The American Dream is dying a slow death in California
It’s easy to become numb to warnings about the future, these days. Every minute of every day the mainstream media bombards us with shrieks about some new “crisis” or another “war on…” whatever, to the point of exhaustion. However, every once in a while, the fire drill is for real.
This week, I watched an extraordinary analysis of two new California housing laws coming up for a vote in Sacramento: SB-9 and SB-10. The presentation was the work of Maria and Jeff Kalban, the founders of United Neighbors in Sherman Oaks, California. It would be an understatement to say that, if passed, this legislation will bring about the biggest changes to zoning law and city planning in California, in the past 100 years… and none of it for the better.
Much is written these days about “affordable housing,” and for good reason. At the same time, our state and local governments find themselves so financially strapped that most of the things we used to take for granted--roads and parks maintenance, public services, and even city, county, and state office hours—continue to be reduced: a trend that started long before the Covid pandemic. So, under these circumstances, how can local and county agencies be expected to promote housing development, when housing, typically, generates more public costs than tax revenues?
That said, Kalban’s thesis is that any proposed legislation dealing with housing development should be subjected to three tests:
- "Will it significantly increase affordable housing for those in need?
- "Will it negatively impact our environment (water quality, air quality, habitat, species, streams, flora, and fauna) in a significant and irreversible way?
- "Will municipalities be able to provide and maintain the additional infrastructure and public services required by this new development (police, fire protection, schools, water, sewer treatment, roads maintenance, etc.)?"
I would add a 4th criteria to that list.
- Will it address social equity?
The answer to all these questions, with regard to SB-9 and SB-10, is a resounding “No!”
So, why do this? That’s a question that no one in Sacramento has the courage to ask.
What’s at stake?
If SB-9 and SB-10 are passed and if SB-10 is fully adopted by local agencies, they will give real estate developers the power to transform all single-family neighborhoods in California—no matter where, rural, urban, or suburban, in regular old neighborhoods with small lots or in exclusive, gated communities—into dense, multi-family, zones. The ability to take any small, single-family, residential lot (i.e., there is no minimum size requirement) and subdivide it into two lots that can contain 4 separate dwelling units each, for a total of 8 units--2 duplexes and 4 accessory dwelling units or one 10 unit apartment building (within a half-mile of a bus stop)-would become “by-right” and have ministerial review without regard to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
“By-right” development with ministerial review means proposals must be automatically permitted, by law, without any public hearings, environmental review, requirements that any of the units be affordable, requirements to pay infrastructure impact fees, or local parking requirements. Basically, there is no way for a city to deny an application without facing a torrent of litigation.
It also means no longer having any protections from your homeowner association CC&Rs, your city’s General Plan, city zoning laws, or local code limits on floor area ratio (FAR), lot coverage, height, or setback requirements (only a 5-foot side yard and 15-foot backyard). Developers can also ignore view ordinances, water quality, air quality, or endangered species protections, limits on traffic congestion, or lack of schools, water, sewer capacity, or any other reasonable considerations.
All of that will be wiped away.
SB-9 and SB-10, combined, will essentially result in the complete loss of local control of planning, zoning, and development in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes.
Meanwhile, single-family homeowners, even on small lots, have spent decades improving their property, investing in their neighborhoods and community, and planting and nurturing carbon-sequestering, sustainable landscaping, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, shade trees that provide habitat for critters, and bee-friendly yards. In fact, according to the Western Growers Association, 1 in 3 single-family households, today, grow gardens and tend fruit trees and other food source plants (e.g., berries, herbs, etc.) that provide their families with food. Incredible organizations, such as Food Forward or Seeds of Hope or the Watts Labor Community Action Committee's Mudtown Farms project in Los Angeles, each of which have grown into large-scale aggregators and distributors of nutritious, locally grown food to those in need, also source a great deal of that food coming from small residential lot and backyard farms. 
And the climate change impacts of up-zoning single-family neighborhoods would be considerable. A USC study, noted in the United Neighbors presentation, indicates that
80% of the carbon-sequestering trees in Los Angeles are located in residential yards.
Do any of these Sacramento politicians care about this? Do you even know about it? Do dilettante politicians like Wiener, Atkins, of McGuire have any concept of what life is like for families who live with housing and food insecurity? I sincerely doubt it.
The widely held beliefs about what home ownership means, as elaborated below, will be destroyed and paved over by the kind of development “incentivized” by SB-9 and SB-10. And for what? To feed a rapacious, profit-driven juggernaut intent on monetizing every last square inch of the natural world for short-term gains by transforming it into an ideologically driven vision of soulless, dense urbanism?
Senator Wiener and company have enthusiastically embraced the Silicon Valley mantra: "Move fast and break things." But when you're playing with city, regional planning, and people's lives the stakes are just too high to be so cavalier.
Astonishingly, not a single California legislator or senator has stood up and offered the public a voice of leadership in opposing the collective legislative hysteria currently controlling our state's government. Not one.
Let’s review the presentation created by Jeff and Maria Kalban.
All images are courtesy of United Neighbors and Jeff and Maria Kalban.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE ENTIRE PRESENTATION
Senate Bill 9
SB-9 is designed to increase the allowable unit density on any lot in the state of California that is currently zoned for single-family residential, from one dwelling unit to two dwelling units by allowing a single-family home to be redeveloped as a duplex.
SB-9 is being marketed as a “harmless” duplex bill. It all sounds small-scaled and cozy, but it’s a big lie. What Sacramento politicians are not telling the public is that this “duplex law” can result in the construction of as many as 8 dwelling units on one single-family lot.
Let me explain.
In the past several years, California has passed a dozen laws allowing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards. The intention was to bring back the “granny unit” concept, where a family member might live or someone can rent a relatively affordable (small) apartment. The laws allow one ADU attached to the home and one that is free-standing. That equates to 3 dwelling units on one single-family lot.
The intentions were good and ADUs are something that the average homeowner can potentially benefit from, but the legislation is seriously flawed.
In addition to the lack of adequate parking requirements or payment of infrastructure impact costs, the fatal flaw of the ADU laws is that the property owner is no longer required to use the house or one of the units as their primary residence. This opened the door for professional real estate investors and property flippers to descend on small communities, maximize lot development “rights” and profits by selling or renting to high-end tenants, and move on to the next “deal.”
This is not hyperbole. It is happening right now in every town in the San Francisco Bay Area. Four houses away from my own an out of town development group is building a gigantic structure to replace an old 1,000 square foot home with an “estate home” (their marketing language) with a huge home and two ADUs that are the maximum allowable size, which they intend to flip as quickly as possible.
But SB-9 takes the impacts of these ADU laws a step further.
SB-9 is also a “lot splitting” bill. In other words, it allows any single-family lot, no matter how small, to be legally split into two separately deeded parcels. This allows private developers to override all local planning, zoning, and General Plan provisions regarding land use and density.
Once the lot is split into two single-family lots, the
assumptions above can be doubled. One single-family lot now becomes sufficient
to build 2 duplexes, each with 2 ADUs, for a total of 8 dwelling units.
So, now a typical single-family neighborhood that looks like
…becomes this or even worse, as more lots are developed to
their maximum by multiple non-owners/real estate developers.
Senate Bill 10
SB-10 is the other half of the one-two knockout punch for single-family neighborhood. Although its implementation remains theoretically within local control, the pressures of the state housing quotas make its acceptance highly likely so cities can avoid costly lawsuits. And some believe that once this law is enacted, it is only a matter of time before Sacramento makes is "by-right."
SB-10 essentially gives any single-family property owner, who does not have to be a resident, the right to build a 10 unit apartment building if it is within a half-mile of a bus stop or located in a “jobs-rich” area, without environmental review.
The term “jobs-rich” area is vaguely defined as anywhere that has high median incomes (relative to the region), high-quality public schools, and are relatively close to jobs (undefined), and there are no requirements regarding the availability of public transportation. Translation: Just about anywhere relatively close to a big city like Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, etc. Basically, everywhere.
So, now your old single-family neighborhood street can look
And remember, this applies to any single-family zoned parcel, whether it’s in an old, disadvantaged neighborhood or it’s in a sprawling, luxury estate development.
A developer can buy up mansions in a gated community and add
units or even luxury apartment buildings, then rent them all out at the highest
prices the market will bear. Goodbye privacy, views, and natural surroundings.
And unlike new commercial development or new residential
subdivisions, all of these new dwelling units are added without having to pay a
penny toward the cost of maintaining and upgrading public services, infrastructure (roads, parks, schools, and
public services), or utilities’ capacity (water, electrical power, gas, or
sewers and sewage treatment facilities).
Under the combined effect of these laws, for all practical purposes, California towns and cities will no longer be able to be “planned.”
Local, county, and regional planning, which is critical for assessing government operating funding needs, tax revenues, public transportation systems, and everything that government does, will be unpredictable and therefore nearly impossible. Where or when development occurs and how dense that development will be will now be completely controlled by private, for-profit, development interests seeking to maximize their rate of return.
Neither SB-9 nor SB-10 require any affordable housing units to be constructed. Nor do they address unmitigated, negative, environmental impacts of development. For example, all of your hard-fought, local “green building ordinances” will be bulldozed aside by a developer’s by-right powers.
As the Kalban study notes, city planning is not just a phrase but is fundamental to the socioeconomic viability of our cities and towns. Nothing good can come out of local governments being stripped of their planning and zoning powers in this way.
Since when did single-family homeownership become a felony?
The desire to own a home (make a “nest”) is as fundamental as eating and procreation. And it's not just a home but land, no matter how small, a place connected to the earth that you can call your own. It is real, a primal drive shared by every human being on the planet. But Sacramento’s "YIMBY police" continue to deny this. And, ironically, this dream is especially coveted by the poor, immigrants, and victims of racism that they pretend to be protecting.
The “thinking,” and I use that word generously, behind SB-9 and SB-10, is counter to our basic motivations and instincts, rich or poor, regardless of race, sex, or creed. The dream of single-family housing ownership may actually be the last great equalizer in our society: something that the vast majority of people agree on. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it has confirmed this truth. Single-family housing demand has never been greater.
What is becoming increasingly clear, based on what they say and do, is that the major proponents of Sacramento’s “anti-single-family” mania, Senators Wiener and Atkins, have nothing but unvarnished contempt for normal, middle-class families raising children working hard to improve their lives, financially, in a pretty tough socioeconomic system to advance in. Based on their rhetoric, I doubt Weiner and Atkins feel middle-class, family life has any value at all.
Sacramento legislators and their chorus of well-funded, sanctimonious zealots gaslight and vilify single-family homeownership as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Somehow working hard and making sacrifices to save for a down payment on a home in a decent neighborhood with a few square feet of green space for your kids to play and dog to wander no longer makes you a valued member of your community. It makes you a racist or an elitist. The Sacramento political machine sees a desire for stability or, God forbid, wanting a little peace and quiet, as bourgeois and decadent (and Marin residents should be reminded that Marin Senator Mike McGuire is a key collaborator with Wiener and Atkins).
And it’s a message that serves the financial interests of their funders very well.
The proponents of California’s housing hysteria movement have lost their way. I call them America’s Red Guard, ready to pillory their parents in the streets and send them to “re-education” groups if need be, to prove their social-justice credibility.
Perhaps, personal counseling would be a better way to spend their time?
It might surprise many in Sacramento to know that assessing housing affordability based on median per capita wages and average home prices, shows that California isn’t even in the top ten of unaffordable states. Housing is more affordable in California than it is in Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Florida, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and about the same as in Ohio, South Carolina, and Arizona.
And then there is social equity
About 56% of Californians are homeowners, which means 44% are renters. So, bills allowing lot splits to develop duplexes, fourplexes, eight units, or apartment buildings automatically exclude almost half of our state’s adult population, because they do not own property. At the same time, among those who are homeowners, the vast majority are lucky if they can afford the costs of their mortgage, insurance, taxes, child’s education, and living and medical expenses, as it is, so they have little chance of being able to qualify for the magnitude of financing needed to redevelop their property to add extra units.
What is most striking about Sb-9 and SB-10 is that in order to take advantage of the redevelopment bonuses offered, you have to tear down your existing home. Our research indicates that less than 2% of existing California homeowners have both the financial wherewithal and the practical capability to do that.
After all, where would they go for a year and a half, during their property’s redevelopment? How would they qualify for the loans needed, if they are tearing down what is probably their single most valuable asset?
The truth is that the development “incentives” proposed in SB-9 and SB-10 are specifically crafted to benefit professional real estate developers, and particularly those with significant access to debt financing and professional property management. We need to ask, how many existing homeowners, not to mention renters, fall into that category?
So, where is the social equity in that?
And, if the goal is to give single-family homeowners an incentive to add units on their property, the ADU laws already amply serve that need. So, why do we even need SB-9 and SB-10?
Real social equity is fundamentally based on being properly paid or otherwise compensated for your efforts. Period. This is what is at the heart of our society’s current “affordability crisis” (housing, college education, insurance, medical costs, etc.,) which is rapidly turning the majority of America’s working-class into lifelong “debt mules”—indentured to a life of hand-to-mouth economics.
If a person is well paid for their work (and the vast majority of people no longer are) housing opportunities follow. Study after study has shown that real earnings for working people in the U.S. have been falling for 40 years. But, Sacramento politicians don’t want to mention this. I wonder why. Could it be because they are funded primarily by real estate, banking, union, and corporate interests, who are eager to build as possible or layoff the financial costs and impacts of their trillion-dollar companies on local taxpaying communities?
Sacramento politicians ask us to trust in shopworn, failed “trickle-down” theories about wealth creation and equality. But they don’t want you to know that we have never built any significant amount of affordable housing in this country without massive federal government subsidy: something that has been decreasing in the U.S. for 40 years.
Perhaps, this is why one of the things Sacramento lawmakers were blindsided by the last time they proposed laws like SB-9 and SB-10, was that inner-city neighborhood groups in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere were some of their loudest opponents. These groups saw through all the social equity marketing rhetoric and recognized the bills for what they were: a Trojan horse for gentrification, wholesale displacement of residents, and the destruction of their tightly-knit, single-family communities.
An alternative vision
When one applies the Kalban litmus tests that development proposals should address to be considered viable--showing they will add affordable housing to those most in need, will protect the environment (locally, regionally, and globally), will not overwhelm local infrastructure, and will address social equity--we see that viable alternative opportunities to build appropriately-scaled, mixed-use developments exist in all communities across the state.
Every community is presently dealing with vacant, underutilized commercial office and retail space, much of it functionally and physically obsolete with no prospects of ever being viable in the future. These are valuable assets that are typically well-located, and if developed within local codes and guidelines, they can add significant amounts of housing integrated into communities.
On major thoroughfares, everywhere, under-utilized
commercially zoned opportunities can be redeveloped to create a significant
number of housing units that are affordable, environmentally positive (i.e.,
net-zero carbon and LEED-certified), and pay their way to improve existing
infrastructure and city revenues.
Government agencies also have surplus or under-utilized land that can similarly be used to add housing and absorb required parking and do so close to existing mass transit (not nonsensically located near bus stops, which are change locations over time).
As the Kablan study points out, there are newly proposed laws, such as SB-15, that address this opportunity for cities to grow within their local planning guidelines, in a financially sustainable and socially equitable way, if the government would only get out of the way and provide supportive funding, instead of adding layer upon layer of cumbersome bureaucracy.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE UNITED NEIGHBORS PRESENTATION
To contact the Kalbans, click here
 In Mill Valley, where I live, we have had ample mixed-use zoning for this on our main commercial thoroughfares.
 For more about the incredible story about food production integrated into the fabric of neighborhoods, see this LA Foodways video.
Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.