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Editorial: Shame on SoCal leaders for backing a ballot measure to roll back housing fixes

A man reviews construction plans for a dwelling
An accessory dwelling unit is seen under construction in Santa Rosa, in 2019. The Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative is an attempt to dismantle SB 9 and other state housing laws.
(Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Recognizing California’s desperate need for housing, the Legislature passed two important laws last year. The more controversial, Senate Bill 9, lets property owners construct duplexes, and in some cases four units, in most single-family-home neighborhoods.

For many politicians and homeowners, the measure amounted to a defiling of the vaunted single-family neighborhood. And before the ink was dry on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature on SB 9, opponents were determined to find a way to get rid of it.

The Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative is their attempt to dismantle SB 9 and other state housing laws. The proposed ballot measure says that any city or county land-use or zoning law overrides all conflicting state laws (except in certain circumstances such as when land is governed by the Coastal Act.) The initiative would allow cities to ignore state laws that made it easier for homeowners build granny flats on their properties and let developers build bigger projects if they include affordable housing. The initiative could also jeopardize state requirements that cities plan for enough market-rate and affordable housing to meet population demand. Backers want to put the initiative on the November ballot but first have to collect the signatures of nearly a million registered voters.

A recent L.A. Times poll shows voters support controversial new laws to create more housing in single-family neighborhoods.

It will be months before signatures are turned in and the state determines whether the measure qualifies for the ballot, but that didn’t stop the Regional Council of the Southern California Assn. of Governments — known by the unappealing acronym, SCAG — from voting this month by 32 to 12 (with 3 members abstaining) to support the initiative.

That is downright shameful. This regional group, which represents 191 cities and six counties (Los Angeles among them, of course), touts its goals as “innovative regional solutions” and commits to taking “deliberate, bold and purposeful risks.”

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Nothing could be less bold and risky and innovative than defending the status quo. Cities have had decades to come up with plans to build enough housing, particularly affordable housing, to meet population demand. Few have. If they had, we wouldn’t need state laws to encourage new home construction or override local laws that stymie construction.

California will never build enough housing as a long cities hold single-family neighborhoods sacrosanct and use local control to maintain the status quo.

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, one of the creators of the initiative, said he had been working on the ballot measure for four years and that it was not a “knee-jerk reaction” to SB 9 but was instead a reaction to the bad housing legislation coming out of Sacramento over the years “that does nothing for affordable housing,” he contends.

But the state laws were a reaction to the utter failure of cities and counties to support more housing in their communities, which has created a shortage that has driven up rents and home prices to record highs.

“Fundamentally we as the rulers, the supreme authorities over land use, have not allowed housing to be built,” Alex Fisch, a SCAG member and city councilman from Culver City, said, chastising his fellow elected leaders. “We make it more expensive with parking minimums and with delays ... and making people wait for four years as they go through community meetings. “

The state housing bills passed in recent years have been aimed at easing local restrictions that make it harder, if not impossible, to build. SB 9 offers a way to create more housing in single-family neighborhoods. About three quarters of the residential land in the state is zoned for single-family homes only. How can we ever create enough housing for all people, at various income levels, when so much of it is set aside only for single-family homes?

Opponents of SB 9 say that subdividing lots in single-family neighborhoods won’t create affordable housing. But it doesn’t have to. It just needs to create more housing.

Meanwhile, we do need dedicated affordable housing for low-income households. To all the city and county representatives who said at that SCAG meeting that they’re building affordable housing: good for you! Keep going. There is nothing in SB 9 or any of the other state housing bills that prevents a municipality from also creating affordable housing.

But the voter initiative could hinder the production and preservation of affordable housing. The measure would allow cities and counties to pass or block whatever housing laws they want. The initiative could override Assembly Bill 1482, the law that limits how much landlords can increase rents and requires they show “just cause” — such as a failure to pay rent or a lease violation — before they evict a tenant. Overturning that law would jeopardize hard-fought protections that give vulnerable renters stability and security.

There is nothing about the initiative that encourages housing of any kind. It’s about returning local control to cities and counties so that they can once again block much-needed housing. That’s bad. And SCAG should not have supported it.


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