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The California state Legislature is currently considering two bills that would permit –not require – small increases in density in residential neighborhoods.  These bills, Senate Bills 9 and 10, will go a long way toward addressing the severe housing crisis that is threatening our state’s future, while placing minimal impacts on existing communities.   The worst that can be said about these bills is that some Orange County neighborhoods will have to make room for a few new neighbors, but that will hardly “ruin” them, as Tina Richards argued in a recent op-ed.  Welcoming some more neighbors is the least we can all do at a time when our state is struggling with an epidemic of homelessness.  If you agree, call or write your state Assemblymember and ask them to support these bills.

Let’s begin with some basic facts about our state’s housing crisis.  California has by far the highest home costs in the nation.  The state has the highest poverty rate in the country when accounting for the cost of housing.  A majority of renters in California pay more than 30% of their income on rent – a level at which homelessness spikes rapidly.  Not surprisingly, California also has by far the highest rate of homelessness in the country.  The middle class is fleeing California because of high housing costs, leaving a state that is stratified between comfortable homeowners paying a fraction of their income on housing costs and poor people struggling to pay their rent. 

One of the major causes of our housing crisis is that the state simply isn’t producing enough housing to meet demand.  We need to produce at least 180,000 homes per year to keep up with demand, but we aren’t producing anywhere near that amount

No one likes to hear this, but we cannot address our state’s housing crisis without creating more housing in the high-demand areas where jobs are located.  And there are really only two ways to do that: we can either build high-rise apartment buildings or we can gently densify our neighborhoods.  Homeowners have already made clear that they oppose the first option just about everywhere in the state; now SB 9 and 10 propose to permit – not require— the second.  There is no third option.   

Let’s talk about what SB 9 and SB 10 actually do. SB 9 allows homeowners to “split” a property into two lots, and then place two homes on each lot, for a total of up to four homes on the property.  Current law already allows most homeowners to place two granny flats or “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) on their property, for a total of 3 homes on each lot, so this new law would simply allow homeowners – if they choose – to place ONE more unit on the property than state law currently allows.  (Contrary to the claims of opponents like Ms. Richards, SB 9 expressly states that municipalities are not required to permit ADUs on lots that have been split under the new law.  Homeowners who wish to add more homes on their property will have to choose between placing one or two ADUs on the property in addition to the existing home, OR splitting the lot and placing up to four total homes on the property.)

Notice that SB 9 is completely voluntary.  Homeowners can choose to split their lots and build up to four homes on the property, or they can choose to build an ADU or two, or they can choose to do nothing.  Nobody is being forced to do anything with their own property against their will.  To the contrary, it is opponents of the bill like Ms. Richards who wish to tell homeowners how they can – and more importantly how they can’t – use their own property.

SB 10 expands local zoning control by allowing local governments – again, if they choose – to permit up to 10 homes on a parcel.  If cities use this authority, the project benefits from streamlined environmental review.  Streamlining makes sense because projects of 10 or fewer homes are unlikely to have the sort of extensive environmental impacts that require a long and burdensome review process.  It is well known that anti-development groups use the environmental review process to extort payoffs and sink housing projects, so this is a welcome reform that should provide at least some relief from runaway housing prices.

SB 10 also allows local governments to supersede a zoning restriction passed by the voter initiative with a supermajority vote of the local legislative body.  This provision will simply help local governments comply with state law.  Most local governments in Orange County are required by state law to add hundreds and in some cases thousands of new homes over the next several years.  And local governments are required to remove “constraints” that will impede those housing goals, like slow-growth voter initiatives.  If local governments fail to remove those constraints, they can face severe penalties such as the loss of local land use authority.  In one case, a city was prohibited from even approving any kitchen or bathroom remodels for homeowners until the city complied with state law!

While the state constitution guarantees the right of local initiative, that right has never been unqualified and is already limited by state law requiring local governments to remove constraints on new housing development.  SB 10 will just make it easier for local governments to comply with that state law. 

SB 9 and 10 are modest efforts to permit density without requiring it.  These bills give homeowners and local governments more options and impose very little on residential neighborhoods.  It’s time for every person of good conscience to make a choice: do we want to continue immiserating the most vulnerable members of our community, or make room for a few more neighbors?  Call or write your Assemblymember and ask them to support these sensible bills.

Kenneth Stahl is a Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental, Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law in Orange.  He is also a member of People for Housing Orange County, a housing advocacy organization dedicated to addressing the housing crisis in Orange County, and a land use attorney who works to enforce state housing laws.

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