Housing Solutions

Upzoning bills show a will to act

By Gary Delsohn
November 2021

It would have been easy to overlook with everything else happening, but two days after defeating the ill-conceived attempt to recall him, Gov. Gavin Newsom made news by signing three bills to chip away at California’s affordable housing crisis.

Newsom, who three years ago promised to deliver 3.5 million new homes by 2025, is taking a more incremental—and practical—approach to the problem.

None of the bills will come close to solving the state’s monumental housing problems, but if harsh reaction to at least one of the measures tells us anything, the governor has indeed shaken things up.

The most significant legislation was from state Senate President Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who has spent years working on housing issues. Her Senate Bill 9 allows property owners to build up to three additional housing units on lots that had been zoned for single family.

It’s similar to upzoning changes under consideration by the Sacramento City Council. As in the capital city, there are groups that find the idea deeply offensive.

“We are disappointed in the signing of this flawed legislation,” the California League of Cities says. “SB 9 undermines the ability of local governments to responsibly plan for the types of housing that communities need, circumvents the local government review process, and silences community voices.”

No one is being silenced, but the league went on to say California cities are working to increase the housing stock and to make it more affordable while “this top-down mandate … disregards local voices and decision-making.”

If cities across California were really doing what the league says, the state could afford to sit on the sidelines. But housing prices have been escalating in much of the state, even during the pandemic. Meantime, more and more hard-working people have been priced out of the market.

The statewide median price for a California house topped $800,000 for the first time earlier this year and is still rising. Serious intervention was not only needed, but was long overdue.

“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said when he signed the bill.

“Making a meaningful impact on this crisis will take bold investments, strong collaboration across sectors and political courage from our leaders and communities to do the right thing and build housing for all.”

He’s right, but allowing multiplexes on lots formerly zoned single family is not nearly as bold as critics claim. A study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley found that just 5.4 percent of single-family parcels would pencil out economically to make additional units feasible.

But as the Terner Center adds, “Single-family-only zoning is rooted in exclusion and unwinding this vestige of racial segregation is long overdue. The parcel subdivision provision of SB 9 has the potential to open up new financing options and wealth-building opportunities for low- and moderate-income homeowners.” That is a good thing.

Some readers will react angrily to this idea, as they have to earlier columns I’ve written on the topic. But you can’t claim to be concerned with the high cost of housing and the state’s growing homelessness crisis and oppose any and all policies that can make a difference.

Other more far-reaching housing bills did not make it to Newsom’s desk, but this one did and he was right to sign it. SB 10 signed by Newsom will make it easier and faster to build multi-unit housing near transit and in urban infill areas. The third piece of legislation, SB 8, limits the ability of local governments to downzone neighborhoods without increasing density elsewhere.

Density cannot be anathema for so much of our car- and suburb-loving state if we are to make a dent in the housing crisis. Intervention by the Legislature becomes essential when so many California cities lack the political will to really tackle the affordable housing crisis.

It’s a crisis that hurts countless California families and can stifle jobs creation and economic growth if we don’t act decisively and soon. Good for Newsom and the Legislature for stepping up and trying to make a difference.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at gdelsohn@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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