By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – In our cynical times, it is easy to forget that the legislative session just ended last Saturday. Had Governor Newsom signed a package of legislation before the election, it would have had to have been Monday or Tuesday and probably would not have impacted the outcome one iota.
It is not like the voters did not know that the governor was prioritizing housing—and so it is not surprising that, once the dust settled, the housing packages were among the first bills he signed.
While I am supportive of both SB 9 and SB 10, I am not a believer that these are going to be game changers. One of our readers suggested that SB 9 and SB 10’s signage means that we can forget the need for peripheral housing—while I actually would prefer that to be true, I don’t think it is.
Both measures are, in fact, supposed to make it easier to go dense, to go high without sprawl. We have seen extensive analysis of the impact of SB 9, but let’s look closely at SB 10.
Authored by Senator Scott Wiener, “SB 10 creates a streamlined process for cities to zone for missing middle multi-unit housing in a streamlined manner, without having to go through often-years-long environmental reviews.”
“California’s severe housing shortage is badly damaging our state, and we need many approaches to tackle it. SB 10 provides one important approach: making it dramatically easier and faster for cities to zone for more housing,” Senator Wiener said in a statement on Thursday. “It shouldn’t take 5 or 10 years for cities to re-zone, and SB 10 gives cities a powerful new tool to get the job done quickly. I want to thank the Governor for signing this essential bill and for continuing to lead on housing.”
SB 10 allows cities to “upzone non-sprawl areas” (areas that are close to transit or in existing urbanized locations, thus reducing vehicle usage and long commutes) for up to ten unit buildings, without having to go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Cities will also be able to designate these projects as by right, meaning they can be approved ministerially and without a lengthy approval process. By allowing cities to choose to zone for up to 10 units per parcel, SB 10 makes it possible for cities to build significantly more housing in a way that makes sense within their local context.
While SB 9 has attracted a lot of controversy, SB 10 has attracted considerably less contention—in part because it allows but does not require cities to zone parcels for up to 10 units if located in a “transit-rich area.”
SB 9 was studied primarily by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, which argued that, while the bill could allow owners to expand to duplexes and fourplexes, under most cases the cost of new housing plus the profit selling or renting the property (and there are owner occupancy requirements) would not be financially viable.
“But despite the concerns of some of its detractors, SB 9 will not lead to the overnight transformation of residential neighborhoods,” the report said. “Differential owner preferences and limited applicability means that only a share of that potential is likely to be developed, particularly in the near term as awareness and capacity expands.
“As such, while important, the new units unlocked by SB 9 would represent a fraction of the overall supply needed to fully address the state’s housing shortage.”
Opponents clearly saw SB 9 as a bigger threat than SB 10.
Cindy Montañez, current San Fernando City Councilmember and former Assemblymember said, “Only after stepping back does it become clear that SB 9 is not primarily written for homeowners, as Atkins says. Large investors, yes. Blackrock-like entities, yes. Rental giants, yes. Pension funds, yes.”
How much of a difference will it make in a place like Davis where infill opportunities are dwindling and peripheral projects require approval by the voters—which has only occurred twice in six projects?
From the perspective of housing advocates, looking for a way to get more housing without inducing more sprawl, I see little hope that either bill will help.
The biggest problem is not necessarily just regulation—though we have seen in Davis how much it can bottle up processes, the bigger problem appears to be construction costs. In a place like Davis where we will probably be only talking about redevelopment—particularly in the downtown—it is going to be a slow and painful process, and the only way we get projects is when they are big enough to overcome the constraints of construction costs.
I double back to what I said last month—we need a mechanism to finance both affordable housing and redevelopment, and that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Without that, we may have tools presented by these bills without actual material with which to work.