Sometimes these days it feels like time is running backward, like society is falling further and further behind on the progress made decades ago. Who would have imagined that places as disparate as Afghanistan and Texas would both be hell-bent on taking away the right to vote and enforcing state control over women’s bodies.
Clearly, there ought to be limits to what government should be allowed to control, particularly if it’s driven by illogical, nonsensical ideology.
Of course, most Californians would probably say both of these places are a far cry from our state’s progressive politics. And, that’s certainly true. But that doesn’t mean California is spared from our own hair-brained, nonsensical, over-reaching agendas.
California housing law mania
At the moment, there is intense focus on the passage of Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10. Both are over-reaching housing development laws that are headed to Governor Newsom’s desk for signature.
Neither of these laws properly consider their environmental impacts or make provisions for housing affordability, both undermine middle-class, single-family lifestyles, and both are extremely unpopular with the public and many city governments. (The Los Angeles City Council voted against supporting it) But in Sacramento, a place that seems to be increasingly disconnected from the average Californian, SB9 and SB10 are being embraced by a love-fest of construction unions, real estate developers, tech billionaire foundation lobbyists, and the regular cadre of Scott Wiener supplicants.
Those who want to voice their opposition to SB9 and SB10 should call Governor Newsom’s office at (916) 445-2841, or email using the online portal under "Legislative Issues/Concerns” at: https://govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail/
SB9 and SB10 ignore how real-world circumstances impact development. Worst of all, they completely miss two huge planning opportunities for affordable housing that desperately need incentives and support: opportunities that are staring every market observer with half a brain, in the face:
- The conversion of existing, vacant office space to housing; and
- The conversion of vacant, main street retail space to mixed-use redevelopment for housing and commercial uses.
Both of these opportunities repurpose property in prime, higher density locations, right on major public transportation routes, right where development infrastructure already exists (water, sewer, power), and right where all the required, walkable consumer services are already located.
It is a total no-brainer, unless, of course...
Despite these logical ways to address housing demand, our state legislature is off on a quixotic attack on single-family zoning in areas where none of these opportunities exist and where none of the required supporting infrastructure or services exist. And all to accomplish an agenda that preaches that suburbs and a patch of grass in a backyard are “criminal.” (Senator Wiener’s word, not mine)
At some point, one really has to wonder if Wiener and his whole, mostly white, highly educated, entitled Millennial, YIMBY movement aren't motivated by some sub-conscious anger toward their “suburban” parents. (A 21st-century version of “Never trust anyone over 30”) Because barring that motivation, nothing they're doing makes any sense if the goal is social equity and affordable housing.
Of course, I don’t know what drives Wiener's obsession. But what I do know is that the whole politicized, YIMBY planning doctrine is belied by statistics. Millennials, as a group, have been the most aggressive purchasers of suburban, single-family homes during this pandemic. They are voting with their feet against the entire YIMBY agenda.
It is ironic that here in California, where we endlessly congratulate ourselves for being great thought leaders, we are only succeeding in being leaders in passing old-fashioned, pro-development, anti-environmental housing laws that fail to help those most in need. (Translation for Mr. Wiener: that means poor and disenfranchised people, not you)
And in the state that led the world in passing environmental protection legislation back in the 1970s, the vast majority of the development that will result from the state’s housing legislation will be exempt from any environmental impact review, whatsoever.
But, while SB9 and SB10 have rightfully garnered all the headlines, Senator Wiener continues to work behind the scenes to insinuate his top-down control agenda into every aspect of development law on the books, with no regard for the personal, community, economic, or environmental consequences.
A recent example is Senate Bill 478.
In August, the California State Senate and Assembly voted to approve SB478. (it’s in its third reading) It deals with development that falls under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act, which governs the management, transfer, sale, and operation of common interest developments, such as condos, co-ops, or planned unit development projects (PUDs) located in multifamily residential or a mixed-use zones. It sounds like pretty wonky stuff. But it’s not.
Regardless of the size of the parcel, SB478 would
“prohibit a local agency… from imposing a floor area ratio (“FAR”) standard that is less than 1.0 on a housing development project that consists of 3 to 7 units, or less than 1.25 on a housing development project that consists of 8 to 10 units.”
It would also
“prohibit a local agency from imposing a lot coverage requirement that would physically preclude a housing development project from achieving those floor area ratios.”
And it would
“prohibit a local agency from denying a housing development project located on an existing legal parcel solely on the basis that the lot area of the proposed lot does not meet the local agency’s requirements for minimum lot size.”
In the best-case scenario, it stops cities from trying to limit development by making FARs too restrictive so that projects are not feasible. But how will this work in the real world?
Since state laws override conflicting local laws, the consequences of SB478 are potentially profound. As it’s written, if local FAR, lot coverage, and lot size regulations are extinguished, then that would mean, under the right circumstances, local zoning codes could be almost entirely swept away.
In the hands of litigious, private, for-profit, real estate investment interests, that would mean that fundamental planning regulations about height limits, side yard, back yard, and front yard setbacks, or building envelopes or prohibitions against cutting down heritage trees or requiring creek setbacks to preserve fish habitat and reduce erosion or toxic runoff or reduce water pollution or fire hazards (yes, a very long list) would all be set aside if they restricted the allowable FAR, lot coverage percentages, or lot size provisions of SB478.
On small, urban, exurban, suburban, and rural parcels, SB478 could be used to justify a developer’s “right” to pave over a lot from corner to corner—100% lot coverage--not leaving a single square inch that is not high-density housing or impermeable hardscape. (Perhaps, as the result of splitting tiny, heretofore undevelopable lots, as Wiener and his pals envision with SB9).
It’s hard for me to believe that Wiener (or anyone else in Sacramento) understands the ramifications of his proposals. No doubt, Wiener is a clever political opportunist, but I'm sorry, when I hear him speak, he doesn't strike me as being very intelligent. So why does the state legislator follow him around in blind loyalty like a pack of puppy dogs? But then, with demagogues it's always like that.
What does Sacramento have against trees?
In the City of Los Angeles, it is estimated that 80% of the trees are located on single-family zoned property. SB9 and SB10 are intended to reduce the number of those single-family lots and SB478 seems aimed at getting rid of as many of those trees as it can.
This begs the question, what does Scott Wiener have against normal, working families and the things they work and save and work for, like a house with a yard for their kids and to grow things like vegetables and, yes, trees?
My father used to remind me that “money doesn’t grow on trees” but oxygen does. Personally, I like oxygen. I like breathing it. I guess that makes me a NIMBY, these days.
And speaking of environmental impacts, it remains baffling to me that instead of laying gifts upon gifts at the feet of big development interests, and piling penalties upon penalties on the shoulders of cities, counties, and communities that disagree with the party line (Translation: taxpayers), why hasn’t a single state senator or assembly person has ever thought to instead tie development incentives and bonuses to environmentally beneficial outcomes, like using green building materials or zero-carbon design or low impact water use/reuse, or LEED building standards or one of the hundreds of environmental benchmarks that are currently available.
Government is always fighting the last war
It’s as if Sacramento is still struggling to understand the results of 20th-century dynamics, while the world has moved on. Senator Wiener’s anti-family, anti-environmental, anti-public voice, anti-science agenda has gone too far… just like the lunatics running the state government in Texas.
For example, why are we doubling down on building in the middle of a historic drought (that may be the future status quo in the Western US) when current science tells us that urbanism adds to global heating? (See Housing Type Impacts on GHG emissions - Australian Conservation Foundation)
And, finally, why have Sacramento legislators completely abandoned requiring housing affordability in exchange for development rights, instead of going “all in” on failed, 1980s trickle-down economics?
And how bad do things have to get before Californians wake up and push back?
 A common interest development (“CID”) is a real property development where property owners share a common set of financial obligations, property and easement rights established in a set of recorded restrictions (commonly referred to as “CC&Rs”).
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.