January 16th, 2023
A few years ago, IKAR, a large and vibrant Jewish congregation in Los Angeles found itself temporarily out of a home. The congregation had rented spaces since its founding in 2004. But, with more growth and buzz, IKAR was finally able to purchase land just south of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
As they were planning for their new location, IKAR’s leaders discovered that LA’s zoning laws provided a financial incentive to build additional units of affordable housing. In short order, IKAR went from home seeker to housing developer. The group planned to build “55 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors in partnership with a nonprofit affordable housing developer,” IKAR’s CEO, Melissa Balaban, told Tablet.
Brooke Wirtshafter, director of community organizing at IKAR, explained their motivations. “We feel like this is the most important way we can live out our values as Jewish folks in Los Angeles,” she said. “To actually build housing on our site and to make this happen right there next to where we have our community.”
California has become the epicenter of America’s homelessness crisis and the country’s increasingly volatile housing politics. Jewish groups in the Golden State are taking an active role in advocating for solutions to the problem both through legal reform and, in cases like IKAR’s, by trying to create new housing opportunities.
With nearly 70,000 homeless people living on the streets in LA county last year, 55 new units of housing is a drop in the bucket on a citywide scale but is potentially life-changing for dozens of real people. The problem is even worse at the state level. While California makes up less than 12% of the U.S. population, it accounted for roughly 30% of homelessness in the U.S. in 2022, according to federal data. And it’s not only the homeless feeling the squeeze. A chronic statewide shortage of affordable housing has driven middle and working class families out of cities like LA and San Francisco. According to the California Association of Realtors, only 16% of Californians could afford to buy a median-priced home in 2022. The California Budget and Policy Center reports that over half of renters put more than 30% of their income toward housing costs.
Last year, California passed a rash of laws meant to solve this crisis. These included laws that would force municipalities to accept buildings of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or units adjacent to larger units, as is the case with converted garages or backyard sheds. The laws would also override aspects of the local zoning code in transit-heavy neighborhoods. Several laws provided additional protections for tenant rights and more funding for affordable housing.
But in many cases, it seems existing laws are an obstacle to new construction. Before IKAR could break ground on its new affordable housing project, the organization ran into a complicated raft of state housing regulations. IKAR attempted to utilize a statewide law that said churches and synagogues could undercut local parking minimums by 50% if they built affordable housing on their land. This was an important factor in the affordability of this project, reducing the cost by $7 million-$11 million.
But, it wasn’t so easy.
“The city said no, sorry, that only applies to existing construction, to existing buildings, not new construction, ” said Balaban.
IKAR doubled down, helping to pass a bill that allowed the parking exception on new synagogues and churches. The bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Newsom on July 19 2022.
Statewide, there are Jewish organizations supporting the pro-housing, YIMBY movement (YIMBY stands for “Yes, In My Backyard”). In this, YIMBY Jewish Action (YJA) leads the way. YJA is the Jewish affinity arm of YIMBY Action, a national organization that pushes a variety of policies including: up-zoning, funding affordable housing, and streamlining permits. YJA organizes at Jewish events, and they recently hosted Hannukah parties in cities across California to gin up support for the next rash of housing legislation in the state.
Comparing YJA to other Jewish groups involved in the housing debate highlights the different ways that politics and religious identity are applied to the issue. On the one hand, IKAR and Stephen Wise are Jewish organizations first. They have entered into the political arena of housing, their leaders say, as an extension of their Jewish values. But YJA began as an issue-focused lobbying group, and only later added a Jewish dimension as a way of extending its message into different communities.
Not all Jewish groups in California have signed onto the new housing focused agenda. Some Jewish politicians and political activists object to how the new housing legislation is wresting control away from local communities. John Mirisch, a former mayor of Beverly Hills who now sits on the city council, is one such objector. Though he does not object to affordable housing on synagogue land, he is opposed to the statewide legislation that helped make IKAR’s housing possible.
“I would like to see it done locally,” said Mirisch. “I think that can and should be done with the communities. There are places where there are synagogues or religious institutions embedded within communities where it makes a lot of sense and other ones where it doesn’t.”
Mirisch has opposed most of CA Jewish YIMBY’s legislative initiatives, and he believes that much of this legislation is not a moral crusade to create affordable housing, but a subversive means by which to enrich wealthy capitalists. “You should know, one of [YIMBY’s] first funders was Peter Thiel. So [they] definitely fit into that Koch brothers, ultra libertarian kind of group,” said Mirisch. “This is basically a ploy to deregulate, in this case, the housing market under the guise of false narratives, of affordability, of equity, and of the environment, none of which hold true.” YIMBY Action denies that it has taken money from Peter Thiel.
Mirisch also references Jewish laws concerning ecological preservation. “There is a Jewish concept called shmita, which is the notion that we shouldn’t take from the planet more than the planet can give … I think Judaism recognizes limits to growth, and denying that there are limits to growth to me is not a very Jewish way of looking at things.”
IKAR’s Wirtschafter takes issue with Mirisch’s environmental argument.
“There’s good data out there to support the opposite conclusion, which is that we have to actually increase density in our already urbanized areas in order to make room for the people who already live in these megacities, and encourage people to live closer so that they will drive shorter distances.”
Another flashpoint in the housing debate is rent control. LA Voice has begun to organize and campaign for the repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act in California, which imposes strict limits on the level of rent control that the government can impose and allows landlords to charge higher prices in units that might otherwise have fallen under rent control guidelines. Among other things, the law prevents the city government from imposing rent control on newer buildings, single-family homes and other structures.
For Stephen Wise’s Rabbi Stern, the push to repeal Costa-Hawkins is misguided. He believes, based on conversations with real estate professionals in, and connected to, his congregation, that the repeal would further aggravate the housing shortage. When he was approached by LA Voice to campaign for Costa-Hawkins repeal, he declined to participate in the campaign.
Rather than reinstating rent control, which critics say drives up housing costs as landlords try to make up for their losses on rent-controlled units by charging more everywhere else, Stern argues that the key is new development. “We should be reducing the obstacles to building to make it more profitable for the real estate community,” he said. “The best thing the city could do would be to get out of their way and give them incentives.”
Tablet contributor Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute, who identifies himself as a traditional social democrat, offered a different model of progressive urbanism.
“The problem with progressive housing policy, such as it exists, is a lack of understanding of markets,” Kotkin told Tablet. “Rabbis are not economists, nor are even the most well-meaning nonprofit and religious groups. As long as the state insists on forcing densification, the only thing we will produce in large numbers are small expensive units or highly subsidized ones. This does not meet the needs of middle and working class families, and the state financing for the rest seems highly challenging given the looming budget crisis.”
“What is really needed,” Kotkin continued, “is not to attack existing low or medium density housing but to incentivize developers to build affordable, family-friendly housing. This is historically the role of suburbs and exurbs, which is the only part of California that is growing but far less quickly than would otherwise be possible.”
But, groups like YJA dispute that their housing strategy is coercive, or that it ignores affordable, family housing. “Statewide housing legislation doesn’t force density, it allows density, which is a huge difference,” said Sonja Trauss, one of the leaders of YJA.
“The low-density zoning that’s protected locally is actually the policy doing the forcing, whereas we want to allow whatever density people want. We are actually incentivizing, affordable, family friendly housing by allowing efficient use of land. The changes we want would allow townhouses, row houses, rural houses, condo buildings, that are close to schools, work grocery store and other families.”
As Californians grapple with these issues, the housing crisis and its solutions have become a national focus. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams announced a housing moonshot, pledging to help the city build over 500,000 new homes in the next decade. At a national level, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a legislative proposal in October to increase the stock of affordable housing in the U.S.
No doubt the same controversies that swirl around California’s housing politics will soon be present in most of the U.S. As is the case with every other contemporary controversy, we’ll see Jewish organizations and individuals on both sides, each marshaling economic, moral and religious arguments to enact their visions of the future.