I moved away from home four years ago immediately after college graduation. One of the biggest motivators in making that decision was the thought that, hey, it’s not California, it’ll be a little easier to make it somewhere else. After three years of moving around the country, from doing non-profit fundraising in Boston, MA, to working on voter engagement and turnout in Flagstaff, AZ, I decided it was time to come home. I was homesick for the sunshine and the tacos. Moving back home to Downey, California was a tough transition but was going to be a short one, I assumed. “This is temporary!” I assured my mom, who only had a couch to offer me. “No need to unpack the boxes, I’ll be out of here in no time.”
A year later and I’m still living at home. One or two boxes are still packed, tucked away in a corner of the garage.
My story isn’t unusual, and it’s the best case scenario in most situations when people can’t afford a place to live. But it doesn’t have to be this way. People like me and those who are struggling with rent—those on the verge of being homeless or living in their cars and those who are living on the streets—we don’t have to be forced into these conditions, yet we are.
So, how did things get so bad? And can they ever get better? The answer to getting out of this situation lies in remembering our history—and learning from it: Fifty years ago, we stopped building housing in our cities. Specifically, cities throughout California made it illegal to build multi-family housing, as a matter of public policy. Most apartments you see today—the courtyard apartments, the triplexes tucked away on a large lot, the charming bungalow complexes —are illegal to build in a majority of most cities, Whittier included.
What we got during this timespan was sprawling development out into the desert, multi-hour commutes, and the most polluted, unhealthy air in the United States. We built homes that were an hour away from jobs, far from grocery stores, too far for our kids to walk or ride their bikes to school, too separated by freeways and thoroughfares to allow us to live close to our friends, our families, our basic necessities. But even that unsustainable approach to housing development didn’t result in enough homes to prevent our current crisis.
Ever since we made housing policies to reduce the amount of homes that could be built in our cities, the state of California has seen a steady drop in housing production compared to population growth.
For the past three years, Senate Bill 50 (SB50) was a bill in the making that could have dramatically reformed our land use policy. At its core, it was a land use bill. It changed the way we used our land around transit, allowing us to once again to build the small bungalow courts, duplexes, and modest apartment buildings that allow for greater density and encourage transit use. But it failed in the Senate—and while it was not a perfect bill (no bill ever is), SB50 was my biggest hope for reform in how we approach housing. Displacement and gentrification will continue as we have built and planned our cities for that exact scenario.
Single family homes are luxury housing; duplexes and small mid-rise apartments are not.
But we still have a voice in this fight, and we still have time to act. The state won’t be able to hold cities accountable to their lack of planning for the future since SB50 failed. Cities like Whittier, like my hometown of Downey, need to be held accountable for their lack of continued planning to ensure young people like myself will have a home where they grew up.
And it is up to us to hold them accountable. We can start by organizing in our cities. Get to know your neighbors. Do they have kids who live at home? Are you one of the “kids” who still lives at home? Do you wish you could safely bike or walk around your city? There are more people out there who want to see smart planning and growth in their cities than those who don’t. There are more people who take climate change seriously and want to help make the changes needed to build sustainable cities than those who don’t. All it takes is a dedicated group to keep showing up and speaking out to see the change you want to see.
You can get ahold of your local organizing team (California YIMBY across the state and Homes For Whittier locally) to join the efforts or start one on your own! Growth and change is inevitable and we all can have a voice in shaping how our cities grow. Make sure to use yours.
Photo: Roy Rogers Oldenkamp / Creative Commons