Last week was a watershed moment in California’s housing wars.
Two hotly contested bills that would allow for increased housing density cleared a major hurdle with Assembly approval and now appear destined for final passage.
Other housing bills have become law and more are pending or have been deferred. But Senate Bills 9 and 10 have been the focal point in battles between advocates seeking more affordable housing and opponents who say the measures will be ruinous to neighborhoods and do nothing to bring down prices.
In that sense, the bills have become political Rorschach tests.
Everybody agrees on the problem: Sky-high housing prices put home ownership — and a lot of rentals — out of reach for too many Californians. Yet there couldn’t be greater disagreement on the remedies put forth by the Legislature.
Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is the author of SB 9. The bill would allow duplexes to be built on lots zoned for single-family homes. The measure also would allow the lots to be split, with a duplex on each, for a total of four units. Critics contend there are loopholes that would allow six units or more; Atkins insists that couldn’t happen.
SB 10 would allow up to 10 units on a lot if the parcel is in a “transit-rich area or an urban infill site,” according to an analysis of the bill.
Neither bill prohibits single-family homes from being constructed nor requires any to be removed.
The legislation allows development to largely bypass local decision-makers except under certain circumstances, such as public safety concerns over a project.
Both had previously been approved by the state Senate and passed the Assembly last week, each with a handful of votes to spare. Now they return to the upper house for expected concurrence on amendments, which would send them to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Similar bills failed in the past few years, some not surprisingly and others unexpectedly. A high-profile measure, SB 50, and earlier versions of it, were enthusiastically backed by housing advocates. But amid fierce opposition, SB 50 died in the Senate.
Some backers were suspicious of Atkins’ low-profile on the measure, given she has backed housing programs throughout her legislative career. She told some housing advocates they needed to build more community support for such a bill.
Atkins herself came back with a precursor to SB 9 that seemed assured of passage, but suddenly fell short when time ran out in the Assembly on the last night of the 2020 session. Questions about the bill — and clock management — were raised amid suggestions the measure was the victim of skullduggery, or at least an internal legislative feud.
After that embarrassment, Atkins seemed determined not to let it happen again. The current bill hasn’t crossed the finish line yet, but it’s unimaginable the leader of the Senate would allow the measure to get hung up in her own house, where it already passed once.
The bills likely advanced this time around for a variety of reasons, in addition to Atkins expending political capital to make it happen.
Surveys show the cost of housing and homelessness increasingly are among the top concerns of Californians. Meanwhile, the constant refrain from advocates that more supply will moderate prices seems to have become more accepted. Opponents adamantly dispute the supply argument and emphasize there is nothing in the bills that would require more affordable housing to be built.
The political strength of California YIMBY — “Yes In My Backyard” — that advocates for increased housing density has grown, apparently not hampered much by critics pointing to the organization’s corporate backing. Meanwhile, a newly formed group called Communities for Choice that opposes the housing density bills has filed an initiative to reassert local control over planning and zoning.
Short of some unexpected reversal, the housing bills soon will be in Newsom’s court. The recall election might not affect his ability to act on the measures. This year’s legislative session adjourns on Sept. 10. Even if a majority of voters on Sept. 14 vote to remove Newsom from office, he’ll remain governor for weeks until the election results are officially certified.
What he would do is another matter. Newsom has said California needs millions of additional homes, but his stance on housing legislation past and present largely has been unclear. He’s getting pressure from both sides.
A group that opposes SB 9 and 10 called Housing is a Human Right took out a full-page ad in the Sacramento Bee Thursday urging him to veto both bills.
The ad said the bills “will not only fuel gentrification and higher rents in middle- and working-class neighborhoods, but they also have NO requirements for the construction of more affordable and homeless housing.”
That contention underscores one of two very different arguments against the bills. On the one hand, suburban critics say the measures are terrible because they would reduce single-family home values and ruin the character of neighborhoods. The unspoken part, claim bill advocates, is the legislation could allow people with lower incomes — and people of color — a greater chance to live in those areas.
On the other hand, some opponents contend the changes to urban areas will bring in more well-to-do owners and tenants, raising prices and pushing out longtime residents.
Beyond the sometimes-extreme imagery of creating slums or elite palaces, the reality is there’s all kinds of multi-family housing, just as there is a range of single-family homes. There are luxurious estates, converted garages and a lot in between.
Atkins added amendments to the bill that won over some previous opponents who were concerned about gentrification and speculation.
The bill requires owners to live in the home for three years before they could split the property. According to CalMatters, the ideal is to prevent speculation by corporate groups that have already bought up about 17 percent of the state’s housing stock.
Opponents don’t think that will stop speculation, at least not in the long run.
A recent study concluded that SB 9 isn’t likely to spur an explosion of multi-family housing that advocates want and critics fear.
The recent report by Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley concluded that it would make financial sense for property owners to add those units on 5.4 percent of the state’s 7.5 million single-family lots, according to the Los Angeles Times.
That doesn’t sound like much, though it does translate into 410,000 parcels zoned for single-family homes. There’s no certainty, though, how many owners would want to build more houses on those properties.
On an individual level, assessing the future impact of SB 9 likely depends on whether or not a bunch of those redeveloped properties are in your neighborhood.
Tweet of the week
Goes to Michael Harriot (@michaelharriot), senior writer at TheRoot.com.
“They’re right. I don’t know what’s in that vaccine. I also don’t know what’s in Hydroxychloroquine. Or Robitussin. Or tea. Or anointing oil. Or the blood of Jesus. . . . I don’t know what’s in people’s thoughts and prayers. Also, I eat hot dogs.”
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