IKAR, an active and large Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, was temporarily without a home a few years back. Since its 2004 founding, the congregation had rented space. IKAR saw more growth and was able to buy land south of Pico-Robertson.
IKAR’s leaders realized that LA’s zoning laws offered a financial incentive for them to build more affordable housing units as they planned their new location. IKAR quickly became a housing developer and went from being a home seeker. Melissa Balaban (CEO of IKAR) told Tablet that the group was planning to build 55 units of permanent supportive housing in partnership with a non-profit affordable housing developer.
Brooke Wirtschafter (director for community organizing atIKAR) explained their motivations. She stated that they believe this is the best way to live out our values in Los Angeles as Jews. “To build housing on our site, and make it happen right next to our community.”
California is the epicenter for America’s homelessness crisis, and its increasingly volatile housing politics. Jewish groups in California are actively involved in advocating solutions to the problem through legal reform, and in cases such as IKAR’s by creating new housing opportunities.
Nearly 70,000 people are homeless in LA County. 55 new housing units is a small step but could be life-changing for many people. Even worse is the situation at the state level. According to federal data, California accounts for less than 12% U.S. population. However, it was responsible for 30% homelessness in the U.S. by 2022. It’s not just the homeless who feel the pinch. Los Angeles and San Francisco have seen a steady shortage of affordable housing, which has forced middle- and working-class families to move out of these cities. According to the California Association of Realtors only 16% of Californians would be able to afford a median-priced house in 2022. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, more than half of renters spend over 30% on housing costs.
California passed a series of laws last year to address this problem. These laws would have required municipalities to accept accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or larger units. This includes backyard sheds and converted garages. These laws could also override certain aspects of local zoning codes in transit-rich neighborhoods. Many laws offered additional protections to tenants and increased funding for affordable housing.
In many cases, existing laws can be a hindrance to new construction. IKAR had to overcome a complex set of state housing regulations before it could begin construction on its affordable housing project. IKAR tried to use a state law that stated churches and synagogues were allowed to reduce local parking requirements by 50% if they build affordable housing on their land. This was a key factor in the project’s affordability, with the cost of the project being reduced by $7 million to $11 million.
It wasn’t easy.
Balaban said, “The city said no. Sorry, that only applies for existing construction, to existing building, and not new construction.”
IKAR doubled down and helped to pass a bill that permitted parking exemptions for new synagogues or churches. Governor Newsom signed the bill into law. Newsom signed the bill into law on July 19, 2022.
Other than IKAR, there are many California-based Jewish organizations that make housing a priority. For example, the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles is a powerful reform synagogue that has made housing a central part of its social justice work. Ron Stern, Stephen Wise’s Rabbi, has been working with the California legislature and Los Angeles specifically to coordinate housing legislation. LA Voice is a progressive activist group that organizes faith communities in Los Angeles. The synagogue has teamed up with LA Voice to promote housing-focused legislation. They helped pass ULA, also known as the “Homelessness and Housing Solutions Tax”, during the 2022 Los Angeles County midterm election. This measure taxes real estate sales exceeding $5 million in Los Angeles and allocates the revenue for affordable housing.
There are many Jewish organizations that support the pro-housing YIMBY movement in every state. YIMBY stands to say “Yes, In My Backyard”. YIMBY Jewish Action, YJA, leads the charge in this area. YJA, the Jewish affinity arm, is a national organization pushing a range of policies, including up-zoning and funding affordable housing. YJA organizes Jewish events and recently hosted Hannukah parties across California to gain support for the next wave of housing legislation.
Comparing YJA with other Jewish groups in the housing debate reveals the many ways politics and religious identity are used to address the issue. IKAR, Stephen Wise and other Jewish organizations are the first. Their leaders claim that they have entered the political arena of housing because it is an extension of their Jewish values. YJA started as an issue-focused lobbying organization, but it added a Jewish dimension to its message in different communities.
California’s new housing-focused agenda has not been adopted by all Jewish groups. Some Jewish politicians and activists are opposed to the way that new housing legislation takes control from local communities. John Mirisch, who was the former mayor of Beverly Hills and now serves on the city council is one example. Although he doesn’t object to affordable housing on synagogue property, he opposes the statewide legislation which made IKAR’s housing feasible.
Mirisch stated, “I would love to see it happen locally.” Mirisch said, “I believe that it can and should be done in the communities. Some communities have synagogues and religious institutions that are embedded in them. Others don’t.
Mirisch opposed the majority of CA Jewish YIMBY’s legislative initiatives. He believes that many of these legislation are not a moral crusade for affordable housing but a subversive way to enrich wealthy capitalists. Peter Thiel was one of [YIMBY’s] first funders. Mirisch stated that they fit in the Koch brothers ultra-libertarian group. “This is basically a ploy in order to deregulate the housing market, in this instance, under the guise, false narratives, affordability, equity and the environment, none which hold true.” YIMBY Action denies taking money from Peter Thiel.
Mirisch also refers to Jewish laws regarding ecological preservation. Mirisch also refers to Jewish laws concerning ecological preservation.
Wirtschafter of IKAR takes issue with Mirisch’s environmental argument.
“There are good data to support the contrary conclusion. We need to increase density in urban areas to make space for people who live in megacities. Encourage people to live closer to reduce distances.
Rent control is another hot topic in the housing debate. LA Voice is organizing and campaigning to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Property Act in California. This law imposes strict limits on how much rent control the government can impose, and allows landlords and tenants to charge higher rents for units that would otherwise fall under rent control guidelines. The law also prevents the city from imposing rent controls on single-family homes, newer buildings, and other structures.
Rabbi Stern of Stephen Wise believes that the push to repeal CostaHawkins was misguided. Based on conversations with real-estate professionals who are connected to his congregation, Stern believes that repealing Costa-Hawkins would only exacerbate the housing crisis. He declined to take part in the Costa-Hawkins campaign when LA Voice approached him.
Stern believes that new development is the key to reintroducing rent control. Stern disagrees with critics who say it drives up housing prices as landlords try and make up for lost rent-controlled units. Stern stated that “we should be reducing obstacles to building to make the real estate market more profitable.” “The city should get out of their way, and offer incentives to them. This is the best thing they could do.”
Joel Kotkin (a Tablet contributor and a presidential fellow at Chapman University in urban futures and executive director of Urban Reform Institute), who identifies as a traditional social democratic, presented a new model of progressive urbanism.
Kotkin stated to Tablet that the problem with progressive housing policies, as they exist, is a lack understanding of markets. “Rabbis don’t understand markets, and neither are the best-intentioned religious and nonprofit groups. If the state insists upon densification, we will only produce small units of high-quality units or highly subsidized units. This is not enough to meet the needs of working and middle class families. The state financing for the rest seems extremely difficult given the looming budget crisis.
Kotkin said that it was not necessary to target existing low- or medium-density housing, but to encourage developers to create affordable, family-friendly housing. This has historically been the role of exurbs and suburbs. However, this is the only area of California growing faster than expected.
YJA and other groups disagree that their housing strategy is coercive or ignores affordable, family housing. Sonja Trauss (one of the leaders of YJA) stated that while state housing legislation does not force density, it allows for density.
“The policy that protects low-density zones locally is actually the one doing the forcing, while we want to let people have whatever density they want. By allowing efficient land use, we are encouraging affordable and family-friendly housing. We want to see townhouses, row homes, rural houses, condo buildings, and those that are near schools, work grocery stores, and other families.
These issues are a major focus for Californians. New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared a housing moonshot and pledged to build more than 500,000 homes over the next decade. The Bipartisan Policy Centre released in October a legislative proposal at the national level to increase affordable housing stock in the U.S.
There is no doubt that the same issues surrounding California’s housing politics are soon to be prevalent in the United States. We’ll see Jewish organizations on both sides of the issue, with each side bringing their own economic, moral, and religious arguments to implement their visions for the future.