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Localism Still Has a Heartbeat, Even in California (Washington Examiner) May 25, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

In a move with national implications, California lawmakers recently stopped Senate Bill 50, which would override local zoning laws to require much higher density in housing. There in the Sacramento wreckage is a microcosm of the political themes and policy playbooks of our time: crisis, emergency, climate change, NIMBY (not in my backyard), the demise of local government, the rise of tech companies at the expense of livable cities — you name it.

Let me deconstruct the scene for you.

California’s housing stock is not keeping up with demand. Experts say the state needs to be building 180,000 units a year, but, for a decade, it has averaged only 80,000 new units. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, says California needs a nearly five-fold increase in home building to keep up, and he intends to lead the charge.

Senate Bill 50 would have increased housing density by requiring cities to permit apartment complexes near rail stations and job centers and to allow two to four homes to be built on lots presently zoned for one. Suburbanites saw their California dreams disappearing along with their front yard lawns and backyard barbecues. Although Democrats hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature, enough Democrats represented those suburban districts to fight the bill off for a year.

Unusual as it is for a liberal Democratic policy to die on a suburban hill of local control, there are several important policy stories here. One is the guise of crisis and emergency that seems to be driving our politics and policy everywhere. There was no time to deliberate or compromise; this was a crisis and we needed action now. Everything in Washington is wars and emergencies: We fight a war on poverty, a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror; meanwhile we live under 31 states of national emergency. Some California legislators actually said we need to take more time with this, look for something less extreme, and find a political compromise. Good for them.

This battle was also full of the politics of shaming and blaming. Proponents of the bill exposed suburbanites for their selfishness in not wanting housing solutions in their backyard. Meanwhile, these same proponents had their own selfish interests with the bill supported by labor, business, the California Chamber of Commerce, and others who wanted to build more houses and make more money. It’s just that their interests happened to coincide with the crisis of the moment, so they sought to be the good guys and shame the selfish bad guys who liked their local communities as they are. Indeed, the most serious housing shortages in California have been caused by business, namely technology companies that attract workers, paying little or no attention to their housing needs. I am sure homeowners wondered why a lack of planning on the part of technology executives became their crisis.

Finally, this was a battle about federalism, the idea that we do not need the states or federal government to take over everything at the expense of local government. If you think about it, if cities cannot decide their own zoning and property development laws, what is left for them? Why not just have the state take over everything? This, of course, is what Washington, D.C., has been doing for decades, taking over state matters such as education and welfare right down to the speed limits on our highways. Finally, California municipalities rose up and said, “Enough!”

The late Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the House, liked to say, “All politics is local.” Unfortunately, that is less and less true in America. But in stopping Senate Bill 50 for now, lawmakers in Sacramento have shown us that deliberation, compromise, and localism still have a heartbeat, even in California.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


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