Sacramento’s misguided attacks on single-family housing

Susan Shelley
Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, "How Trump Won."

“Honest question,” a housing activist wrote to me on Twitter, “since you mention the ‘impacts to all’ of housing policy, what do you say to someone who wants to live in Pasadena but can’t afford $875K to live here (or $3K/month in rent)?”

The topic of discussion was Senate Bill 1120, a housing bill that was awaiting a vote in the Assembly while the clock ticked toward the constitutionally mandated deadline for the end of the legislative session on Aug. 31.

SB1120 was controversial. As the phones were ringing off the hook in lawmakers’ offices at the Capitol, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, an author of the bill, tweeted, “I’ve seen lots of drama over density bills. Never have I seen the bizarro reaction we’re seeing against SB 1120, which legalizes DUPLEXES. Yes, apocalyptic predictions over letting folks build TWO HOMES INSTEAD OF ONE.”

Here’s a tip for gamblers. The war on the suburbs will be won by the suburbs. Don’t bet against the house.

Let’s begin with the question from Pasadena. What do you say to someone who wants to live in Pasadena but can’t afford it?

The answer is: Someone who can’t afford Pasadena will have to live somewhere else, or earn enough money to live in Pasadena, or share the costs of living in Pasadena with roommates.

The answer isn’t: Everyone who wishes to live in a desirable place has a right to live there, and it is the job of the government to pass laws that do whatever is necessary to make it possible for everyone to live wherever they choose at whatever price they can afford to pay.

A wish is not a right.

Now let’s look at Sen. Wiener’s complaint that the opposition to his bill was “bizarro.”

SB1120 abolished single-family zoning in the state of California.

There, did you feel that?

Would you describe your reaction as “bizarro”?

Let me quickly tell you, before you reach for the nitroglycerin pills, that SB1120 did not pass. In a late-night drama, the Assembly stalled the vote until roughly 11:45 p.m. The bill fell three votes short, but the vote was held and they tried again at 11:57. The last few votes magically appeared and pushed SB1120 across the finish line — that is, in the Assembly.

However, it was too late for the bill to be voted on in the Senate, a last step needed for passage. At the stroke of midnight, the bill was dead.

Feel better? Don’t put away the nitroglycerin pills just yet; the proposal is virtually certain to return when the Legislature does.

Judging from their Twitter posts, bewildered and angry housing activists are having a hard time understanding why their dream of abolishing single-family zoning is never going to happen, not in the United States, not even in the “nation state” of California.

Many of these activists seem to base their views on a false premise that every homeowner is a wealthy, privileged, randomly lucky beneficiary of centuries of wrongful actions, as if every owner of a three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house is an heir to a fortune that was stolen from somebody else in an era when Columbus was not yet a statue.

The truth is that homeowners of all races and ethnicities have worked, saved, gone into debt and worked some more to afford to own a house. Homeowners pay taxes, lots of them, year after year. Homeowners bought homes in single-family neighborhoods because they didn’t want to live in highly dense communities where people have to drive around the block looking for parking spaces.

SB1120 would have created a right to build four residences for four separate households on any single-family lot in the state of California. Where there was one house, there could be two houses, and each house could have an accessory dwelling unit that could be rented out.

The bill would have prohibited cities from requiring off-street parking or imposing any approval process at all, even if the extra density would have a substantial impact on water, sewer and power infrastructure, trash pick-up, police and fire services or the need for new taxes.

Overnight, someone who bought a single-family home on any residential street in California could find the homes next door or across the street turning into construction sites and quadrupling in density.

That would take away what the homeowner worked and saved and went into debt to have: a home on a quiet street where people don’t have to live on top of each other and fight for parking spaces.

California needs more housing, but the answer isn’t to take away what people have worked all their lives to own. The answer is to tear down the fabricated “urban boundary” that prevents development of new communities in new areas.

We need what former Vice President Al Gore denounced as “sprawl.” California law has made “sprawl” virtually impossible by declaring “vehicle miles traveled” to be an environmental “impact.”

But quadrupling the density of every residential street in California is an “impact,” too. Sacramento wouldn’t do this to a spotted owl. Refusing to build more housing unless it’s on top of somebody else’s housing is a policy choice that California has made.

Frustrated housing activists want the state or federal government to use force against cities that won’t go along with increased density. Gov. Gavin Newsom has already sued Huntington Beach over housing decisions.

It would be a major mistake to believe this is a minor skirmish. Local control over zoning is one of those things that falls under the general heading of “the consent of the governed.” Anybody who thinks it’s no big deal is in for a surprise.

 

Originally published in the Orange County Register

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