In California, where Governor Jerry Brown celebrates “the coercive power of the state” and advocates “brainwashing” for the unanointed, victories against Leviathan are rare. Yet last week brought just such a triumph, as a legislative committee rejected an attempt by San Francisco state senator Scott Wiener to take zoning power away from localities in areas within a half-mile of a bus or train stop. Wiener had sold his measure as a solution to California’s housing crisis and a means of bringing about the dense, green, transit-oriented development that the governor and his supporters prefer. Yet it failed, in large part because few cities wish to give up their zoning power and because even affordable-housing advocates don’t believe that handing blank checks to developers will do much to lower rents or housing prices. 

But it would be a mistake to see Wiener’s defeat as a triumph of conservative principles of limited government and local control. In fact, two of the senators who voted for the bill in committee were Republicans, both from suburban districts whose constituents would not have been much affected by the bill’s passage. Meantime, some libertarian conservatives, champions of “small government,” supported Wiener’s efforts to expand state power because the proposal would remove regulatory restraints—albeit only in dense cities, not on the periphery.

Some principled moderates and conservatives—like Beverly Hills vice mayor John Mirisch and Anaheim’s Tom Tait—were vocal opponents, as were Republicans from places like Yorba Linda. But to a large extent, Wiener was derailed by his own party: much of the opposition came from solidly Democratic cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Berkeley, which might have seemed like natural supporters of his planning notions. But as legislators examined the probable impact of the legislation, it became clear that many neighborhoods—particularly in urban areas like San Francisco—would be stripped of any leverage against developers.

Environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, feared that the bill would allow developers to skirt the state’s often-onerous green legislation. Former LA Weekly editor Jill Stewart, a leader of the anti-Wiener drive, suggests that Wiener took the state’s decades’-long densification drive “off the deep end.” Wiener’s initiative managed to provoke opposition from 37 local progressive groups, and all 13 city council members in Los Angeles wound up opposing it. The killing shot came from the old Left, many of whom live in neighborhoods where the legislation might have had a dramatic effect. Leaders of San Francisco community organizations from the Mission, Chinatown, Cow Hollow, and Excelsior, along with tenants’ rights groups and the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, announced their opposition as well. Residents of Los Angeles’s predominately African-American Crenshaw district saw Wiener’s bill as a “declaration of war on south L.A.” Many feared that the legislation would accelerate gentrification by replacing older, affordable structures with new, more expensive ones. Seventy percent of poor Californians already pay the majority of their paychecks for rent costs, which continue to escalate. These forces formed an unlikely alliance with anti-density middle-class residents often denounced as NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”). Many lived in deep-blue but largely suburban areas—some reliably indigo-blue, like Marin—and cities on the San Francisco Peninsula, or less reliably liberal, affluent parts of Southern California, like Newport Beach, Manhattan Beach, and La Canada.

Progressive backers of Wiener’s top-down legislation bemoaned its defeat and are determined to bring it back. The state’s tech oligarchs and “real estate Democrats,” as progressive author Zelda Bronstein calls them, are too powerful to be easily dissuaded. CEOs of Lyft,, Square, Twitter, and Yelp, as well as senior executives at Google, were among the first to rally behind the bill, and they will likely back similar legislation again. They want dense, expensive housing for their primarily young, childless employees; some would live, as some already do in San Francisco, in glorified boarding houses. To push this agenda, the new elite helped finance the so-called YIMBYs (“yes in my backyard”) as astro-turfed shock troops. In promoting the Wiener bill, the YIMBY contingent sometimes used left-wing rhetoric against rich cities and landlords, though they allied themselves with arguably the most voracious capitalists of all.

The oligarchs, notes author Greg Ferenstein, believe that “urbanization is a moral imperative,” as cities are supposedly “home to more innovation and income equality.” But the Brookings Institution recently ranked San Francisco, already dense, as the second-most unequal city in the nation, while Silicon Valley, like most high-tech areas, is fundamentally suburban. The oligarchs’ view of California’s future—a twenty-first-century version of a medieval gated city, where only a few residents, mostly older whites and  wealthy Asians, own property—has limited appeal. Few people in their thirties want to live in crowded housing or be renters for life.

Wiener and other forced densifiers cast his bill as a step to creating a “greener” California, in which expanded public transit would reduce carbon emissions. Yet, as Los Angeles has densified under its last two mayors, transit ridership continues to drop—in part, notes a recent UC Berkeley report, because incentives for real estate speculation have driven the area’s predominantly poor transit riders further from trains and buses, forcing many to purchase cars.

Except for San Francisco, most of California is not fertile ground for traditional transit. Ridership is declining in dispersed workplaces like Silicon Valley, despite the presence of light rail. Los Angeles has invested $15 billion in light rail—and has lost 16 percent of its riders since 2014. In Orange County, ridership has fallen 30 percent since 2008. The real path to a greener future lies in the innovation that once characterized California. Along with ridesharing, electric and autonomous vehicles could play a big role in reducing emissions, and the state is a leader in its percentage of residents working from home.

Claims that packing people together will do much to improve the environment lack evidence. Even the pro-density UC Berkeley Termer Center acknowledges that banning urban-fringe development will account for barely 1 percent of the proposed state greenhouse-gas (GHG) reduction by 2030—not much to show for polices that could drive house prices and rents even higher. Globally, this GHG reduction would represent a statistical rounding error, amounting to .003 percent of annual worldwide emissions.

A frequent rationale for densification assumes that building more units on transit-rich land will help solve California’s housing-affordability crisis. In reality, higher-density housing is costlier to build, running up to 7.5 times more per square foot the cost of building detached housing. Combined with the prohibitive cost of land zoned for these purposes, high-density development is an expensive proposition. Newly publicly subsidized “affordable” apartments in one dense Bay Area development could cost upward of $700,000 to build.

California could address its housing crisis without destroying existing neighborhoods, and in ways that both lower the cost of rental housing and expand the opportunities for homeownership. As many as 275 malls, according to Credit Suisse, will close in the next five years, roughly a quarter of the national total; America already has four to five times as much retail space per capita as the United Kingdom or Japan. A report from the real-estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield predicts that 15 percent of all mall space will need new uses over the next decade. Disused suburban shopping malls are already being redeveloped into housing across Southern California, an effort that could be greatly expanded across the state. Building in outdated retail, office, warehouse, and industrial spots has the virtue of not affecting flourishing neighborhoods and can take advantage of already-existing water, electrical, and road infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest boost would come from nurturing, as opposed to demonizing, suburban development. Hostility toward the suburbs eliminates the free market for land, driving up prices, while ignoring the preferences and aspirations of Californians. The most recent census data show that, as in the rest of the country, people, notably millennials, are headed to the periphery. Population growth rates in denser places, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, are dropping precipitously, while regions like the San Bernardino-Riverside area are seeing growth.

Density proponents will wave the bloody shirt of sprawl to oppose this cultural shift, but California already has the highest urban-population densities of any state. Los Angeles’s suburban densities are four times those of metropolitan Boston or Atlanta and double those of New York. Further, population growth has fallen to less than a quarter of the rate in the two decades following World War II. Any suburban housing boom would be, in historic terms, modest. And as MIT’s Alan Berger notes, modern suburban development can be as environmentally positive as big-city densification. Suburban performance can only improve with the shift to electric cars, the increase in telecommuting, and, eventually, autonomous vehicles. 

In the long term, Jill Stewart suggests, the defeat of the Wiener bill shows that the public can indeed challenge California’s autocratic planning regime. The measure brought together opposition groups from the Bay Area, Southern California, and the interior. Beverly Hills’s John Mirisch is pushing for a state-wide initiative to ban co-optation of local control.

Unless this alliance formulates a long-term pro-housing agenda, though, the state political establishment will find ways to force the density issue. A new strategy, one that attracts jobs to the places where people are moving and recycles redundant retail and other urban space into new housing, would relieve the pressure of over-inflated urban markets. Such a commonsense approach, of course, would violate the city-planning dogma favored by most academics and the media. Yet, given the clear preferences of Californians, perhaps it’s time to give common sense a chance.

Photo: Market Street, San Francisco, from Twin Peaks (Vincent Bloch)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next