My neighbor, well-informed about the Texas abortion ban and national voting right challenges, said he was startled to read the front-page Marin Independent Journal headline (9/17/21): Newsom ends single-family zoning in the state: Signs bill that allows up to four units on lots.”
Two bills brought forward by Democrats take a direct hit to end single-family zoning. Senator Toni Atkins authored SB-9 which allows parcels zoned for a single-family home to be split and allows two duplexes built per split parcel. Instead of one home the property is now zoned for four.
Senator Scott Wiener authored SB 10 which makes it easier for a City Council to change zoning to allow a developer to construct a 10-unit building on a parcel previously zoned for one home.
“He can’t do that, can he?” my neighbor asked. “That could never happen in Marin, could it?” The answer is, “Yes, he can! And Yes it could!”
That Newsom, along with his Democratic colleagues, supports the end single-family zoning is worrisome. First, it’s worrisome for the immediate impact. Second, it’s worrisome for long-term impact. I’ll give a few examples for both the short and long-term concerns.
The League of California Cities has a mission “to restore and protect local control for cities through education an advocacy.” The League submitted a strong letter urging the Governor to veto SB 9. 240 of California's 482 cities, signed the League letter. Only a few big cities like San Diego and San Jose urged the governor to sign. If not working on behalf of the majority of California cities, who does the Governor represent?
There are other worrisome aspects of SB 9 and SB 10. Maggie Angst, Bay Area News Group, reported on the two new approaches in “What California’s new SB9 housing law means for single-family zoning in your neighborhood. She writes “experts say neither is likely to produce the number of units needed to fully resolve it.”
The Terner Center for Housing at UC Berkeley estimated that just 5.4% of the state’s current single-family lots has the potential to be developed under SB9. The Terner study refers to the discredited claim that the state needs 3.5M new housing units to meet housing needs. But that number has been shown to be in wildly inflated.
Add another worry. Picture the trees and shrubs surrounding a single-family home. They provide shade and their roots hold water to cool our warming planet. Think of the set-backs reduced to four feet, less that your outstretched arms. For the sake of “streamlining,” environmental protections are discarded.
And a final reason to worry about immediate impact is decreased safety. Streets will be more crowded with more difficult access of police or fire services. The bills are passed as “unfunded mandates” which means cities will spend thousands of dollars to decipher the new, complex, poorly defined laws, plan for implementation and compliance, educate the planning commissioners, city council members and general public.
Now jump ahead. Let’s say it’s 2030. Initially, back in 2021, people said, “Oh it won’t be so bad. At least we'll have more affordable housing.
Maybe. But consider another scenario. After a short period of homeowners adding ADU’s, the trend will shift. An already-aging population will be selling their homes to move to assisted living, live near their kids, or pass away.
Investor speculators are likely to already know who we are and where we live. When they get wind of our health or a sale, they will swoop in, make offers tens of thousands of dollars over asking price and offer cash.
That will effectively eliminate any hopeful young family who dreams of a single-family home in a safe neighborhood with good schools to raise their kids. They’ll be out of luck. The corporate housing machinery will be gobbling up the middle class’s greatest asset—a home—and pushing more people into an asset-less class.
The investor speculator, to maximize profits, will knock down the single-family home to make room for the duplexes or 10-unit complex, as allowed in SB-10. The three-year provision that asks the developer to promise to live on-site for a minimum of three years will be forgotten, be unenforceable, or pass by so quickly it hardly mattered.
The two duplexes with a total of four units will be rental property. Income will flow out of the city to the banks in far-away places.
We haven’t seen these trends yet and we won’t for a few years. But in addition to short-term worries, consider six long-term factors:
- Legislators will not replace the billions of dollars in housing funding that was lost in 2012, when it disbanded 400 Redevelopment Agencies that existed since 1945.
- Legislators will continue to introduce bills that curtail local control and put decision-making into the hands of builders, bankers, investor speculators and implemented by regional and state agencies.
- Cities will be unable to meet inflated Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) numbers. Legislators will throw up their hands to say, “We have to do something,” and will be persuaded to pass more bills that allow developers to build higher, denser, and at greater risk to the environment.
- If city councils resist in favor of their residents and quality of life, laws like AB-215 will kick in to impose fines of $10,000 to $100,000 per month for noncompliance. Cities will have a choice to pursue expensive legal means or suck it up and zone for building in fire or flood zones, putting residents at risk. Some may need to declare bankruptcy, opening more doors for private capital to claim public wealth.
- California laws will be heralded as the template for federal housing legislation.
- Global capital will gain strength in calling the shots and we’ll witness more of the globalization of housing, as I wrote about in the past.
It’s worrisome, yes. But the greatest worry is that people throw up their hands as if there’s nothing they can do. Consider these options:
- Support the statewide ballot initiative in support of local control.
- Encourage your city council to sign the California Cities for Local Control (CCLC) Resolution.
- Join or start a neighborhood group or one of the statewide groups like Livable California or Catalysts for Local Control.
- In the Bay Area, participate in creating your city’s Housing Element (Now-Jan 2022).
- On Wednesday, September 22, participate in a Webinar with David Crane, president of Govern for California. Crane will talk about leveling the political playing field.The event is hosted by the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers (CO$T). Register at CO$TMarin.org.