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Showdown shapes up in California over growing housing crisis

New laws to allow more construction face strong opposition from cities and counties that stand to lose power over local zoning.
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LOS ANGELES — Immediate relief from California’s affordable housing crisis may not come next year even though a series of new laws is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, advocates and experts warn.

Efforts are already underway to undercut legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Opponents say the housing laws strip cities and counties of control over zoning and do not ensure that new units will be affordable.

“We absolutely need to advocate for affordable housing,” said John Heath, a proponent of Our Neighborhood Voices, a proposed constitutional amendment that would undo several of the newly signed housing bills. “This is nothing but a blank check being handed to developers.”

But the alternative, say those who support the new laws, is to maintain the status quo that for generations has allowed cities to create their own housing plans, often favoring single-family residences that contribute to the shortage.

The debate illustrates how entrenched the problem is and why it has been so difficult to fix. While the new laws do not mandate building more homes that low- and middle-income earners can afford, simply increasing the housing stock will help ease the pressure, experts said.

“It took a long time for us to get into this hole, and it’s going to take a long time to get out,” said Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA. “It’s going to take some time to see so much construction that rents are going to fall.”

An onslaught of new bills

Fresh from a decisive recall victory in September, Newsom signed more than two dozen bills to alleviate the worsening crisis, which has driven median home prices above $800,000 in many parts of the state.

Among the most controversial is Senate Bill 9, which will allow property owners to build more than one unit on lots previously reserved for single-family homes.

They will be limited to four units on every property, and cities and counties will have to approve their proposals that meet specified standards. The law does not mandate that the additional units be considered affordable.

“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said in a statement in September.

Less than two months after he signed the bill into law, the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative was born. 

Our Neighborhood Voices

The proposed measure, sponsored by a bipartisan group of Southern California mayors and neighborhood associations, would give cities and counties the power to override state law and prevent the Legislature and local government from passing laws that invalidate zoning initiatives approved by voters. 

Proponents are gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

“What’s being proposed now is really going to [contribute to] gentrification and the complete destruction of the American Dream for a lot of people of color, like me and my family,” said Heath, who lives in a predominantly Black area of South Los Angeles. 

“You’ve got a lot of people trying to buy homes right now that are competing with all-cash institutional investors, Wall Street, foreign investors, big tech,” he said. “The only way you get affordable housing done is you have to dedicate it, you have to restrict it, and you have to subsidize it.”

The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California said in a recent report that the state's population grew by more than three times the number of housing units that were built over the last decade. California would need at least 3.5 million new homes by 2025 to meet current demand.

An analysis of Senate Bill 9 in July by the University of California, Berkeley, found that the law would allow about 700,000 units to be built in existing neighborhoods but that when limits are taken into account, such as excluding highly fire-prone and non-urban areas, the number falls to about 110,000.

“The reality is that if you don’t make $150,000 a year, the state does not provide housing for you,” said Matthew Lewis, the director of communications for California YIMBY, a nonprofit housing advocacy group that supported Senate Bill 9. “The problem is so vast and it’s been brewing for so long that there is no one or two or five bills that will get us a complete solution.”

Faceoff at the polls

Recent polls show growing support for both Senate Bill 9 and the initiative to undo it, hinting at a probable showdown during next year’s local election cycle. 

A majority of voters in Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, support Senate Bill 9 and a companion law that will pave the way for increased housing density along job and transportation corridors, according to a poll by the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Council Institute.

In a separate poll by the market and research firm Probolsky Research, nearly 65 percent of respondents said they support returning land-use decisions to localities.

“Voters strongly oppose the new state laws that strip our ability to speak out about what is happening literally right next door to our homes,” Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand said in a statement.

Lewis, of California YIMBY, said a pattern has emerged pitting Southern California against the rest of the state since Newsom signed the housing bills into law.

“The worst actors in housing are all over the circuit talking about how this is going to be the end of our neighborhoods and bring in slums,” he said, adding that officials are likely to add amendments to the laws if cities attempt workarounds.

"Lawmakers don’t want to force cities to do anything," he said. "But if enough cities are going to balk, it sends a clear message to the state.”