Picture your neighborhood without yards. Now picture homes built approximately four feet from one another, and with an extra three units stacked on your single-family property. Regardless of where you live. Regardless of local zoning restrictions. This could be California’s future if some in the legislature have their way.
California’s Legislature is advancing its latest attempt to solve the state’s lack of affordable housing with Senate Bill 9 (Atkins), a measure that would fundamentally change neighborhoods across California and strip cities of their local control over zoning. If approved, SB 9 will eliminate single-family-residential zoning in the state and enable four-unit, high-density development statewide. It would trade single-family homes for seas of duplexes and displace localities from shaping the future of their communities. Because the bill would keep cities from governing their own local zoning, community members would be forced to trek up to Sacramento to advocate for their neighborhood concerns–an option only available to very few residents.
Big tech and other corporate interests have been pushing a Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) agenda for years, funneling money into efforts to strip communities of control over their futures. Their interests are focused on creating a housing supply that they believe will reduce housing costs.
Unfortunately, the bill creates a potentially massive increase in housing units while not addressing a fundamental responsibility of all cities: basic infrastructure. Streets, parking, water supplies, power and sewer systems have been installed and maintained over decades with a presumption of the nature of the housing and development that would fit into single-family-residential zoned neighborhoods. A sweeping change to zoning would dramatically increase the demand placed on sewer systems and tax our already troubled–and now drought-stricken–water supplies. SB 9’s narrow-focused pursuit of housing-supply-at-all-costs ignores the fundamental basics that make homes functional: running water, flushing toilets and lights that turn on when needed. Issues that Sacramento doesn’t have to solve–cities do.
Cities are not the barrier to California’s housing supply. Hundreds of cities from across the state have been implementing innovative programs and stretching what few low-income housing funds they have to create affordable housing options. Indeed, cities would be further along in the game had California Redevelopment Agencies not been eliminated in 2011. Redevelopment agencies were the single largest source of low-income housing funds in California–and while redevelopment agencies were eliminated by the Legislature, the Legislature took no action to create a replacement fund for low-income housing. Now their solution is to eliminate single-family-residential zoning, stripping city governments from controlling their own jurisdictions.
California needs rational CEQA reforms, a funding source for low-income housing, an in-depth review of the impacts of Wall Street’s housing investments and a more thorough understanding of international capital flows driving demand for housing in California. Our challenge is not entirely a supply-side question–it is a demand-side pressure that we should understand before taking the drastic step of eliminating the California dream. Otherwise, we are likely implementing a policy that will benefit billionaire investors from overseas and in New York–not the Californians who choose to live, work and contribute to their communities.
Cities are ready to be pragmatic partners in the pursuit of resolving California’s affordable housing crisis, but we cannot support policies that sideline local decision-makers and our communities in this debate. Cities are the most trusted level of government–and representative democracy has proven that cities deliver for communities and are responsive to the needs of residents. We hear the people on this, we stand behind the local leaders elected by their communities and we know that throwing out local control over land-use policies is not the answer to California’s affordable housing issues. Collaboration with local leaders is.
Marcel Rodarte is the Executive Director of the California Contract Cities Association and the former Mayor of Norwalk.