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Will California End Exclusionary Zoning?

As Californians focus on the Newsom recall, COVID, and wildfires, the state’s worst in the nation housing crisis persists. Yet one of the two big remaining bills to boost housing production—SB9 — faces strong opposition in the California Assembly (SB 10 passed the Assembly yesterday by one vote, 41-9. It appears headed for passage).

Why is a heavily blue state delaying ending racist and elitist exclusionary zoning laws? SB 9 merely allow duplexes to be built in single-family zoned districts SB 10 helps local governments rezone neighborhoods for up to ten units—but the bill still requires cities to act.

Here’s what’s really going on.

Doubling Down on Failed Policies

After Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all publicly condemned exclusionary single-family zoning, a “progressive consensus” on the policy appeared to exist. But the fanatical opposition to even allowing duplexes in California neighborhoods says otherwise.

Technically, SB 9 allows four units on a lot since two can be ADU’s. But whereas cities and other states are moving to legalize fourplexes and sixplexes, California Democrats, including progressives, are split over ending monoplex domination of urban neighborhoods.

I explain in Generation Priced Out why this split exists: the political power of primarily boomer homeowners causes local politicians to back land use policies that worsen economic and racial inequality. I show in over a dozen “blue” cities how those embracing this regressive agenda are overwhelmingly Democrats.

Democrats claim SB9 does nothing to provide affordable housing. But neither does exclusionary zoning. In fact, such zoning restrictions have caused housing prices to skyrocket in these neighborhoods. The per unit sales price in a duplex is much less than the cost of a single-family home, increasing neighborhood affordability. And those opposing SB 9 for not requiring “affordability” completely ignore the complete lack of any affordability associated with single-family zoning.

SB10 passed the Assembly, a very good sign. The bill still requires local action to implement any zoning reforms.

Stopping new apartments in homeowner neighborhoods is a very profitable business—for current homeowners. That’s why they must conceal their own profiteering by claiming that ending exclusionary zoning is a “giveaway” to luxury developers. And why opponents of SB 9 claim that it will promote “gentrification” even in neighborhoods where no home sells for under $1million.

A recent report from the Terner Center found that passage of SB9 would open only 5.4% of the currently single family home zoned parcels to duplexes. But opponents are treating the bill like its SB50 all over again.

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It’s smart. If you want to stop fourplexes or larger apartments in your neighborhood, kill duplex legislation. Or raise such a ruckus over duplexes that politicians will not go further.

The Los Angeles Problem

Los Angeles is the epicenter of homeowner support for single-family zoning. Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted nearly unanimously to oppose both SB9 and SB10.

Have you seen single family home prices in Los Angeles? Few are “affordable.” None meet the affordability levels that SB9 and SB10 opponents require for new market rate housing.

Los Angeles has long car commutes, terrible housing affordability and the nation’s largest homeless population. But as I describe in my book, Los Angeles’ powerful homeowner voting bloc puts its interests ahead of those needing more affordable homes. For all its concern about homelessness, Los Angeles bans new apartments on most of its buildable land.

randy shaw

But LA assembly members wavering on SB 9 have an out: new RHNA guidelines require Los Angeles to build 300,000 more homes. That’s a lot more new housing. The city will have a difficult time meeting those production targets without ending exclusionary zoning. As Anthony Dedousis of Abundant Housing LA puts it “It’s theoretically possible to encourage the production of 300,000 more homes by massively rezoning commercial and multifamily residential parcels only. But by failing to legalize apartments on single-family zoned parcels, the City is taking over 75% of all residential parcels off the board. That makes it much, much harder for LA to achieve its RHNA target.”

San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland’s state delegation backs SB9 and SB10 and San Francisco Senator Scott Wiener is the chief sponsor of the latter. But LA legislators are the deciders on state land use measures. Their unified opposition to Wiener’s SB50 killed that far more transformative bill. Now their votes will determine SB9 ‘s fate.

Reason for Optimism

SB9 is Senate leader Toni Atkins’ top priority. Democratic Assemblymembers would be making a direct slap in the face to her if they vote down the bill. That doesn’t ensure sure thing, but it gives it a better chance.

SB10 passed the Assembly yesterday, a very good sign. The bill still requires local action to implement any zoning reforms, but means that cities moving in that direction—like Berkeley and Culver City—can save a lot of time and money. Kudos to the tireless Scott Wiener for never giving up on trying to fix the state’s acute housing shortage.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

The arc of justice is moving to end exclusionary zoning. Yes, the process is far too slow, particularly with worsening climate change. California will either send a message of hope and change by passing SB 9 or announce to the nation that even the bluest of states supports racist and elitist exclusionary zoning.

I’m betting on the former.

Randy Shaw

Beyond Chron