T Keith Gurnee
California’s single-family neighborhoods and its cities and counties are under mounting attacks by a State Legislature that’s determined to pass a spate of ill-conceived bills that will change our neighborhoods and communities forever. If the state’s “Housing Package”, including bills like SB 9, SB 10, SB 478, as well as AB 1401 and AB 1322, make it through legislative committee meetings that are happening later this month, get ready for some significant, negative impacts on the livability, functionality, and public safety of your neighborhood.
Just last week, State Sen. Mike McGuire presented SB 9 (Atkins) to the Assembly Local Government Committee that approved SB 9 and told them that “SB 9 would allow no more than four units” subject to an “urban lot split”. But a careful reading of SB 9 reveals something quite different. Section 2.66411.7.(i) (1) states that “Notwithstanding any provision of Section 65852.2, section 65852.21, section 65852.22, section 65915, or this section a local agency shall not be required to permit more than two units on a parcel created through the exercise the authority contained within this section.
Note that this section does not prohibit local agencies from permitting ADU’s and JADU’s as part of urban lot splits if the local agency allows them by local ordinance. So, according to Senator McGuire, that means that each parcel created by an urban lot split could allow two (2) units by right as well as an ADU and a JADU if allowed by the local agency. That would make for a total of eight (8) units where one home once existed on one lot.
The Changes That Are Coming…
If you live in a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood-- whether it be in Sausalito, San Anselmo, Healdsburg, Petaluma, or anywhere else in California -- the changes outlined below will come if SB 9 (Atkins) becomes law, perhaps not immediately but certainly soon:
- Densification: SB 9 (Atkins) would shoehorn higher density multi-family housing into low-density neighborhoods by allowing single-family lots to be divided into two parcels and allow each of those parcels to be developed with a total of anywhere between 2 to 4 units each for a possible total of 8 units where one home once existed.
- Without warning: SB 9 would force local governments to approve these lot splits and developments without any discretionary review, public hearing, or public notice to neighboring property owners. You could wake up one morning with construction starting next door with no warning.
- Inadequate water resources: The state’s efforts to push multifamily housing into single-family zones come at a time when California is in an exceptional, once-in-a-500-year drought cycle that science tells us will likely last for decades with no prospects of increasing water supplies. Reservoirs like Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma are at historically low levels and we don’t have enough water to serve the people who are already here. We simply don’t have enough water, period.
- Exposure to wildfires: In addition to the drought, we are entering yet another severe wildfire season. With so little water in our reservoirs, how can firefighters control wildfires with empty reservoirs?
- Lack of affordability: While SB 9 is couched to “address the lack of affordable housing”, it does nothing about requiring, facilitating, or funding housing that would be affordable to moderate, low, and very low-income households. Instead, these bills promote the accelerated development of high-end market-rate housing, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.
- Displacement: Primarily in heavily urbanized areas with mass transit, SB 9 and the gentrification it will bring will surely displace communities of color where minorities have worked hard to attain the American dream of homeownership and take pride in their neighborhoods.
- Overburdened infrastructure: The infrastructure of established single-family neighborhoods was designed and installed to serve only low-density development. Injecting high-density development into low-density infrastructure will put stress on undersized water and sewer lines, storm drains, etc. Yet the state provides no money to address the impacts on local infrastructure. It’s almost certain that constant and expensive emergency repairs will need to be made with great disruption to neighborhoods.
- Inadequate parking: SB 9 and AB 1401 would prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever if the property being developed is within ½-mile walking distance of a “transit” stop (a bus stop). Get ready for some fierce competition for on-street parking in your neighborhoods.
- Rampant real estate speculation: Today’s soaring costs of buying a home will only get worse. Increasing the development potential of single-family lots will only increase those costs beyond the ability of younger Californians to enjoy the American dream of homeownership. Well-financed and predatory speculators will swoop in and outbid those trying to buy their first home.
- Arbitrary development standards: Under the laws of the state’s Housing Package, a state-established set of top-down, one-size-fits-all, arbitrary development standards (building heights, setbacks, lot coverage, etc.) will govern most future residential development in your neighborhood. The same rules that apply to Fresno and Bakersfield would apply to Novato, Ross, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and every community in California. Over time, our neighborhoods throughout the state will witnesses a creeping “sameness” in their appearance and declining livability.
- Vanishing yards: The state’s imposition of minimum side and rear yard setbacks of 4 feet will essentially eliminate private yards where kids could play. Front yard setbacks and their landscaping will also be up for grabs with high-density development.
- Loss of local control: SB 9 will essentially destroy the ability of local governments to plan for the future of their communities. The state will be taking those powers away from local government. In one fell swoop, SB 9 will forcibly amend every General Plan and Zoning Ordinance in every one of California’s 482 cities and 58 counties. It’s no surprise that the League of California Cities strongly opposes SB 9. If one were to complain to their Councilmember about the negative changes these developments would bring to their neighborhoods, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
- Environmental effects: Last but not least are the environmental impacts that will be felt by our neighborhoods that SB 9 will not address because it will exempt these density increases in single-family zones from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA):
Loss of tree cover: Mature trees in established single-family neighborhoods will likely be on the chopping block to make way for high-density development, eliminating the carbon sequestration values that these trees have been fighting climate change.
Hardening the landscape: Eliminating permeable yards through high-density development will transform porous green spaces into hardscape and buildings initiated by mature degrees, thereby increasing the heat island effect in your neighborhood.
Increased stormwater runoff: The hardening of the landscape will also generate considerably more stormwater and urban runoff than neighborhoods may be equipped to handle.
Unless Californians wake up, realize what is about to happen to the places where they live, and take immediate action to contact your state representatives to fight this legislation, these changes will have dramatic, negative impacts on our neighborhoods.
Those who live in the northern Bay Area should be aware that State Senator Mike McGuire has been an advocate for SB 9 and the rest of the state’s dystopian Housing Package. It’s currently unclear where Assemblyman Mark Levine stands on these bills.
All of our neighborhoods are in the state’s cross-hairs. It’s time to rise up and fight back! Call or email your state representatives, ask them to stop this madness, and let them know how you will vote in the next election if they vote for these bills.
T Keith Gurnee is a member of the Board of Directors of Livable California, he is also a professional Planner and Urban Designer, former San Luis Obispo Councilmember, and past President of the California Planning Roundtable.