YIMBYs Triumph In California
What went down in the legislature this week.
There were three big bills in the legislature this session sponsored by YIMBYs: upzoning commercial corridors (AB 2011), eliminating parking requirements for new homes near transit (AB 2097) and establishing a social housing public developer (AB 2053). AB 2053 died in committee, but the other two made it. The biggest of them all is AB 2011 which will upzone up to 2.4 million more homes along commercial roads.
Unions vs. Unions Results in Compromise
YIMBY bills in the past always relied on the support of the powerful State Building Trades which represents unionized construction workers. There was a long battle between Low Income Nonprofit Developers, known as “The Housers” and the State Building Trades on whether expensive subsidized housing projects should use union labor. The rise of the YIMBY movement naturally got in the middle of it.
The problem is that there simply isn’t anywhere close to the amount of union construction workers needed to build the millions of homes California lacks. The Recession wiped out a lot of construction jobs and construction as a pathway to reliable work. Most small contractors fixing up houses or building sprawl aren’t unionized while much of the urban construction is.
Previous housing bills would require developers to pay prevailing wages or union-level wages, which up until recently was satisfactory to the Trades. The Trades knew the legislature was desperate to pass a housing bill and made clear that all new housing needed to be built by unions exclusively. In 2020, they demonstrated their seriousness by single-handedly smoking the entire housing agenda that year and threatened to do so again by opposing AB 2011.
But this time more unions got into the game: the Carpenters union, which also represents many construction workers, supported AB 2011 and rallied loudly. In the legislature, there’s a world’s worth of difference between supporting a bill on paper and mobilizing for a bill you support. The Carpenters and SEIU did the latter, which made all the difference.
The Carpenters’ perspective was that the lack of housing construction led to the decline of construction worker unions and that it was in unions’ best interests to keep housing supply up so that there’s demand for jobs. The other big union supporters of SB 2011 weren’t construction unions at all—it was SEIU, the public workers union, and the school workers union. They supported AB 2011 because their workers were harmed by the housing shortage. This was a profound entry of non-construction unions into the land use debate.
The governor made clear he wanted anti-NIMBY laws on his desk soon and that there was tremendous momentum from abolishing single-family zoning last year. So in an unprecedented move, the unions simply agreed to a grand bargain: pass both AB 2011 and its competitor bill SB 6 which was amended with union-only clauses while reducing affordability requirements — letting builders choose. The Trades dropped their opposition to AB 2011, and both bills were guaranteed passage.
Parcels zoned for commercial, office, or parking are eligible for 100% low income housing. (Zoned does not mean used as, merely zoned as).
Parcels zoned for only for commercial use and are adjacent to streets with widths (from property line to property line) greater than 70 feet are eligible for market housing.
Streets smaller than 100 feet: 3-stories high and at least 30 homes per acre.
Streets greater than 100 feet: 4-stories high and at least 50 homes per acre.
Commercial zones located within a half mile of officially designated major transit stops and in cities with populations greater than 100,000: 6-stories high and at least 70 homes per acre.
Market homeowner housing must include 30% of homes deed-restricted for middle income households or 15% to low income households.
Market rental housing must have 15% of homes deed-restricted for low income households.
All eligible proposals are immune to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuits.
Permits are granted by the the Planning Department upon application and review. Thus “streamlining” and bypassing the usual process of requiring various commissions and a council vote which takes years into merely several months.
Wages for workers must be the prevailing wage (union-level wage) for that area.
No residential car parking that isn’t for disabled drivers or EV charging stations is required.
Can only employ unionized labor.
Does not provide permit streamlining and must obligle local permitting rules unless streamlined by another law.
Has no low income housing requirements (hence the name “Middle Class Housing Act”)
Allows homes in commericial zoned areas provided it abides by all other non-residential rules such as parking and height.
AB 2011 is the most monumental zoning bill to be passed in recent California history. Senate Bill 9 — the statewide legalization of duplexes — represented a series of compromises with homeowners and realtors. Although by nature it couldn’t result in that much housing, its passage provided a major narrative shift for YIMBYs. The big NIMBY backlash that gripped legislators in fear for 3 years since the rise of YIMBYs simply didn’t happen. The NIMBY proved to be all bark and no bite and was heavily demoralized from the YIMBY’s win with SB 9.
Legislators like Buffy Wicks of Oakland decided to go hard with bills that few thought were possible even at the beginning of this legislative season. Wicks was ultimately successful. AB 2011 is no lukewarm upzoning: researchers at Urban Footprint project up to 2.4 million more homes and 400,000 deed-restricted low income homes may be added solely because of the bill. AB 2011 could reduce GHG emissions by up to 40% over suburban sprawl.
Twilight of Anti-YIMBYism
Displacement wasn’t a primary conversation with AB 2011 because AB 2011 only upzones commercial parcels and the vast majority lack housing units. This satisfied a lot of worries about the potential for direct displacement. However, organizations like Western Center and its allies are unwavering in their belief that the construction of market-rate housing anywhere furthers displacement indirectly. They also firmly believe that housing construction should remain expensive as a bargaining tool with developers.
Western Center decided to oppose AB 2011 and AB 2097 with a coalition of likeminded groups and to lobby legislators to vote no as they had done for many YIMBY bills before. Western Center ran a fact-free campaign that parking requirements are used by localities to bargain for more subsidized housing, a claim that they could not substantiate with any example anywhere when prompted.
What was more telling about Western Center’s opposition coalition wasn’t who signed onto it but the groups that hadn't. The tenant groups that lead the opposition from the Left against SB 50 such as ACT-LA and ACCE were not on the letter for a clear reason — signing onto incessant opposition to every zoning reform bill would dilute their serious positions on future zoning bills.
Western Center ultimately overplayed their hand by consistently opposing YIMBY bills even as YIMBYs supported tenant protection laws. The changing narrative and growing popularity of the YIMBY message put anti-YIMBYs in a bind. No longer would blind and incessant opposition to any privately-funded housing suffice as an argument to the legislature. Moreover, the new left-wing legislators that would carry tenant protection bills and the most willing to support Western Center-sponsored legislation like Socialist Alex Lee (D - Fremont) and progressive Mia Bonta (D - Oakland) were self-proclaimed YIMBYs.
The product of their incessant baseless opposition rewarded them only with irrelevancy on land use, evidenced by the vote of 33 - 0 for AB 2011 in the Senate and AB 2097, which passed 26 - 9 with all 9 no’s coming from Republicans and 5 suburban Democrat Senatorsn abstaining. Anti-YIMBYism or left NIMBYism is in its twilight in the legislature.
I say, 10 times a week, 'We have to build more housing in our communities, all of our communities need more housing, we need low-income, middle-income, market rate.' You couldn't do that in a comfortable way four years ago. — Assemblymember Buffy Wicks
The Labor-YIMBY-Houser coalition moves forward in Sacramento thanks to incredible legislators like Buffy Wicks, Nancy Skinner, Scott Wiener, Alex Lee and others. It looks virtually unbeatable, but it won’t be easy to maintain. The recent victories highlight how YIMBY's most important discussion is the alliance of the unions and how they are an indispensable solution to the housing crisis.
It is 40 years late, but California is finally getting serious on the production side of the housing crisis.