The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) released an SB 9 Fact Sheet March 25, 2022. The Fact Sheet describes the implementation of Senate Bill 9, which went into effect on January 1, 2022.
Before jumping to read the attached guidelines, stop a minute to appreciate three factors.
First, recall that HCD was the subject of a California State Audit, initiated by Senators Glazer (East Bay), Portantino (Los Angeles) and others last fall. These Senators took notice of constituents’ complaints about the questionable RHNA methodology and inflated RHNA allocations. They had questions about calculations re: census data, jobs/housing numbers, vacancy rates, among other issues.
The headline of the HCD report calls for HCD to “improve its processes to ensure that communities can adequately plan for housing.” Some YIMBYs are saying the findings could mean cities will get even higher housing mandates. Others of us are confident that the groundbreaking work done by the Embarcadero Institute, that found HCD was double-counting, will prevail.
Second, notice that SB9, the most far-reaching piece of housing legislation in housing history, was rushed to go into effect less than three months after it was signed by the Governor in September. Thousands of constituents, represented by City Councils, neighborhood groups, homeowner associations, the League of California Cities, and other activist entities objected to eliminating single-family zoning, densifying neighborhoods, the elimination of “discretion” as an element of sound planning, and squashing the environmental protections of the 50-year old California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Third, be mindful that even with the dramatic loss of single-family zoning, height and setback restrictions, safety and parking requirements, and nuanced planning, there isn’t a provision that this law will increase the supply of affordable housing for very low or low-income residents. That's because SB9 has no requirement for affordable housing
SB9 is based on a simplistic and unsubstantiated assumption: the cost of housing will diminish as density increases. Vancouver planner Patrick Condon, author of “Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land,” found just the opposite. He writes, “Adding density only enriches the land speculator and adds fuel to the fires of unbridled land rent.”
HCD’s SB9 Fact Sheet describes the dark picture of what legislators are passing as housing and land use policy. Legislators operate with the mistaken, simplistic belief their actions will solve the poorly diagnosed housing crisis, when, in fact, their legislation is making the situation worse.
As you review the SB9 Fact Sheet, you’ll get to the core of why SB9 is rotten. Here are a few examples.
Ministerial Review. HCD writes, “Ministerial review means a process for development approval involving no personal judgment by the public official as to the wisdom of carrying out the project.” The project review only requires meeting items on a checklist. Instead of the collective wisdom of a Planning and Design Review Committee or a Planning Commission made up of local experts, project review will be done by staff with a clipboard. Who benefits? Not residents or the community, but the unregulated, outside, monied interests buying up neighborhood land.
An element of "ministerial review" is "streamlining." Streamlining means there is no public notice of an owner's plan to split a single-family lot into two parcels and up to four units. There is no notice, no public hearing, no appeal process. The state has given developers the rights to hold all the cards and to call all the shots.
Objective Standards. Here we go again. HCD writes, “The terms “objective zoning standards” . . .mean standards that involve no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and are uniformly verifiable by reference to an external and uniform benchmark or criterion available and knowable by both the applicant and the public official prior to submittal.”
Consider a metaphor. Operating with "objective standards" for housing is like naming the characteristics of a piece of music, without listening to the music itself. In out taste for music, we don't automatically like a composition in the key of C, set to a three-quarter rhythm, performed by clarinets and flutes. We depend on the "subjective" to balance the "objective." And we judge on the cumulative impact of the score, not just the items on a checklist.
Findings of Denial. HCD makes it impossible for a community to protect itself against outside developers with a profit motive prioritized over people. With no funding from the state to pay for the time-consuming requirement, HCD writes, “A local agency’s building official must make a written finding, based upon a preponderance of the evidence, that the proposed housing development would have a specific, adverse impact, (Govt. code 65589.5, subdivision (d)(2), upon public health and safety or the physical environment and for which there is no feasible method to satisfactorily mitigate or avoid the specific adverse impact.” In other words, residents, go pound dirt. But shouldn't it be the developers who need to demonstrate to the community that their project deserves the support of the community.
CEQA. With unprecedented arrogance and disregard for 50 years of CEQA protections, HCD writes, “Because the approval of a qualifying project under SB9 is deemed a ministerial action, CEQA does not apply.” For emphasis, they add, “A local agency must not require an applicant to perform environmental impact analysis under CEQA.” We're in the middle of a climate crisis, but legislators deny it applies to the neighborhoods of their constituents.
Read the Fact Sheet for more categories of the terrible trends in SB9 housing policy.
Relationship to Other State Housing Laws. HCD caps the report with the reminder that legislators have passed draconian laws over the past few years. Their laws have steadily transferred planning powers to outsiders, while reducing the authority of elected officials to riding in the Memorial Day Parade.
HCD provides short summaries of the Housing Element Law, Housing Crisis Act of 2019, Housing Accountability Act (amended in 2017), and the Rental Inclusionary Housing Act, including government code and subdivision.
Unfortunately, the housing laws of previous years haven't changed the supply of housing that is affordable to very low and low-income people, the wage-earners who are reseadily falling behind. Legislation like SB9 dims the light on the American Dream of owning a home and living in a safe society with an equal playing field, governed by locally-elected officials in touch with and serving their community.
We’re not meant to blithely comply with legislation that falls short of what Californians deserve. If you’d like to join a growing number of individuals protesting short-sighted legislation, go to the Catlaysts website and sign up for our newsletter. Stay informed about statewide efforts that turn the tide back to governance for the good of the majority, not the benefit of special interests.