Op-Ed | South Pasadena Was Right to Say No to the 710, It’s Time to Say Yes to Housing

'Growth, and change generally, is never easy'

ILLUSTRATION: Truman Lesak | SouthPasadenan.com News

By OP-ED | Brandon Yung

It would be hard to imagine how different South Pasadena would be if the 710 freeway cut across the city today.

By fighting the freeway, South Pasadena avoided harms that other, often poorer communities weren’t as lucky to prevent: the constant noise of high-speed cars, divided neighborhoods, and the pernicious health effects of air pollution. That decades-long struggle has made opposition to change a celebrated and integral aspect of the city’s history.

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When it comes to allowing more housing, the city’s penchant to oppose change reveals a dark exclusionary streak that also runs equally as deep. 

On the cusp of graduating from SPHS in 2018, I wrote an op-ed warning that “if nothing is done about the housing crisis, there will be no more middle class in this city.” Seeing so many of my peers either leave the district or have families struggle to make ends meet, it seemed like the skyrocketing cost of housing threatened to undermine the diversity that so many community members strive to promote. 

Since that article was published, the typical home price in South Pasadena has increased 18 percent, from $1.15 million to $1.36 million, according to Zillow. While these numbers may sound like good news for homeowners who can afford an earlier retirement from unprecedented gains in home equity, it also means more and more young families are not able to access homeownership. The crisis is even more severe for lower income renters. For more than half of the city’s residents who rent, 41 percent spend more than a third of their income on rent. Home prices have risen so high that even the most financially successful SPHS graduates will not be able to buy a home in the community that they were raised in.

To put the current cost of a home in South Pasadena into perspective, a household would need to make at least $212,688 in order to reasonably afford a mortgage for the current typical home price with a 20% down payment. Ballooning student debt and other costs that make raising starting a family increasingly difficult. Year after year, the only practical route to homeownership in South Pasadena is to either inherit it or to come from significant generational wealth.

A single person would need to make $66,528 in order to afford the typical one-bedroom apartment in South Pasadena — more than double California’s median income. Anyone concerned with the need to promote an inclusive community should be raising the alarms over these inequality-fueling barriers. 

When the cost of food has historically shot up, we tend to use the term “food shortage.” What we are currently experiencing is one of the worst housing shortages in American history and is acutely felt in California. The effects of a lack of any meaningful response to this shortage worsens homelessness, increases car-reliance, and exacerbates racial segregation. If South Pasadena as a community is serious about living up to its progressive self regard, then it is time to say yes to new housing. 

Those critical to more housing in South Pasadena often seek to protect the “fabric” of the community. The status quo, however, is already dramatically changing the fabric of the community. In his foundational 1946 book, Southern California: An Island on the Land, author Carey McWilliams writes that “South Pasadena is middle class proper” (compared to the East Coast-expat aristocracy of Pasadena and the nouveau riche of San Marino). By remaining staunchly opposed to new housing, South Pasadena has been slowly erecting a wall around the city, through which only the most wealthy can enter. 

Of course, the failings of housing policy over the last half century are hardly specific to South Pasadena. The slow growth movement emanating from California coastal cities in the 1970s created the political foundation for our current housing shortage. But while South Pasadena can’t be solely held responsible for regional failures, the roots of anti-growth are influential in South Pasadena and are closely entangled with the freeway debate. 

In 1966, El Centro St. resident Joseph J. Biesek wrote a fiery op-ed in the South Pasadena Review decrying the city council’s tolerance of new apartments such as those on Raymond Hill today: “These apartments seem destined to take over many of the single family homes in South Pasadena… at the expense of people who own single family dwellings — the single family dwelling owners — the backbone and stable element of our community.” Biesek focused his outrage on the city’s move toward “more schools, more bonds, more taxes, for a transient community,” citing the 53% of residents who already resided in multi-unit homes at the time. It turned out that Biesek’s anger resonated with voters. 

According to an April 12, 1972 article of the South Pasadena Review, Biesek won a seat on the city council, campaigning on the freeway issue — a seat that he held through most of the decade. In 1973 and 1974, the City passed zoning ordinance changes to limit apartment construction while Biesek stood by a harder line against apartment development. At the council meeting where the zoning tweak passed, one real estate agent warned that rents in new buildings would reach at least $275 per month.

Anti-growth sentiment continued to shape city politics into the 1980s despite a near freeze on new residential construction; the debate turned toward new large offices that sought to aide the city hall’s dwindling coffers. In response to the infamous “twin towers” proposal on Fair Oaks, South Pasadena became an early pioneer in using voter initiatives to override the typical political process and decrease zoning, seeking to also stop large apartments. According to LA Times coverage of the time, these initiatives sought to make the City “go back to single-family neighborhoods.”

The fears over growth also drew upon discomfort over a growing Asian-American population in the San Gabriel Valley, as suggested by a 1987 article in the LA Times. The nefarious proxy for apartments as harbingers for people of color is one that is long-established in American law and history. It is also not a far cry for a formerly segregated city such as South Pasadena, whose city manager in 1946 proudly stated “We do not have any Negroes, nor do we have any other non-Caucasian people in South Pasadena. To ensure the continuance of this policy, several years ago the city council instructed the city attorney to draw up a restrictive clause and insert it into all properties coming into the possession of the city,” referencing racially exclusionary real estate contracts that have long been outlawed but used to be ubiquitous in white communities such as South Pasadena. 

Nationwide, a reckoning is taking place over the role that zoning plays in maintaining segregation. Cities such as Minneapolis, Sacramento, and recently Berkeley have moved to do away with single family zoning because of its racially exclusionary origins and outcomes

That history should contextualize familiar statements in the local growth debate. What does a white homeowner imply when they warn of about “becoming another Alhambra?” What imagery comes to mind when someone waxes nostalgic about a “sleepy Mayberry community?”

City leaders and planning experts must keep this history in mind as they chart a path forward for the community. Decision-makers must also correct the narrative about who the “true” South Pasadenan is if we are to course-correct from Biesek’s toxic disregard for renters and the continuing de-facto patterns set through decades of racist city planning policy.

This need to better represent the interest of the community should also require city leaders to more accurately characterize the true character of our built environment. As much as the City boasts a small-town feel, it is a central community of one of the most economically ascendant metropolitan regions in the world. As insulated as local politics tend to be, South Pasadena is nudged between the two employment gravitational centers of Pasadena and Downtown Los Angeles, also crossed by major transportation corridors connecting the two. 

As council member Primuth has wisely said about the Mayberry fallacy, “it’s time we bury that sobriquet.”

So how can an updated and more egalitarian understanding of planning for South Pasadena’s future inform pressing policy questions? The answer lies in three documents that the city is currently working on that will guide policy for nearly a decade to come: the housing element, general plan (the master plan for the cities in California), and downtown specific plan. Soon, the City is hearing comments from the public to shape these documents. 

With limited outreach, however, those with the most resources to get involved are often the only voices who are heard. The complex and inaccessible nature of city planning also presents a significant barrier that most don’t have the time to overcome. However, considering the pressing issues facing the City, it is imperative that a diverse array of voices are heard.

As city leaders, planning commissioners, and staff plan for 2,067 units of new housing, the sheer logistical and political difficulties of the task must also be recognized. 

Understaffed and underfunded, the City’s planning department can barely handle day-to-day permitting tasks, forcing an increasing reliance on contracted permit reviewers. To make matters worse, the City’s planning director recently and quietly resigned after a short stint, leaving a critical gap in work on those three documents, backdropped by time constraints imposed by the state.

The default position of all those involved has been to maintain the exclusionary status quo. Between the circle of consultants, planning commissioners, and elected leaders involved in planning for the 2,067 units, the default stance has been to oppose new housing at every step of the process. First, an appeal to lower the number failed. Then, an ill-intentioned plan to locate the new housing was met with steep criticism from the state. (That initial site analysis proposed locating new housing at all the City’s grocery stores, permitting it on steep and street-less parcels in the Monterey Hills neighborhood, and vastly over-projected how many backyard units would be constructed in order to satisfy the housing quota).

The details can become overwhelming and are hard for anyone who is not a land use expert to understand. Unwilling to touch wealthier single family neighborhoods or raise the 45-foot height limit, planning staff, consultants, and planning commissioners have resorted to attempting growth on paper while skirting the actual likelihood of planning for critically-needed new housing. Besides the legal risk this opens the City up to, this approach explicitly disregards the needs to represent any constituency besides the most affluent and disproportionately represented (every planning commissioner and city council member is a homeowner). 

Growth, and change generally, is never easy. How to afford more children the opportunity-unlocking education of South Pasadena’s school district, accommodate new modes of transportation, and account for infrastructure are all hard questions that policy makers, experts, and an informed public must work through in order to realize a more inclusive society. Continuing to maintain the not-in-my-backyard attitude that has already inflicted so much damage, however, is unacceptable. 

At the planning commission’s May 26 meeting, the last to include discussion of the three documents, the only reference made to the housing crisis throughout the three-hour meeting was made by Elizabeth Bar-El, South Pasadena’s planner in charge of overseeing the three long range planning documents.  

“The lack of new housing has also affected the rental market, pushing rents upward. Lack of available housing ultimately challenges the viability of the community, and is a barrier to diversity,” Bar-El stated.

The path to change will be incredibly difficult, requiring significant investment in a hollowed planning department by elected officials. The task will necessitate overcoming an ingrained culture of strong opposition from a narrow contingency of those with the means to be typically involved (and many of whom are credited with helping to stop the freeway). It will involve a considerable amount of bravery from experts who guide the City’s housing policies and who are obligated to work toward the betterment of the built environment for all, not just the few. It will also need a strong influx of new voices — those who are the most afflicted, and those of us whose futures are threatened by mistakes made by others who preceded us.







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