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California Focus: Density advocates ignore post-pandemic landscape

Listen to California’s leading advocates of housing density and you have to conclude that, like ostriches, they kept their heads deep in sand through the state Legislature’s two-month coronavirus shutdown and the statewide lockdown.

They’re like soldiers fighting the last war, rather than preparing for the next one. That is always a losing proposition.

“Our work (for more density) has only intensified,” said Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu as he offered new pro-density bills. “People recognize the root cause of California’s housing mess is a shortage of housing,” added his state Senate counterpart, fellow San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener.

Their talk reflects one view of pre-pandemic reality, when Wiener pushed hard for a failed measure called SB 50, aiming to force every city in California to encourage high-rise building near light rail stops and along so-called “major transit corridors,” defined by the number of buses running along their streets.

These so-called solutions could have all but eliminated single-family zoning and changed the character of many neighborhoods and entire cities, giving developers a bright green light. It was no wonder builders and construction unions strongly backed SB 50.

A key question Wiener, Chiu and their allies always ignored was this: Who was going to buy or rent the apartments and condos created by all the purported new building? Pre-virus, the state’s inventory of unsold homes was near peak levels because there weren’t enough qualified buyers for available properties.

With millions of new unemployed and others working for vastly reduced pay, the corps of qualified buyers has been reduced from even its prior levels.

Wiener, Chiu and other advocates of unbridled high-rise construction consistently ignored these realities, including the fact that before the coronavirus, the price of an “affordable” unit averaged about $360,000. How many low-income folks who qualify to buy affordable units possess the $70,000 or so needed for a 20% down payment on those places?

Now, the pandemic has changed things dramatically. As destructive and deadly as it’s been, it also presents California with an obvious housing solution: Convert much of the soon-to-be-vacant space in the state’s myriad office towers into housing units.

Many companies like Twitter and Dell Computer and hundreds of others that sent employees home to work during the virus lockdown have now told them to keep working there forever, if they like.

This is the new post-pandemic reality confronting high-rise owners: With millions of white-collar employees “distance commuting,” businesses that lease millions, perhaps billions, of square feet in tall buildings suddenly need far less office space.

A new study from the San Diego-based firm Global Workplace Analytics concluded that “25-30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021.” That will very soon leave huge amounts of office space empty.

This translates to huge amounts of available, eminently livable space soon to be available for apartments and condos. There will be 30th-floor units with magnificent ocean, river or mountain views, along with second- and third-floor studio and one-bedroom apartments for rent at much lower prices.

It will take little more than plumbing, electric and drywall work to convert current office space to these new and needed uses, carving the existing space into different arrangements. Memo to unions, contractors and realtors: The conversions will create many thousands of new jobs for several years.

One advantage of all this is that since the buildings exist, construction costs will be a fraction of what they might be under plans pushed by the likes of Wiener and Chiu, lowering the price of new housing. Neighborhoods and cities won’t be sullied. In fact, new high-rise denizens will cause less traffic than current commuters. Plus, many existing buildings already sit in job centers near mass transit.

This housing solution, driven by market forces and not politicians, can create more housing at lower costs than Wiener and Chiu dream of. It will also get high-rise owners off the hook for their massive investments in buildings that will otherwise become obsolete.

The wonder is that folks like Wiener and Chiu show no sign of seeing any of this, even as early phases of the new housing phenomenon take place before their very eyes, mere blocks from where they live.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com

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