If not for deadly wildfires blackening some of California’s most beloved landscapes and a novel coronavirus coursing through our communities, the state’s top existential challenge would be housing. Specifically, how to build more of it.
So, it’s a little hard to understand why cities, including Pacifica, are sending letters in opposition to Senate Bill 9, which seeks to add a bit of affordability to our overpriced suburbs.
A little background: One in three California families spend half their income on housing. That is an astounding percentage that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Two-thirds of residential land in California is forever locked into single-family zoning restrictions. Around here, that means multimillion-dollar homes that require 20 percent down payment before move in. Forget hourly wage-earners, we’ve reached the point that even doctors and lawyers are priced out of the real estate market. It is estimated that California needs to add more than 2 million housing units in order to make a dent and send prices downward out of the clouds.
Senate Bill 9, which passed through Assembly by a vote of 44-16 on Thursday, would allow a landowner to build a duplex or subdivide her property into two lots and build a maximum of four housing units on the land. In other words, at most, you could have four families living on land that now supports one.
Would it transform your single-family neighborhood? Not likely. The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that about 1.5 percent of single-family lots could conceivably convert to greater density allowed under the bill. That’s because development costs would overwhelm the rents landowners could expect from the change.
So, Senate Bill 9 in and of itself will not make much of a dent in the housing crisis. And its passage last week does not mean it’s a done deal. It’s been returned to the Senate for amendments and still needs the governor’s signature.
The city of Pacifica says it needs more changes … nine of them, in fact. The city outlines its requests in a letter signed by Mayor Sue Beckmeyer and sent to Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. The nine bullet points in the letter — actually most of the letter itself — is a cut-and-paste job from a California League of Cities sample letter that essentially takes issue with taking the decision-making out of local hands. Of course, these are the same local hands that have cradled our current system that perpetuates racial and economic segregation and got us to this point to begin with. Local elected officials will do everything they can to protect single-family zoning because that is where their voters and donors live.
The bill’s authors have been open to amendments like those Pacifica’s leaders say they want. For instance, it was changed to require owners to live in one of the units for three years after a lot split in a provision designed to preclude speculative developers from swooping in and changing entire neighborhoods. It has also been changed so that it wouldn’t apply in certain historic or high-fire danger areas.
If California is to continue to be a land of promise, a melting pot and economic engine that stands as an example for other states, we simply must stop building homes the way we did in 1950. That means our city leaders are going to have to trade control for affordability.
— Clay Lambert