This week, our Democratic controlled legislature will vote to eliminate single family neighborhoods in California.  If SB 9 and SB 10 are signed into law, decades of careful urban planning will be thrown out the window and we will have what might be described as “Wild West zoning.”

Under these bills, developers can purchase land in any neighborhood and build 4 to 14 new units on a parcel of land currently zoned for single family housing.  SB 9 developments will occur “by right,” meaning that having CC&Rs or being in a gated community offers no protection to this construction.  Development “by right” means that zoning laws are overridden, community opposition carries no weight and City Councils have no ability to stop such development.  There is no requirement that any of these units be affordable housing.

SB 9 allows any residential lot to be subdivided, allowing 4 homes to be built on a lot currently zoned for 1 home.  In some cases, 6 homes will be allowed.  There will be no public hearings and these homes will be sold for whatever price the market will bear.  It isn’t hard to imagine that builders will target desirable areas where profits will be higher rather than building in underserved communities that need more affordable housing.  This has the hidden effect of driving up housing prices since there will be more competition for desirable lots in upscale neighborhoods.  

SB 10 allows City Councils to unilaterally increase density near jobs or transit sites and allow a 10 unit project with four “granny flats” on a lot where 1 home stood before.  Residents would have no recourse to fight these decisions and there are no provisions in the bill to address the need for improved infrastructure in neighborhoods where increased density may overwhelm existing water, sewage and electrical capacity.  Worse than that, SB 10 specifically allows cities to ignore any growth or zoning limits put into place by voter initiative.

The California Constitution specifically gives citizens the right to pass laws by initiative to counterbalance the power of special interest groups.  In many cities, developers are the primary financial supporters of City Council members and construction approvals often appear weighted to support the requests of these special interests.  Grass root initiatives occur when voters feel that their elected officials do not have their best interests at heart.  Allowing those same officials to unilaterally disregard the will of the people in favor of high density development is abhorrent and undermines our constitutional rights.  The media is full of stories about how conservatives are working to undermine democracy, but that description also applies here.  Disregarding the rights given to us in the California Constitution is just as bad as anything being done in other states.  If the Democrat supermajority in Sacramento is willing to undercut the initiative process with SB 10, why would we expect that they would not pass additional laws curtailing other rights that become inconvenient to their goals?

It will not surprise anyone that SB 9 and 10 are supported by powerful special interest groups who have a vested financial interest in expanding development by right in our cities.  Nor should it surprise anyone to learn that the primary architects of SB 9 and 10, State Senators Scott Weiner and Toni Atkins, have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from developers and Wall Street investors who will benefit from their legislative overreach.  As is often the case in politics, following the money provides clarity regarding political motivation and Senators Weiner and Atkins have found a deep pool of campaign funding by pushing to override local control of land use decisions.

The stated reason for these bills is that California is in the midst of a housing crisis and it is.  However, the state has already enacted laws that will require enough housing to manage the crisis, so there is no meaningful reason to upend zoning laws with SB 9 and 10.  The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) requirements currently being enacted will add 1.3 million new homes to Southern California alone, including substantial numbers of affordable housing.  Each city has been given their allotment of homes that must be built.  Huntington Beach’s number is 13,337.  Irvine’s is 23,555.  The list of required development for each city can be seen here.  These are not theoretical numbers.  Each city is currently in the process of making decisions where these homes can be built and submitting that information to the state.

The difference between the RHNA driven changes in zoning and SB 9 and 10 is that the cities control which areas will get more development and which do not.  These are hard decisions and many people feel that the RHNA numbers are far in excess of what is actually needed, but there is local control over how the development will occur.  SB 9 and 10 will simply gut every General Plan and every zoning ordinance in the state and leave those who are most interested in making a fast profit in charge of our neighborhoods.  If that prospect scares you, it should.

Our legislature will make their final decision this month.  Although time is short, there is still an opportunity to effect change.  These bills are extremely unpopular with 75% of voters opposed to their passage and legislators know this.  They are being lobbied intensively by developers and only a grassroots outcry will block their passage.  To anyone reading this article, please contact your legislators immediately and ask them to vote no on SB 9 and 10.  Their contact info can be found here.

The ultimate choice belongs to us.  In the struggle between those seeking higher profits and the best interests of the people, the winner will only be the people if our elected representatives know that their constituents are tracking their votes and will remember their actions at the next election.  If we fail, we will pay the price for a very long time to come.

Susan Skinner lives in Orange County.  She is a Neurologist by vocation and a community activist by avocation.  She keeps finding issues that need attention, or maybe those issues just find her!

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