A pair of housing bills just approved by the state Legislature are prompting warnings that single-family zoning will be destroyed in local neighborhoods, while others say such concerns are wildly overblown and that the bills are a modest step to make housing more affordable.
It remains to be seen who’s right, if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bills into law. Newsom is currently facing a recall election.
Senate Bill 9 would let owners in single-family neighborhoods have a total of four housing units on their land, by allowing two units per parcel and subdividing land into two parcels.
And Senate Bill 10 would let cities and counties waive environmental reviews for developments of up to 10 units in urban or transit-accessible areas – lifting a major time and money barrier that developers currently run into.
Many of the critics said overreach by Sacramento leads to a loss of local control, while proponents said concerns are overblown and the changes could help alleviate the housing crisis.
Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) says they would eviscerate local ballot initiatives passed by voters, as well as block cities from being able to require appropriate parking and setbacks when lots are subdivided to create more homes.
“There’s not enough in these bills that provide the protection that should be there to ensure compatibility, to ensure public safety, and to ensure for the residents who are going to live in those dwelling units, to provide the accessibility they need,” Bates said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Bates voted against both bills.
“What are they going to do with their cars?” she added. “We all know that we in Southern California do not have subways…that provide that kind of transit to a job center. We don’t have that.
Such concerns are overblown, says Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who was the only one of OC’s seven Assembly members to vote yes on the bills.
“The narrative has been completely outlandish that this is going to ruin our single-family neighborhoods,” she said in a phone interview Monday.
“That’s what they said about granny flats and ADUs” a few years ago when the Legislature stopped letting cities block them with high fees and onerous parking requirements, Quirk-Silva said.
“Guess what? There’s not been a run on ADUs across the state of California,” because single family owners need to finance those types of projects, she said.
Quirk-Silva said the new bills should produce similar results.
“I feel the same here [with these new bills] – if a property owner can get financing together, can figure out a way to build an ADU, another unit on their property, those are going to be few and far between.”
Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine) opposed both bills, saying they’re problematic mandates similar to those the state’s considering with coronavirus vaccinations.
The bills don’t give “the option for the local government to decide” how to handle housing, Choi said in an interview.
“Including with the Covid situation, so many things” are being considered for mandates by the Legislature, he added.
“The general public doesn’t like that.”
Lawsuits Could be Brewing
There’s also legal questions about the bills and whether they unconstitutionally deprives local communities of their right to restrict zoning through voter initiatives.
“SB 10 would conflict with and undermine the bedrock principle of the initiative power and, for that reason, is almost certain to be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional,” wrote land use attorney Robert Perlmutter in a July 10 letter to legislative leaders.
Bates says she expects lawsuits to be filed if the bills are signed into law — especially over what she said is a lack parking requirements for new units.
“The next level is litigation,” Bates said. “I think that the local initiative process is really at risk.”
But Quirk-Silva said the bills were amended to address many of the concerns about initiatives and other matters.
“There were several amendments taken that were trying to address some of the environmental concerns, trying to address historical, cultural concerns…But the initial narrative never left, which is that this will destroy our single family neighborhoods and do nothing to address homelessness,” she said.
“I seriously ask people to read what we voted on, and secondly to ask what is their solution to homelessness.”
Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) didn’t vote on the bills because she has COVID and has been in quarantine, but said she would have strongly voted no.
“It is very disappointing to see that 44 Assemblymembers voted to pass SB 9 that will accelerate duplexes and lot splits in areas zoned for single-family housing,” she said in a statement.
“This will have a great impact in my District and Californians across the state which is why this bill received bipartisan opposition.”
Will the Bills Help Solve the Housing Crisis?
Those who support the bills say the proposed laws are an important step to addressing the housing crisis in California that locks many young professionals from home ownership.
“California has been far behind on housing production for decades, and many many of the people objecting are homeowners and are giving little consideration to future homeowners, including in many cases their own family,” said Quirk-Silva, whose district includes Cal State Fullerton.
She said the bills could help young professionals who don’t have the income to buy a home at current prices.
“You’re really objecting to younger, well-educated individuals that we’re educating. Just think of Cal State Fullerton, about 40,000 students going there, and how many of them have an opportunity to work in Orange County and own a home,” she said of the bill’s opponents.
“And to be honest, that dream has vanished. Many young Californians in their 20s can not imagine owning a home. So is that dream only for a few?”
The bills, she said, also give “some control back to property owners to choose to do more with their property.”
Opponents say the housing crisis is real, yet these bills are not the right way to go about fixing it.
“While I agree that California faces massive challenges around the creation of additional supply of housing, especially affordable housing, it’s my belief at this point that we here in Sacramento are not going about well,” said Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) in a text message Monday.
He abstained from voting on both bills.
“We’ve made it too complicated, too formulaic, and too top-down. And while I respect and support the general intent of the authors and supporters of both bills, in the end I’ve come to agree with the leaders of local jurisdictions that the current approach comes at the expense of local control and consultation,” he said.
Newman said a better approach would be reforming the state housing requirements known as RHNA, which he said has failed to meet its goals as cities feel they’re subject to a “top-down process that doesn’t properly recognize their specific needs.”
Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) voted no on SB 9 and abstained from SB 10, noting his district already has among the densest housing in California.
“My district is the seventh most dense in the state,” Daly said in a text message Monday. “I feel the two bills are well-intentioned, but if signed into law, may eventually do more harm than good.”
Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) said he voted for both bills because California is facing a housing crisis that is seriously challenging its economy.
“College graduates can no longer afford to live in the areas they grew up, including in Orange County, and businesses are struggling to find and retain employees due to the high cost of housing,” Min said in a statement Monday.
“SB 9 and SB 10 thoughtfully balance the need for more housing with a locally-oriented approach that emphasizes local control.”
Brad Avery is the mayor of Newport Beach, which has been one of the most vocal cities against state mandates for cities to zone for new housing.
He says the new bills might not change neighborhoods right away, but they probably will in the long run.
“I think it’s not the end of the world,” Avery said in a phone interview Monday.
“Neighbors aren’t going to change overnight. But from a generation standpoint, in 20 years will your block look different? Probably,” he added, noting he has concerns about whether enough parking will be required.
“I think everybody – not just Newport – but everybody’s concerned about the tradition of neighborhoods, single-family homes with families,” Avery said.
“That’s what everybody aspires to. And obviously, the concern is real. We need to create more housing. And everybody has a part in it,” he continued. “But it doesn’t make it easy for people who have bought into a neighborhood 10 or 15 years ago, and then next door the house gets torn down and there’s now 4 units there.”
Cesar Covarrubias, who leads one of OC’s biggest housing affordability advocacy groups – the Kennedy Commission – said he doesn’t have a judgement on the bills one way or the other, but that they’re a sign that if cities don’t allow more housing on their own, the state will take away more of their local control.
“I think the message from both bills is that local governments need to do more, and if [they want to keep] local control, there has to be a clear pattern of local governments trying to address the [housing crisis],” he said in an interview.
While OC cities have been allowing a lot of new housing, it’s largely expensive and very little of it is affordable for working-class households, Covarrubias noted.
“Critically, here in Orange County where we have development happening and it’s not balanced housing development, and there continues to be a need for affordable housing, there’s a clear message from the state that local governments need to incentivize affordable, thoughtful development,” he said.
There’s simply not enough available land to build on around OC, Covarrubias said.
“We’re running out of land. So at some point, they’re looking at commercial, industrial areas for redevelopment [into housing]. And at some point they may be looking at single-family tracts if they don’t do their planning correctly.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.