New York Times: California Today: The Beverly Hills Affordable Housing Loophole

February 6, 2018

By Conor Dougherty -- Read the story on the New York Times website

Last week Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Housing and Community Development released a much-anticipated list of cities that will be subject to a new streamlining law that will essentially force those places to approve new housing, especially low-income housing, by removing the city government’s ability to block certain kinds of building permits.

The report showed that pretty much all California cities — and especially those in the coastal job centers around San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego — haven’t built nearly as much low and moderately priced housing as they were supposed to. That wasn’t very surprising, given that California is in a dire housing crisis and has the highest real estate costs in the country.

What was surprising, even shocking, was the city that topped the very short list of places that are meeting their goal of affordable new residences: Beverly Hills. How could that be? Are Beverly Hills’s residents feeling guilty about income inequality and mass building low-income housing as a result?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Beverly Hills’s apparently stellar record at building housing for poor people has more to do with politics and funny math than a sudden building boom.

The progress report released last week is based on a series of housing goals that are decided by a regional body of governments. Over the eight-year period covered by the goals, Beverly Hills was required to build a total of three housing units: One very-low income housing unit, one low-income housing unit, and one moderately priced housing unit. In fairness, the wealthy Los Angeles County city far exceeded its numbers, at least on a percentage basis, by issuing permits for a total of nine low- and moderate-income housing units.

The city was not required to build any high-income housing units, since it already has a lot of them. Nevertheless, it blew its goal of zero out of the water, and issued 75 new permits for high-income housing.

Scott Wiener, the San Francisco senator who wrote the streamlining bill on which the recent report was based, said in an interview that numbers like those reported by Beverly Hills are why he is working on a new bill that would try to neutralize the role of politics in housing production by tying future state housing goals to economic measures like job growth. It would also carry forward past housing deficits so that cities that don’t build will lose further control over local housing decisions as time goes on.

“It’s absurd and we see this around the state where communities that are whiter and more affluent are able to push down their numbers and essentially opt out of new housing,” he said.