We here in the 18th district, which is most of Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda, have a special election June 29th to identify a successor to Rob Bonta, who was appointed Attorney General to replace Xavier Becerra, who was appointed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
There are several good people to choose from. The candidates on the ballot who I considered are:
- Mia Bonta, Alameda (City) School Board member, wife of Rob Bonta
- Malia Vella, Alameda City Councilmember
- Janani Ramachandran, social justice attorney and tenant activist; former Oakland Public Ethics Commissioner, no elected position yet
- Victor Aguilar, San Leandro City Council
- James Aguilar (no relation), San Leandro School Board
(Of those on the ballot I haven’t listed, Canson and Britton have not been actively campaigning, and Slauson is a climate-denying racist birther.)
If you have “conventional” progressive Democratic views on health care for all, taxing the rich, etc., you’re in luck because all five candidates agree with you. This is an extremely progressive subsection of already-progressive California, and the politics match. All these five choices will be pro-labor, pro-women, and anti-gun.
What has emerged to me as the biggest differentiator between all these candidates is on housing policy. And even here, their broad goals are similar: they all support more housing, affordable housing, denser and climate-friendly housing and transit, tenant protections, and ending the zoning laws that have excluded so many for so long.
What really differentiates them is how they plan to do it—how they prioritize different considerations and navigate tradeoffs. Obviously housing policy is one of my passions, so I’m going to have opinions I want them to share, but I think the candidates’ respective approaches also say something larger about how they would legislate.
Out of my comparisons, I have come down for Malia Vella as the most valiant, productive, and insightful fighter for more housing and more tenant protections. Rent control is controversial in her home, the well-heeled city of Alameda, but she has actively supported it and brought it to pass. She has also made herself a target by working to repeal their racist legacy of a city charter amendment that banned all apartment buildings. And she shows deep knowledge, engagement, and experience on housing and transportation issues, aware where well-intentioned cities need help and where exclusionary cities need to be pushed. For example, she observes that many wealthy cities will try to use lack of public transit as an excuse not to build housing—when keeping out transit has been one of their exclusionary strategies for years.
This work is tough and needs a fighter like Vella, because we need a lot more housing to get over our statewide shortage, at 3.5 million homes and counting, paralyzing our livelihoods, and burning the world via car dependence. We have more of a housing shortage than taxes can fund, even if taxes are sharply raised on the wealthy (as she and others propose); that means using the private market, not just big towers but also duplexes, fourplexes, and smaller apartment buildings, allowed just about everywhere cities already exist (“upzoning”), focusing on where there is transit and opportunity. Approvals need to be simple and quick, as lengthy discretionary processes drive up the cost. And to go along with this, we need strong rent control and eviction protections, especially now as the eviction moratorium ends with millions of people behind on rent.
The main barrier to making this vision a reality is the powerful minority of Not In My Backyarders (NIMBYs) around the state. But a smaller problem in some parts of progressive politics—not a majority of progressives, but influential—is that some do not see private development as a legitimate tool toward that end. They argue that market-rate development as currently practiced is a poisonous intrusion and will result in more evictions and more gentrification than otherwise. In fact, evidence shows gentrification is worse when there is no new development—new developers are only able to charge so much for middling quality because they can exploit the same shortage that drives up prices in everything old and new. More private development, even market-rate, is a positive for tenants, not a negative; the evidence and experience across cities and countries is consistent.
This small wing sometimes disputes that private building could help at all, equating new development with condos that are kept vacant for speculative investment: in fact most new construction makes rental buildings, not condos, and they fill up either way. At the extremes, this wing lies with statistics and says there is no shortage and no need to build, only to redistribute existing homes*. More frequently, they argue that if broad upzonings are ever to be countenanced, it can only be after full and complete achievement of rent control, tenant evictions, and high rates of legally guaranteed affordability.
I don’t think less of people for agreeing with these arguments as they start out—most actually-existing developers suck, as does capitalism!—and I don’t think the more committed pro-housing activists like me should consider them enemies: we agree on most of the same things, including tenant protections. But it’s a microcosm of a broader error. To quote John Pfaff, “reforms have to justify themselves in a way the status quo never does.” Whether it’s housing, transportation, clean energy, or criminal justice, there’s a tendency to say “But what if this reform isn’t everything it could possibly be? What if it has unintended consequences?”—and let those concerns kill the reform, leaving us with the status quo, which is, as before, a towering garbage inferno.
Unfortunately, on housing expansion, Mia Bonta, Janani Ramachandran, Victor Aguilar, and James Aguilar are giving oxygen to misleading concerns, in a way that suggests that, when the rubber hits the road, they could be a hindrance to statewide housing justice – not always, or even most of the time, but more often than we have to accept.
Some examples of why I think this: Ramachandran speaks repeatedly and incorrectly of most new development being vacant, and about us having too much market-rate development. When asked how she plans to get housing built at the millions-of-homes scale we need, she first and foremost speaks of rent control and eviction protections, which are vitally needed but which do not as policies foster more housing, just make it fairer. Both Aguilars speak highly of local control over housing as a means to keeping bad developers out. In fact, local control is the primary way exclusive cities keep themselves exclusive, and even a left-aligned city council wielding the veto over everything limits development to the biggest corporations that can afford to mount public campaigns. All three seem to strongly prefer new housing to have high affordable percentages which are not clearly feasible, and to emphasize tenant protections enough to make them seem like their lodestar and precondition for any more housing. So when it comes to the many, many reforms we need to build housing at the right scale, I fear they will lean toward calling them “unaffordable private development” and let the status quo get worse.
Again, I agree on 90% of issues with these three candidates. They are all young and interested in new, creative, and ambitious changes, like a state-owned social housing corporation to build affordable housing faster and more cheaply. They all appreciate there’s nowhere to build but up. I also appreciate that Ramachandran is making an aesthetic argument for dense housing, something YIMBYs often neglect, calling for “four floors and corner stores.” But given the options, Malia Vella is the one on the most effective track.
Mia Bonta’s stance is a different story, and to me the most concerning. She goes farthest down the primrose path of concern-trolling. She opposes two bills that ought to be the least controversial forms of upzoning: SB 9, which would everywhere allow duplexes or splitting single-family lots to build two homes on them; and SB 10, which would allow cities to quickly zone up to 10 homes per lot at their option. It’s not a coincidence that these are the two bills that the staunchest NIMBYs elsewhere in the state are going scorched-earth on, in fact possibly burning credibility by their bad-faith cries of Armageddon.
The way Bonta voices opposition to these two bills is not overtly NIMBY-ish; she says it’s because she wants more affordability provisions; but that does not hold up against the substance of the bills. By her action, she is blatantly courting NIMBY votes, which is disappointing. (Ramachandran and both Aguilars, by contrast and to their credit, are all in favor.)
Some miscellaneous positives about Vella:
- She’s focused on what has to happen for government to become efficient and responsive; she brings up unprompted the problem of high construction costs for transit infrastructure.
- She is supported by some of the best leftist pro-housing elected officials in the area: Lori Droste, Terry Taplin, and Alex Lee.
- She’s able to take swipes at luxury condos – not in the “new housing bad” vein, but enough to demonstrate building housing for high-income people is no kind of end goal for her, which is correct (they’re just a side effect / harm reduction).
- She’s supported by most of the building and construction trade unions. Which some folks reading me may find surprising if they know those unions have been engaging in some questionable opposition to needed bills in Sacramento. (Supporting unions doesn’t mean believing unions always make the right choices.) But I sympathize with the unions, who in the status quo are usually left out and their workers badly treated, feeling that if there is to be upzoning, it must be their hook for qualitatively better opportunities, not just a greater number of opportunities. And Vella’s staunch pro-housing credentials and union trust make her the best person to broker understanding and compromise between these perspectives and bring the unions back to the table, which would be a major step forward for housing at the state level.
So please vote for Malia Vella—ballots should be out!—and read more about her here.
*The frustratingly popular catchphrase that “there are more vacant homes than homeless people”—which is a horrible rubric for whether there is enough supply, as there are millions more rent-burdened families than vacant homes. And most vacant homes are in transition between residents, or uninhabitable. Vacancy taxes are feasible and helpful but a very small part of the solution.