FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 2023,
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
Immediately after state legislators passed the landmark SB 9 and 10 in 2021, taking most local land-use decisions away from city councils and county supervisors, resentful local officials vowed to run a referendum campaign and kill those new laws.
The two measures essentially eliminated R-1 single family zoning everywhere in California, allowing up to six housing units on lots formerly limited to one and making approval automatic for high rise residential buildings on all streets reasonably close to mass transit.
That meant easy permitting, for example, for buildings up to five stories on any street where officials suddenly open a new bus line. It was not limited to areas in walking distance of rail or subway stops.
But the referendum mounted by dozens of local officials never got off the ground that year, partly because the coronavirus pandemic drove the cost of gathering initiative petition signatures to unprecedented heights – as much as $16 per signature in some parts of the San Francisco Bay area.
So the promised anti-density referendum never made the 2022 state ballot and the landmark laws remain on the books. Neither has produced much action as yet, in large part because no one has demonstrated that the authorized new housing would be profitable. There’s also a shortage of construction workers.
By contrast, a previous law allowing “ADUs” – additional dwelling units often called “granny flats” – on virtually all onetime R-1 properties has produced major results. It is hard to find a significant home remodel or rebuild in this state that does not include one. Some cities are making ADUs major policy instruments in efforts to satisfy state housing density requirements.
No one knows whether most of these are occupied by renters or family members of the property owners. But some longtime property owners are downsizing into new ADUs, allowing their adult children and families to move into their properties’ main houses.
Into this picture now step some of the same folks who vowed in 2021 that they’d repeal SB 9 and 10.
They hope to circulate petitions for a new initiative aimed not only at those two laws, but the other housing density requirements now being imposed around California via a spate of new laws passed by pro-density legislators led by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who has spearheaded this movement for most of the last decade. Wiener claims only massive new construction can solve the state’s housing shortage, variously estimated at anywhere from 1 million to 3.5 million dwelling units by state authorities over the last five years.
That, of course, ignored the vast store of vacated office buildings, mini-malls and big box stores created by the pandemic. It’s much cheaper and faster to convert them to housing than building new units while fighting off lawsuits and ever-inflating costs for materials, land and labor. Held up by labor unions and legislators until recently, conversions are now taking off.
The putative new initiative would likely not interfere with those changes, because they cause little variation in building footprints and won’t alter neighborhoods.
But it could stymie more attempts by the state to take over land use decisions long the purview of local governments and local ballot measures.
“We’d like to fix the ambiguities some people saw in our previous proposed initiative” said Anita Enander, a city councilwoman and former mayor of Los Altos Hills, near San Jose. “Our new effort should be more generally supportable. It would simply say that when state law and local land use laws conflict, the local ones will prevail. A lot of people don’t want extreme dense housing. They just want to live in their own homes.”
Added Dennis Richards, a former longtime member of the San Francisco planning commission, “Taking this field away from local government is a way of wiping out democracy. People like Wiener are saying it does not matter what local residents think about their own cities, or how they’ve voted.”
Historically, local control has usually won out over centralized planning when Californians have voted on it. Sponsors of the hoped-for measure say polling indicates 60 percent to 65 percent approval.
Even if it’s not actually that high, don’t bet against this effort once it gets going.