Where the Sidewalk Starts: Gov. Newsom upholds housing promises by saying ‘No’ to NIMBYs

California’s housing crisis has remained a hot-button topic since the 1970s. Almost 25% of Americans who are affected by homelessness live in California. For a state that only contains 12.5% of the nation’s citizens, this is absurdly disproportionate. 

On his campaign trail, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to expand housing, create affordable homes in affordable areas and make a dent in the housing crisis. And since his election, he has started to take action that upholds his promise. In overruling a lowball housing plan for Southern California and instead demanding the construction of 1.3 million homes within the next decade, Newsom is forcing California in a direction of positive change.

Those who thought Newsom was full of empty promises on the campaign trail insist that he is again making a promise without a clear plan for execution. But he has taken one of the most important steps toward launching a project of this magnitude — his January budget proposal allocates over $2 billion for affordable housing. The governor should not be required to outline all the nitty gritty details of his plan. Instead, he should be able to lean on local governments to execute it.

Addressing the housing deficit has always been a tug of war between state and local government — officials like Newsom set high numbers, but city and county governments push back, having difficulties dividing the funding as they lack resources or plainly do not want to create more housing. 

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a group of city- and county-elected officials in the area, estimated Southern California needs only 430,000 homes by 2029. A 2016 report by McKinsey, a national development consulting firm, stated that there needs to be 3.5 million more houses in Southern California by 2025 to accommodate the growing population. A more conservative estimate was made in a 2018 USC research report, which said 2.5 million was a better estimate for the same timeframe. Both of these numbers are far higher than SCAG was willing to plan for. 

Because SCAG underestimated California’s population growth, it’s likely the housing crisis would only worsen if its original housing plan was upheld. The two million homes unaccounted for between SCAG and USC’s estimates translate even more people who may have been affected by homelessness.

SCAG and local governments aren’t innocent of evading housing development — though the private sector does the actual construction, local leaders have a slow growth mindset when it comes to zoning for housing. They often succumb to Not In My Backyard groups, also known as NIMBYs, who oppose developments near them, in fear of larger populations, crime, homelessness or various other social issues that will be “in their backyards.”

So rather than planning for development, local governments try to preserve certain kinds of cities — single family homes, minimized traffic and suburbs. But because of Newsom’s plan, this won’t carry on for much longer. Cities will be denser, more affordable housing will be created and those who are experiencing homelessness will hopefully have somewhere to live.

In the wake of Newsom’s overrule of Southern California’s long-term zoning plan, NIMBYs have emerged far and wide in protest — and some make very good points. A collection of letters to the editor in response to the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board’s support of Newsom’s housing plan touch on transportation and public transit, earthquake readiness and stimulating job development.

But these issues must be taken in stride — Newsom’s plan will unfold over the next decade. In tandem, Los Angeles will develop transportation for its Metro Vision 2028 plan. Developers can look to densifying housing around urban centers and transit hubs. Perhaps the feared traffic increase will promote public transit ridership and benefit the environment in the long run. But change cannot start without a goal and a leader, and Newsom has shouldered the responsibility.

Newsom’s plan is what California needs to turn the tide on our housing crisis. And as citizens, we need to show up and elect leaders like Newsom who prioritize these issues. But we also need to ask our local leaders to show up. For SCAG’s original ruling of 430,000 new homes, only one of L.A. County’s council members was present to vote. Even Mayor Eric Garcetti, a SCAG board member, was not present. Change is enacted locally, and it starts with us saying “yes” in our backyards.

Breanna de Vera is a junior writing about urban planning. Her column, “Where the Sidewalk Starts” runs every other Monday.