Immediately after winning a recall election, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that would effectively turn suburbs into cities by forcing towns to allow lots to be subdivided so that lawns were as small as four feet.
It is a move widely detested by suburban voters; last month, The New York Times said lawmakers feared “angering suburban voters, whose preferences for single-family home living have been regarded as politically sacrosanct.”
The Times said SB 9 “was furiously opposed by homeowners and local government groups who said it ‘crushes single-family zoning’ and would be ‘the beginning of the end of homeownership in California.'”
But Newsom’s office said the move was supported by the Biden administration, raising the prospect of the Californication of America, with similar laws at the national level during Biden’s term.
“The Governor today signed California State Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins’ SB 9, the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act, which the White House this month commended to increase housing supply,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
Biden’s campaign housing plan says he wants to make a bill with the same name and similar effect, Sen. Cory Booker’s HOME Act, national law. That bill would withhold federal transportation dollars from any town or county that requires minimum lot sizes or doesn’t permit apartments to be built amidst single-family homes.
Every town in America would then start looking more like cities, full of condos and apartments rather than spacious single-family homes — even as the stated reasons for the move are falling apart.
Newsom said in a statement that the bill “will help address the interrelated problems of climate change and housing affordability by promoting denser housing closer to major employment hubs – a critical element in limiting California’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has led to many white-collar employees working from home, negatively impacting the environmental argument that dense housing reduces commuting.
The reason single-family house neighborhoods exist in the first place is because most Americans, including those who are white, black, and Hispanic, want to live that way.
A new poll from the Pew Research Center found that “six-in-ten U.S. adults say they would prefer to live in a community with larger homes with greater distances to retail stores and schools (up 7 percentage points since 2019), while 39% say they prefer a community with smaller houses that are closer together with schools, stores and restaurants within walking distance (down 8 points since 2019).”
Americans’ preference for living in the opposite way that the Democratic proposals require is so strong that the Wall Street Journal recently reported that “sleepy southeastern towns” are turning into “booming exurbs” as people flee cities for more space, not less.
Under California’s new law, towns cannot require homes to have a driveway that can fit more than one car, a policy designed to push people to use mass transit — though it is unclear how the typical American with children could do common activities, like taking a trip to Costco with their kids, using mass transit.
California’s bill was also marketed as addressing homelessness and housing affordability. But an official from Minneapolis, which was among the first to abolish single-family zoning, recently wrote to Californians saying that it hasn’t worked there, but instead simply set off a boon for real estate developers.
Prior to the election, Newsom refused to say whether he would sign or veto the laws — giving him an advantage with suburban voters who may find that the new law significantly changes the quiet neighborhoods they chose. With voters rubber-stamping Newsom’s control in the September 14 recall election, that sanctity is now apparently less important in California.
But the same cannot be said about Democrats’ and Biden’s prospects nationwide, where the party cannot win without the support of suburban voters — as well as minorities who fear that increased density amounts to gentrifying their neighborhoods to enrich developers.
California’s SB 9 overrides towns’ control of their zoning and forces towns to permit, with no hearings, suburban lots to be split in two, even if the resulting lots were as small as 1,200 square feet. Towns cannot preserve a certain feel by requiring yards of a certain size; the maximum required yard size for side and rear “setbacks” is four feet.
Further, each of the subdivided lots could have two units (such as a duplex) on them, resulting in four families living in what is now one suburban yard. This applies to all suburban neighborhoods that were formerly zoned only for single-family homes. The property owner would have to sign an affidavit saying he intended to live in one of the units for three years.
A group called Livable California called SB 9 “a luxury housing [bill] that destroys your neighborhood.”