In just three weeks, a new state law goes into effect that requires cities to allow homeowners to build duplexes and/or split lots in single-family areas. The controversial SB 9 was part of a package of 31 bills Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law this fall to ease California’s growing affordable housing crisis.
Cities have vehemently resisted the passage of SB 9, calling it another intrusion into local control over land use. State lawmakers have argued that restrictive zoning has fueled alarming increases in homelessness, soaring rents and house prices that are excluding young families from the American dream.
What happens on January 1? Some cities say they will sue — on dubious legal grounds. A proposed initiative funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation aims to reassert local control. A handful of cities are threatening to enact local laws to thwart the implementation of SB 9.
Yet faced with the housing crisis, it appears that a majority of the public sides with the state to the detriment of local town halls. An LA Business Council Institute/LA Times poll released last week showed that 55% of voters support the new law, only 27% oppose it and 18% are undecided or don’t know enough to have an opinion. A poll isn’t definitive, but the lopsided sentiments indicate cities may be out of step with their own residents.
Part of the explanation is that affluent (often retired) homeowners are the loudest voters of local elected officials, who often come from this same aging demographic. Baby boomers who benefit from Proposition 13 tax breaks wield disproportionate influence over local government and see themselves as the beleaguered bedrock of stable “community character.” Many insist that their neighborhoods remain unchanged. Young voters who missed out on the benefits of rising property values have a different perspective. The best they can hope for from the status quo is to hang on as rents are rising faster than incomes. This growing constituency has a vested interest in change.
Similar hysteria swept through local governments and homeowners’ associations when the state forced cities to allow “secondary suites.” Called ADUs in government parlance, these small back units were once called grandma’s apartments or backyard cottages. Along with duplexes and garden apartments, these dwellings were once common in California residential neighborhoods until rigid zoning rules prohibited them. Under recent legislation, cities must now allow them in single-family areas. Ironically, as cities scramble to plan their share of new housing, many local governments are now claiming that an increase in ADU construction will relieve the pressure for higher density development.
State legislation cannot substitute for responsible planning at the local level. Pasadena recently made the sensible decision to adopt “objective standards” for implementing SB 9 in an emergency to be ready to accept applications as soon as City Hall reopens after the Rose Parade. . The mayor and city council have wisely chosen to remove inflammatory criticism of the state from the law to make it clear that they will abide by it despite their previous opposition. The new standards comply with SB 9 and add protections for yards and trees.
Reasonable people may disagree about the best way to solve California’s housing crisis. What is indisputable, however, is that something has to be done. SB 9 is far from perfect, and on its own, far from a solution. Yet it offers a promising opportunity for people of modest means to live in increasingly expensive neighborhoods and for homeowners to offset high mortgage costs.
Instead of standing in the doorway to thwart the law, level-headed local officials will make New Year’s resolutions to open the door to housing opportunities.
Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and served as city manager for Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. firstname.lastname@example.org.