California Cities Find Ways To Live With SB 9 – Pasadena Star News
In just three weeks, a new state law comes into effect that requires cities to allow homeowners to build duplexes and / or divided lots in single-family areas. The controversial SB 9 was one of 31 bills signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this fall to alleviate California’s growing affordable housing crisis.
Cities vehemently resisted the passage of SB 9, calling it a further intrusion into local control over land use. State lawmakers have argued that restrictive zoning has fueled the alarming rise in homelessness, skyrocketing rents and house prices that are excluding young families from the American Dream.
What happens on January 1st? Some cities say they will sue – on dubious legal grounds. A proposed initiative funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation aims to reaffirm local control. A handful of cities are threatening to enact local laws to thwart the implementation of SB 9.
However, given the housing crisis, there appears to be a majority on the public side with the State on local town halls. A LA Business Council Institute / LA Times poll released last week showed that 55% of voters support the new law, only 27% oppose it, and 18% are undecided or don’t know enough to have an opinion. A poll isn’t definitive, but lopsided feelings indicate cities may be out of step with their own residents.
Part of the explanation is that wealthy (often retired) homeowners are the loudest voters to elected officials, who often come from that same aging population. Baby boomers who benefit from the tax breaks in Proposition 13 exert a disproportionate influence on local government and see themselves as the besieged bedrock of a stable “community character”. Many insist that their quarters remain unchanged. Young voters who have not reaped the benefits of rising property values have a different perspective. The best they can hope for from the status quo is to hang on because rents are rising faster than incomes. This growing constituency has a vested interest in change.
A similar hysteria swept through local governments and homeowners associations when the state forced cities to allow “accessory housing units”. Called ADU in government parlance, these smaller rear units were once called grandma’s apartments or rear cottages. Along with duplexes and garden apartments, these dwellings were once common in residential areas across California until rigid zoning rules prohibited them. Under recent legislation, cities must now allow them in single-family areas. Ironically, as cities scramble to plan their share of new housing, many local governments are now claiming that an increase in ADU construction will ease the pressure for higher density development.
State legislation cannot substitute for responsible planning at the local level. Pasadena recently took the smart step of adopting “objective standards” for the implementation of emergency SB 9 in order to be ready to accept nominations as soon as Town Hall reopens after the Rose Parade. The mayor and city council have wisely chosen to remove the state’s inflammatory criticism of the law to make it clear that they will respect it despite their previous opposition. The new standards comply with SB 9 and add protections for yards and trees.
Reasonable people may disagree on how best to resolve the California housing crisis. What is beyond debate, however, is that something must be done. SB 9 is far from perfect, and on its own, far from a solution. Yet it offers a promising opportunity for people with modest means to live in increasingly expensive neighborhoods, and for homeowners to offset the high costs of their mortgages.
Instead of standing in the doorway to thwart the law, level-headed local officials will be making New Year’s resolutions to open the door to housing opportunities.
Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and served as city manager of Azusa, Ventura, and Santa Monica. [email protected]