All in all, it’s quite remarkable that California is now the Bernie-loving heart of the “Resistance” – the most trusted Democratic state in America. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that this was the ideological incubation chamber for the Reagan Revolution and the modern anti-immigrant movement.
Despite the relatively recent liberal boom, California has found it extremely convenient to test blue for national candidates and then tag it when it comes to making meaningful progressive guidelines in your own backyard. Think back to 2008 when state voters stared into the throat of the cruel legacy of the Bush administration against LGBTQ and decided, “nah, we’re good” when they were given the chance to go home for marriage equality fight.
Twelve years later, the 2020 California election revealed little about Trumpism. Biden would always win the state easily. Instead, it was a gut control of the liberals’ courage to practice what they preach.
The results were decidedly mixed.
To its progressive credit, California looked its brutal and bigoted criminal justice system in the eye and took action following the George Floyd protests, rejected one final election and elected ambitious reformers such as George Gascón in LA District.
Yet California’s housing and land-use policy continues to hulk in its inner Ronald Reagan to crush major progressive reforms.
Election initiatives to establish California’s regressive property tax law Proposition 13 not only failed in 2020, voters made matters worse. While an economically damaging pandemic threatens to bring tens of thousands of tenants onto the streets, voters have also ditched the idea of allowing cities to experiment with rent controls (this is largely illegal at the moment). And slowly growing politicians came to power in major employment agencies like Santa Monica, promising to ignore state housing laws.
These election decisions came after years of state and local failure to address the housing and homeless crisis in California. The shooting of an ambitious housing bill by Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) has become practically a New Years tradition in Sacramento. And while Los Angeles voters have approved funding for advanced housing, homelessness and transportation in recent years, NIMBY’s resistance has been following these plans like a pack of wolves.
The Californians say they want big, progressive changes. But when it comes to their neighborhoods, or anything that could even slightly slow the stratospheric rise of their property values, too many shy away. And too many lawmakers cower before their discontent.
While these concerns do not seem to have anything to do with voter-backed struggles against racial injustice and the impending demise of the climate, they are inextricably linked. California, and Los Angeles in particular, have a history of overt racism and discrimination in their homes that rivals even their most hideous police scandals. Our current housing and homelessness crises were born out of this story. And it’s impossible to fight climate change without getting people out of their cars, which means building more affordable housing near transit and employment offices.
Leonora Camner, executive director of the advocacy group Abundant Housing LA, says that unlike the Movement for Criminal Justice Reform, Housing lawyers have not been so successful in making the links between California’s racist past and its unjust and unsustainable present.
“I still don’t think people have a complete picture of what our systemic housing failures have to do with the broader struggle for racial justice.”
However, the 2020 election gave California a major outlier for its status quo in housing: Nithya Raman.
Raman was the first Los Angeles City Council challenger to defeat an incumbent for nearly two decades. He won a district with some of the notoriously die-hard NIMBY homeowners in town. This despite promises to build new government council housing for the first time in seven decades, alongside other advanced land use ideas that are usually known to cause NIMBY connections.
She attributes her victory to the power of storytelling, which engaged new voters and helped bridge the knowledge gap between LA’s dark history and current ugly realities. Your political regulations read more like a master’s thesis than a technical jargon.
A city planner by profession, Raman spent years in Chennai, India mapping the fast-growing slums on the outskirts, where nearly a million people lived invisible to the concerns of city guides.
Sounds … pretty close to home.
“It’s not the perfect parallel,” says Raman. “LA has a lot of data on its unhodged population. But there is a definite division between Los Angeles city guides, who drive their cars, and the city as it actually is. “
LA’s land use policy in general is a disaster. Strict zoning regulations (which arose largely from overt racism) prohibit the construction of anything other than single-family homes in most parts of the city, making it nearly impossible to add enough affordable housing. Due to these zoning rules, developers who want to build projects outside of the city’s strict regulations must obtain special permission from the town hall. This gives city council members a tremendous leverage over individual projects in their districts – and gives developers a chance to toss their money around. At best, the process leads to skepticism, at worst to corruption. And it gives NIMBYs a convenient excuse – and leverage – for important projects they don’t like. Which too often is pretty much everything.
However, Raman takes office after avoiding any contribution to developer campaigns – and the blemish (and influence) that goes with it. Rather than treating housing primarily as a supply and demand problem, as many housing advocates do, Raman’s solutions are equity-oriented and focus on the unhoused, working-class tenants. Don’t expect an endless sea of upscale apartments in your district. She wants to revise the LA zoning rules so that affordable housing projects can be legally built. This means no special city permits are required instead of having to deal with extensive bureaucracy and political setbacks.
She is the rare leader whose ideas live up to LA’s progressive reputation. And those that it urgently needs if it has the hope of breaking its ineffective housing status quo. But how much can it accomplish in a district where most of the residents are homeowners and the energy of the elections is waning?
“Honestly, Raman has a lot of NIMBY churches in her district,” says Camner. “And NIMBYism will always be a problem. But LA has gotten grim. We are dealing with homelessness, racist injustice and at the same time fighting a climate crisis. The status quo just doesn’t have the same appeal as it used to. “
For her part, Raman is confident that the grassroots support that fueled her campaign will remain active and prevent the most powerful voices in the room from dominating the housing debate. She also hopes that even wealthy homeowners who have put road blocks in the past to their urban planning style can no longer ignore the cost of inaction.
“The risk of doing nothing is far worse for their property values,” says Raman. “If homelessness continues to rise at the pace, this will be a less desirable place to live if the LA air continues to deteriorate.”
If she is able to turn her ideas into reality, Raman could provide the model to help California finally reconcile its progressive rhetoric with local housing action.
“I definitely hope it is,” she says. “I spoke to thousands of people in all parts of my district during the campaign. There was a deep sense of frustration. However, when you tell them, “We can make things more effective and compassionate,” they look forward to having the opportunity to express their values. “
One way or another, Nithya Raman wants to show us how progressive Los Angeles really is.