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SB-9 Bill Raises Controversy in California

A bill that allows more houses to be built in each lot faces opposition in midst of a housing shortage in California

SACRAMENTO – For decades, California has battled a housing shortage. COVID-19 made matters worse, driving up real estate market prices to a historic high, increasing the struggle to cope with rent for both tenants and landlords, and escalating homelessness to exceptional numbers.

Efforts to mitigate the housing crisis include a set of bills expected to pass in the Senate in 2021. One of them is SB 9, which makes it possible for homeowners to put a duplex in their single-family lots or split them without requiring a hearing or approval from the local government. The bill created by Senator Toni G. Atkins allows for up to eight units in a single-family home.

The bill faces controversy. For one side, supporters see in it a relief for the housing shortage in the State. The opposition says it won’t solve the problem.

“The reality is that for so many years California has made it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to build the housing we need in our cities, close to jobs, close to transportation, close to daycare and schools and grocery stores and all the things that people need to live their lives,” said Matthew Lewis, director of communications of California Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY), an organization that supports SB 9 and other reforms related to low-income housing. “The housing crisis in California is substantial. We need millions of new homes. […] SB 9 is one piece of the solution to that it will allow us to build a lot.”

The bill would make it legal to build houses that are actually two to four apartments, like the old Victorian houses in the streets of Old Town, Sacramento. What happened, Lewis said, was that in the 1970s and early 1980s most cities in California made it illegal to build those kinds of homes, duplexes, and triplexes. Some of the reasons were related to systemic racism some just about people not wanting neighbors near them. Under SB 9, those homes would be legal again.

That could give housing options to more Californians. With the median home prices in California reaching an all-time high of $758,990 in March, people with middle-income salaries of $60,000 or $70,000 a year are now considered “low income.”

“When people who are making $50,000 a year can't afford a place to live, that's a very serious problem because that's a good salary. It should be a good salary!” said Lewis.

The high demand for houses is making it extremely difficult to find a house. Those who can afford will pay more than the asking price to win bidding wars. For those who can’t, the solution is to wait and save money.

Opposition to the bill says that the housing problem in California is affordability and building more homes will create the opposite effect.

“[The bill] is just going to increase the price of every single-family home in California, which already have explosively high prices right now,” said T. Keith Gurnee, from San Luis Obispo. “If you take a single-family home and you can build up to four to six units on that property, it just increased the value of their property considerably.”

Gurnee is a planning and urban design consultant for over 40 years, and a member of the board of Livable California, one of the organizations opposing the bill. They work closely on the housing matter since 2017, calling into assembly and committee hearings and writing letters to politicians. Gurnee says that the people who will be hurt the most by the bill, if passed, are the minorities, who already have the lowest rates in homeownership.

“The most vulnerable communities are communities of color, particularly in Southern California,” he said. “Single-family neighborhoods that are largely Black and Latino, and anybody who's home is within a half-mile of a transit stop can build all these units without providing any parking lots.”

The lack of parking lots requirement is just one of the issues. In a document listing nine reasons why Livable California opposes the bill, it says the bill doesn’t address the real crisis of housing, which is affordability. Instead, it will increase the already exorbitant high prices of single-family homes in California, placing them “out-of-reach for first-time homebuyers.” Besides turning family neighborhoods “into a permanent construction zone” the bill also will make neighborhoods of color targets for real estate speculators to turn them into high-density rentals. They also argue that there will be not necessary infrastructure, like water sewer and storm drainage, to serve high-density housing.

According to Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, who introduced the bill, no more than four units will be allowed on a single-family lot, and the bill has specifications that protect neighborhoods from profiteers. Also, the bill excludes historic districts and environmentally sensitive areas.

“SB 9 […] provides options for homeowners to create intergenerational wealth and provides access to more rental and ownership options for families who would otherwise be priced out of neighborhoods,” she said over email. “Not everyone will choose to turn their home into a duplex […]. This is simply a way to help provide options for homeowners, and increase access for more families to have a beautiful place to call home.”

According to California YIMBY, the legislators know that there's no one bill that will solve all of the problems at once. The goal is to build homes for the people with median incomes, who currently cannot afford one.

“We have a huge homelessness crisis. We have a huge gap in housing for low-income people, but most Californians are in the middle,” he said. “Nobody's building housing for them.”

While Livable California says affordability is the main issue in California and SB 9 won’t solve that problem, California YIMBY believes that solving the shortage comes first.

“The question about affordability is really about, are you going to actually end the shortage?” said Lewis. “Because we need to build a lot of homes to end the shortage. It got to be every type of housing that you can think of. We've got to figure out how to make it all possible because we're really, really far behind.”

The bill was introduced in the Senate in December 2020 and is currently on the committee.

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