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Will SB 9 and SB 10 Make Any Difference?

Josh Stephens on
Sep 2, 2021

Maybe it's just me, but this time feels different... more personal, I suppose.

If you follow California planning Twitter or have remotely followed the state's housing debates, you know by now that many of the state's housing advocates are overjoyed at the imminent adoption of Senate Bills 9 and 10, which passed both houses of the legislature in the past week and now await the signature of an apparently willing Gov. Newsom. (Several other housing-related bills are still pending.) SB 9 is the bill that “ends single-family zoning in California” by requiring ministerial approval to property owners’ ability to split their lot in half and build up to four units in the resulting two parcels. SB 10 is the companion bill that allows local governments to re-zone properties near transit for up to 10 units without environmental analysis.

Of course, the passage of bills to promote housing is nothing new. Each of the past few legislative sessions has included a mix of modest victories and frustrating defeats on the part of housing proponents, including the likes of Sen. Scott Wiener, Sen. Toni Atkins, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, and Sen. Ana Caballero. Tempered by the legislature's moderate, suburban Democrats (who want to inflate home values) and its radical leftist Democrats (who want to destroy capitalist hegemony), nearly all housing bills have been watered down, if not stopped entirely. But, the immovable object of political gridlock has inched backwards against the unstoppable force of the state's housing crisis.

(This being California, Republicans have had little influence over the matter. And, anyhow, it's hard to own the libs when the "libs" don't even know what they want.)

And so, if I'd had to bet on the year's three biggest housing bills, two wins and a loss would have sounded around right. I'd have won the bet, but the payout wouldn't exactly pay my rent.

So, why all the euphoria?

Most broadly, the two wins are the biggest yet for the YIMBY movement. It has matured from a cheeky idea a few years ago into a true advocacy movement and a lobbying force. Its constituents--both vocal activists and a silent majority of renters, young adults, and other people who feel the direct pressure of the housing market--have only grown in number. The bigger the crowd, the louder the cheers.

And, the YIMBYs have been around long enough to have felt the sting of defeat, most notably on 2019's SB 827 and 2020's SB 50, and now to enjoy some vindication. Even if SB 10 is a super-light version of SB 50 (more on that in a moment), it's still gotta feel good.

The real emotional punch, if something as staid as housing legislation could be said to have such a thing, comes in the form of SB 9. For all the housing bills that have addressed zoning, affordable housing finance, the Regional Housing Needs Allocation Process, density bonuses and all the other soporific arcana of planning, SB 9 operates at an enticingly human scale. It addresses that fundamental unit of human habitation: the house. People who cannot afford to buy or rent houses can now imagine oportunities to live in house-like dwellings. They can envision the conversion of a second floor into a separate unit, or the ground-up development of cute duplexes, the likes of which are already abundant in California's older neighborhoods but were largely outlawed with the onset of (often racially motivated) single-family zoning. People who already own houses can imagine ways to welcome new people on to their properties, or ways to profit from their properties.

Of course, there was plenty of fear-mongering. That's another hallmark of this legislative cycle. Just as the YIMBY movement has matured and become more vocal, so has the anti-development movement.

Groups like Livable California and the Embarcadero Institute threw everything but the kitchen sink at SB 9. They implied that homeowners would be cheated out of their homes. They argued that "developers" were going to invade neighborhoods. They argued that infrastructure would be burdened and trees would be cut down. They warned of the danger of wildfires and mega-mansions. And, of course, they cried that SB 9 mandates no (deed-restricted) affordable housing. (Many of these people, of course, live in multimillion homes.) They predicted the "destruction" of neighborhoods and, most horrifically, increased demand for street parking. And they continently conflated SB 9 with SB 10 to pretend that multi-story, 10-unit buildings were going to crop up on every block, from Rancho Santa Fe to Mill Valley. On my local social media feed, one of the most vocal opponents of SB 9 lives in Bel Air (average home price: $4 million).

If anyone should not be happy, it's California's planners. I'm not suggesting that they don't support these reforms--far from it, in fact. But they now have a lot of work on their hands. As CP&DR has reported, and discussed in a recent webinar, un-doing the regulatory and physical legacy of the one-plex is going to be a mightily complex affair. But it should be a gratifying one.

Among the many objections to SB 9, and pretty much every housing bill, is that it curtails local control and is "one-size-fits all." Given the refusal of many cities to permit new housing, much less multi-unit housing, these objections are like criticizing someone for being a bad driver when they haven't even turned on the ignition. If anything, SB 9 is going to be a bonanza of local control, as every single city in the state gets to decide how to implement it. They can consider design guidelines, parking regulations, financing mechanisms, fire safety, massing, setbacks, flat or sparkling, cream or sugar, and, yes, affordability incentives. If locals want something to control, well, by golly, they've got it!

Now, on to SB 10.

The reason SB 10 is hardly worth discussing is that SB 10 does absolutely nothing. Clearly written in the spirit of compromise, it allows cities to extend by-right approvals for up to 10 units per parcel in transit-rich areas. Any actual action depends on city councils, but it doesn't mandate anything. Milquetoast as SB 10 is, everyone who even pretends to support housing should have been able to tolerate it. Instead, I saw Livable California mailers that predicted apocalyptic levels of construction. So much for compromise. For cities that do want to both add housing and exercise local control, SB 10 gives them even more power. In some ways, I think advocates are celebrating SB 10 not because it's going to ease the housing crisis, except in a few cities that embrace it, but rather because it makes opponents look utterly ridiculous.

Our journey ends with the failure of AB 1401, which would have prohibited parking minimums statewide and left it to developers and landowners to provide parking as they saw fit. Though it would have applied to all types of properties, many supporters called it a housing bill in the guise of a transportation bill. While wonkier than the other two, it was a fan favorite for its potential to promote housing, decrease construction costs, and discourage automobile use in one fell-swoop. It's entirely possible that it would have passed as well. Except, a laughably minimal financial impact of $97,000 annually diverted it into the jaws of the Senate Appropriations Committee where Committee Chair Anthony Portantino--whose suburban hometown of La Canada Flintridge is the last place that would have been appreciably affected by AB 1401--summarily swept it off his docket and into legislative oblivion, just as he did SB 50 last year. Far be it for a multibillion-dollar housing crisis to take precedence over fiscal rectitude.

It's been an eventful year. And yet, I'm not sure any of it matters.

While legislators, advocates, and opponents have been wringing their hands, the RHNA process has proceeded apace. As I wrote following the defeat of SB 50, RHNA is really where the action is.

Targets have been set, and councils of governments have assigned cities their allocations. And it seems to be working. Appeals are getting shot down (with more surely to come), and cities are accepting the reality of zoning for, collectively, millions of new units. They're going to have to use SB 9 and SB 10 for all they're worth. They're going to have to lower parking minimums of their own volition. And they're going to have to come up with plenty of tricks of their own. So, while YIMBYs dance in the streets and NIMBYs decry those meddling kids, California's cities are going to have to exercise their local control whether they like it or not.



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