very first policy recommendation of the Homes Guarantee is to “replace exclusionary zoning with equitable zoning.”  It describes our existing zoning regime and states as follows:

Remedying this travesty begins with ending exclusionary zoning and replacing it with equitable zoning. Equitable zoning would evolve single-family-only neighborhoods into economically integrated communities with diverse “Missing Middle” home options by allowing the following housing types anywhere a single-unit house can be built:

  • Duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes,
  • Townhomes and rowhouses,
  • Garden apartments, cottage clusters, and other low-rise apartments

“Missing Middle” housing derives its name from the underserved space between single-unit buildings and high-rise buildings. However, the name also aptly describes its role in offering stable housing to the increasingly endangered middle and working classes <http://filesforprogress.org/reports/homes_for_all.pdf>

That’s a good segue to talk about affordability.

The question of what is affordable comes up all the time.  There is subsidized affordable housing, which is created through specific affordable development projects with complicated financing programs and there is affordable housing created through inclusionary zoning, which requires that a portion of new multifamily housing be subsidized by market rate renters in the same building.  Both categories of homes are restricted by income and do not serve middle class households.  

There is also the broader concept of affordability: simply “what can a household afford.”  In that regard, the brand new $1.4 million fourplex homes on one of the city’s finest streets, which one commenter told us about today, are more affordable, and affordable to more households, than the $3-4 million detached home that a local realtor testified last Wednesday would be build on an equivalent lot located in an R1 zone.  Are we going to be a city where, as of today, only people with $600,000 for a down payment can buy a home in more than 50% of our residential land?  

There is a report from November 2019 called “Affordable housing in Los Angeles: Delivering more — and doing it faster.”  The report is worth reading because it identifies that cities can meet the affordable housing component of this RHNA cycle in two ways: through public financing and through market-driven developments with set-asides for affordable homes. 

Meeting 100 percent of the county’s affordable housing goal through public financing of standard units alone would require more than $130 billion over the next eight-year RHNA cycle.  (Just comparing population, that would be $520 million for Culver City.)  The alternative is taking steps to achieve a portion of this goal through privately financed homebuilding.  The report then identifies strategies that, if combined, would fund 45% of the total affordable housing needed without public money. 

Among these strategies, the report identifies conversion of existing detached homes into duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. These renovations can be completed more quickly and at a significantly lower cost than building from the ground up, and could immediately support rents as low as $1,500 per month, which is affordable to moderate-income households. The report also proposes legalizing bungalow courts on parcels currently zoned for detached homes.  The report concludes that such a bungalow court could support rents of $1,000 per month, which would be affordable to a low-income household.  The report specifically notes that these projects “are more likely to be undertaken by small developers or individual homeowners with minimal capital and risk appetite.  Cities can further reduce risk by releasing permit-ready plans.”  <https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Public%20and%20Social%20Sector/Our%20Insights/Affordable%20housing%20in%20Los%20Angeles%20delivering%20more%20and%20doing%20it%20faster/MGI-Affordable-housing-in-Los-Angeles-Full-report-vF.pdf>

Finally, I need to talk about infill development and the climate, because that’s a core part of what drew me to study housing in economically successful coastal cities.  The expert consensus that just land use reform is essential to achieving our climate goals is no less robust than the expert consensus that our atmosphere is heating up, that our greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the heating, and that every bit we can do to stop emitting greenhouse gases will make the future less dire.  

At the moment, our land use policies are undoing the gains that we are making in decarbonizing our energy sector.  The California Air Resources Board issued a report a couple years ago finding that California is not on track to meet the greenhouse gas reductions to which we have committed by law, and the problem is the growth in single-occupancy vehicle travel that comes with mostly adding housing in California’s wildland-urban interface (which is increasingly difficult to protect from fire and increasingly costly to insure).  The Air Resources Board summed up the entire issue succinctly:

“Historic patterns of growth continue to shape the state today. While California has grown to be the fifth largest economy in the world, with world-class cities and thriving communities, its residents, in search of an affordable place to live, and with insufficient transportation options, are too often left with little choice but to spend significant time and money driving from place to place. The way we grow also imposes and often reinforces long-standing racial and economic injustices by placing a disproportionate burden on low-income residents, who end up paying the highest proportion of their wages for housing and commuting. These residents also often live in communities with the most health impacts from lack of active transportation infrastructure and transportation pollution. The greatest burden of health impacts in the state are from chronic diseases related to lack of physical activity, which would be significantly improved by more walking, cycling, and public transit use.”
“In this way, growth patterns have a profound impact on both the health of individuals and the environment. Where jobs are located and homes are built, and what roads, bike lanes, and transit connect them, create the fabric of life. How regions grow impacts where people can afford to live, how long it takes to get to work, how people travel, who has easy access to well-paying jobs and educational opportunities, the air people breathe, whether it is easy to spend time outdoors and with friends, social cohesion and civic engagement, and ultimately, how long people live.”

<http://ww2.arb.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2018-11/Final2018Report_SB150_112618_02_Report.pdf> 

Legalizing missing middle will help change that.  It is not by itself a magic bullet, but we cannot address many of our problems without first curbing exclusionary zoning.  More people will have close access to Culver City’s enviable amenities, including our comfortable climate, which will be even more important as heating in inland areas creates climate refugees.  That statement might be shocking or seem ridiculous, but California already has climate refugees.  Just look at rents and homelessness in the Chico area after the climate change-fueled destruction of the town of Paradise.

In any event, you can see the positive climate impact of legalizing missing middle housing at coolclimate.berkeley.edu, which has a tool showing the most impactful policies that a local government can enact.  Two of the top four policies are advanced by legalizing the missing middle.  

So, colleagues, while the public will have a year or more to weigh in on the important details, it is time for us to pick a side.  We can and must spend the time to craft rules that bring developers under control and ensure quality buildings.  I support pre-approved, neighborhood-sensitive designs.  That’s not hard. But the more we do to address opportunity, affordability, and resilience in this general plan, the more our children and grandchildren will thank us.  I know that a substantial portion of the attendees don’t believe or care about a word I’ve just said, but they’ll believe you.  And, if you’ve been attending conferences, panels, and seminars about cities, housing, justice, and climate, you know that everything I’ve said is true.  

There was a candidate panel some time ago where one of you endorsed small lot subdivisions.  I was impressed at the recognition of the problem and the courageous endorsement of one possible part of a solution, but I didn’t think that the evidence or public awareness was sufficient to support any proposal touching exclusionary zoning in Culver City at the time.  The situation is different today.  I am not asking you to endorse any specific program today, but I am asking you to help me maintain the last bits of a middle class in this city.  Please help me make this city a better, more accessible, more sustainable place, and help me explain over the next year why we must legalize missing middle housing to do that.

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Culver City is at a crossroads, and it’s time to act