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The City of Encinitas' request to carve out portions of Proposition A in order to help meet its state housing requirements was denied on Aug. 26 by a Vista judge. File graphic
California Focus Opinion

Attorney general spurs on big 2022 housing battle

There will be plenty of political battles next year, starting with likely reelection challenges to Gov. Gavin Newsom and similar efforts to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla.

Heated contests for the insurance commissioner’s job and an effort to unseat appointed state Attorney General Rob Bonta have already started.

Initiative fights are also pretty certain, on subjects from sports gambling to flavored tobacco, state funding of private and religious schools to jury trials in child custody cases, online voting and a proposed requirement to spend 2% of the state’s general fund on water projects every year.

But Bonta, a former ultra-liberal assemblyman from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco named attorney general when President Biden picked Xavier Becerra to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, has assured that housing will vie to be the year’s No. 1 issue.

Bonta, never yet elected to statewide office and already with one serious challenger, almost seems to be using reverse psychology that might inadvertently promote a proposed initiative aiming to restore full authority over local zoning and land use to local governments, where until very recently it has resided as long as California has been a state.

Bonta backed two new laws best known by their state Senate bill numbers, SB 9 and SB 10, which together could virtually eliminate single family neighborhoods all over this state. He also has threatened to start enforcing previous state laws that require every city and county in California to boost housing supplies hugely on pain of lawsuits and financial penalties.

Bonta named a 12-member “strike force” within the state’s Justice Department to “look at local jurisdictions’ responsibilities to build more housing,” adding that “there will be consequences, there will be accountability” if cities and counties don’t knuckle under.

Those pre-existing laws, via guidelines from the Department of Housing and Community Development, have already forced many cities to plan vast new developments that could produce as many as a million new housing units. Relatively few of those units have been built, for lack of well-financed developers and the fact that buyers for new homes can be hard to find.

Now come several groups determined to preserve single-family neighborhoods that embody the longstanding “California Dream” of owning private open space and greenery.

Their initiative runs completely counter to what Bonta and his longtime ally, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, are trying to do, which is essentially to remake California cities into dense New York-ish anthills of high-rises and brownstone-style duplexes.

SB 9 and SB 10, for example, combine to allow six units on every lot where there is now one home. They also call for high-rise developments near “major transportation corridors” and light rail stops. All without any requirements for affordability, parking, new water supplies or new schools.

In response, the initiative due to start circulating this winter would remove from the state all the powers Bonta, Wiener and allies like Oakland-based YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) want to exert over local land use.

Says the proposed law, “The purpose of this measure is to ensure that all decisions regarding local land use controls, including zoning law and regulations, are made by the affected communities…”

In short, this proposed state constitutional amendment would make it impossible for the state Legislature ever again to try reshaping the state by seizing powers traditionally held by local governments.

This is a change of the usual tactic used in trying to nullify new laws. It is informed by what happened after voters last year passed a referendum cancelling a state law ending cash bail.

Legislators responded by proposing a different new law that left a few circumstances allowing cash bail, but mostly would eliminate the current bail system. Expect that to pass in 2022.

Advocates of local decision-making and single family homes want to prevent similar end runs around their initiative, so they’re trying to eliminate all state powers over local land use.

It’s an extreme solution to a problem foisted on neighborhoods by highly ideological lawmakers like Wiener. Given the way today’s legislators often won’t accept the voters’ will, something that strong may be needed.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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