By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – If you want to understand why we remain in a severe housing crisis in California, look no further than a CalMatters article from earlier in the week, which reported that while SB 9 has meant very little in terms of housing production, it has spawned a lot of resistance from cities across the state.
The article reports that cities “have pushed back against the state with ordinances that would severely curb what property owners can build.” The Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) told the publication that “it has received complaints about 29 such cities” and plans to investigate. “If it determines cities are indeed defying state housing laws, the department will send letters that offer technical assistance, and request a plan to fix those issues within 30 days.”
Stop or I’ll say stop again?
According to David Zisser, who leads the newly-created Housing Accountability Unit, they hope they won’t have to issues letters to all the cities.
“By the time we send out a few letters, my hope is that jurisdictions will start to see themselves in those letters and start to make corrections to their own ordinances,” he told CalMatters.
If they fail to respond at that point, the AG’s office would step in. They have done so with Pasadena and Woodside so far. Bonta told Pasadena last month they could face a lawsuit if they didn’t reverse course. In a response letter, the city’s mayor said they are in full compliance with the law, CalMatters reports.
But here’s the rub: “The state housing department doesn’t have authority to enforce the duplex law, according to Zisser, which is why the cities on their list will be investigated for defying the 16 housing statutes under their purview, one of which limits a city’s ability to restrict the development of new housing.”
This is exactly the problem—if the only recourse is taking them to court, they can drag this issue out for years, waiting for the political tide to change.
One example the article listed was Temple City—an LA suburb of 36,000 with a median home value nearing $1 million.
That city created a new law in December—just before the new state law took effect “with a list of more than 30 development and design standards property owners must meet in order to develop new homes under the state’s new duplex-friendly law.”
“What we’re trying to do here is to mitigate the impact of what we believe is a ridiculous state law,” said councilmember Tom Chavez during a Dec. 21 city council meeting.
Another councilmember, William Man, said that traditional single-family zoning “is what has always attracted people to Temple City.
“SB 9, at least in principle, is dismantling that before our eyes,” he said.
According to the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund the count of cities with restrictive ordinances is far higher—about 55 cities.
“It’s pretty clear the intent is to limit the use of SB 9 as much as possible,” said the group’s executive director Dylan Casey.
“With few exceptions, these are mostly the very expensive, very high- income suburbs that are rushing to prevent implementation of SB 9,” Casey said.
The result though is clear—“While the duplex law was a nail-biter in the Legislature, and continues to incite resistance among cities, it has barely made a dent in housing production. Planners in Bay Area cities haven’t heard a peep from property owners looking to split their parcels or build a duplex.”
Senator Scott Wiener noted “the law has only been in effect for 90 days, and resistance from cities is just a feature of housing legislation in the state.
“It’s not surprising at all that there will be resistance and cities will try to find loopholes,” he said. “We just need to enforce the law, and we now have the attorney general and (the housing department) willing to do that, plus private litigants who will sue if need be. And if it turns out that there are loopholes that need to be closed, we can do that.”
In addition, cities are using legal challenges as well.
As reported previously, “A group of four LA County cities, led by wealthy Redondo Beach, filed a lawsuit March 29 in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the attorney general’s office, claiming the state ‘eviscerated’ cities’ land use control.”
In response, Bonta said, “We look forward to defending this important law in court and we will not be deterred from our ongoing efforts to enforce SB 9 and other state housing laws.”
But here’s the thing—the opposition is running the clock here. Right now, they know that there is strong support for finding ways to address the housing crisis. Governor Newsom and AG Bonta have both made this a priority. But at some point the winds will calm, and the issue will recede.
In the meantime, I can’t help wondering if we spent as much time trying to address the housing crisis at the local level as some communities have spent trying to fight new state regulations, we might not have this problem to begin with.