DECEMBER 17, 2023

A view of San Francisco on July 12, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

The ongoing conflict between state officials in California and local governments over housing resembles a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Whac-A-Mole is an amusement arcade game, invented in Japan nearly a half-century ago, whose players try to hit moles as they pop up from their holes, but if they hit one another immediately pops up.

It’s become a cultural icon and, as Wikipedia notes, “is often used colloquially to a situation characterized by a series of futile, Sisyphean tasks, where the successful completion of one just yields another popping up elsewhere.”

For years, California’s state government has been playing whac-a-mole to persuade – or compel – local officials to become more receptive to housing development needed to close an immense gap between supply and demand that drives up living costs and contributes to the state’s very high poverty and homelessness rates.

The game has become especially intense during Gavin Newsom’s governorship. His housing agency, sometimes in league with the attorney general’s office, has been forcing cities to rezone land to meet quotas and eliminate impediments to development, such as overly prescriptive design criteria.

The Legislature has contributed to the effort by passing dozens of new carrot-and-stick laws that give state officials more power to counteract the often stubborn reluctance of local officials to comply with mandates.

As the state cracks down, local officials who oppose new housing that they see as disrupting the ambiance of their communities conjure up new strategies to minimize compliance. Hence, it’s a game of political and legal whac-a-mole.

  Three recent events illustrate the syndrome.

One occurred in San Francisco, the city that Newsom once governed as mayor. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for making housing developers go through bureaucratic and political hoops that can take years to navigate, add millions of dollars to costs and often make projects untenable.

The city has a quota of developing 82,000 new housing units over eight years, more than half of which are to be “affordable” to low- and moderate-income families. However the city’s Board of Supervisors had rebuffed Mayor London Breed’s efforts to overhaul housing regulation.

The state ramped up pressure, threatening to strip the city of control over housing permits, finally forcing the board to act. Last week the state gave its blessing to the overhaul.

As state officials were whacking one mole in San Francisco, another popped up a few miles to the south in San Mateo. The San Mateo Heritage Alliance applied to the state Office of Historic Preservation to designate Baywood, a San Mateo neighborhood of upscale single-family homes, as an historic district.

It was the latest effort by local neighborhoods around the state to take advantage of a loophole in Senate Bill 9, one of the many new laws aimed at compelling cities to accept multi-family housing projects. The legislation, signed in 2021, in essence outlaws exclusive single-family zoning, but doesn’t apply to neighborhoods designated as historic.

Attorney General Rob Bonta has interceded when some historic designation petitions were obvious attempts to block new housing, but it remains a new front in the ongoing conflict between state and local officials.

Nearly 400 miles further south, Bonta and the Newsom administration are trying to whack another mole in La Cañada Flintridge, a bucolic suburb of Los Angeles which has stubbornly resisted state pressure to build more housing.

Last week, Bonta sued the city, seeking to reverse its denial of an 80-unit affordable housing project and also declare the city to be out of compliance with state housing laws, thus subjecting it to the “builder’s remedy,” meaning it would lose virtually all authority over housing projects.

The “builder’s remedy” is, in effect, the state’s most powerful hammer with which to whack resistant municipal moles.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times… More by Dan Walters