California’s SB 593 Opens the Door for Urban Renewal 2.0

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 593, a measure designed to finance the construction of affordable housing units. The bill promises to rectify the historical injustice of the city’s urban renewal projects that destroyed low-income neighborhoods between 1955 and 1975.

But we should not forget that urban renewal was itself sold as a policy to provide quality affordable housing to those most in need, which might give us pause to question whether SB 593 can deliver better results.

In the decades following World War II, the predominantly white middle-income residents of urban America fled to the suburbs, taking their dollars with them. City planners responded by concocting strategies to revitalize America’s decaying urban centers. Most schemes focused on “slum clearance” (as urban renewal was originally called) to make room for redevelopment projects that would stimulate the local economy and attract tax dollars.

The 1949 Federal Housing Act made funds available to cities with plans to rebuild “blighted” areas, which commonly entailed condemning inexpensive single-room occupancy dwellings. Proponents of those schemes, of course, promised that they would build even better housing for the unfortunate souls who were cursed to live in these “substandard” units.

Urban renewal, in other words, was sold as a benevolent policy intended to improve the lives of America’s poorest citizens.

But talk was as cheap as demolition, while the construction of replacement units was slow and expensive. Consequently, the number of housing units destroyed vastly exceeded new development, and thousands of vulnerable Americans were forced onto the streets or pushed to unfamiliar cities.

In San Francisco, as the bill acknowledges, the city’s Redevelopment Agency destroyed 14,207 housing units, but only built 7,498 replacements. In 2003, the state legislature tasked the agency with building the remaining 6,709 units. However, by the time the agency was dissolved in 2012, it had only completed 867, leaving a deficit of 5,842 units.

SB 593 seeks to finance the construction of the remaining units, thus completing the unfinished task of the Redevelopment Agency. Judging by the friendly press the bill has enjoyed, the story ends there.

Unfortunately, the bill contains another provision that has received less coverage. In addition to building the long-promised 5,842 housing units, the bill would replace the 7,498 units that actually were constructed in the 1970s.

In language that is strikingly reminiscent of the urban renewal schemes, Section 1(j) of the bill states—with nauseating irony—that “these units are in need of substantial rehabilitation or replacement if they are to continue to provide decent and safe affordable housing and address the housing needs of those displaced by urban renewal.”

Section 1(m) clarifies the new removal policy, authorizing the successor to the Redevelopment Agency to issue bonds not only to finance new housing units, but also for “the replacement of the obsolete replacement units that were constructed previously” (emphasis added).

Those are not empty dwellings. Just as with the original urban renewal schemes, the thousands of San Franciscans who rent the units will have to find somewhere else to live while their homes are being destroyed. Where will they go in a city with a chronic and severe housing shortage?

The bill offers little reason to believe the bill’s pledge to provide newer and better units for the displaced residents will play out differently than the virtually identical pledges made by urban renewal advocates in the 1950s.

With San Francisco’s housing shortage at crisis levels, it is easy to be seduced by empty promises of affordable housing. But we should remember past mistakes, lest we repeat them.

As written, SB 593 is little more than an urban re-renewal scheme. Until and unless the provisions authorizing the destruction of existing housing are removed from the bill—and, ideally, replaced with a clause explicitly prohibiting such demolition—it is not worthy of support. The bill’s intentions may be noble, but we should not forget what the road to hell is paved with.

Christopher J. Calton is the Research Fellow in Housing and Homelessness at the Independent Institute. He received his Ph.D. in History at the University of Florida, where his research focused on the history of the corporation.
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