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California Focus: Housing bills could cause radical changes

The changes will not be immediate if California’s Legislature this month should pass the two most sweeping housing bills before it and then they are signed into law either by Gov. Gavin Newsom or someone who might replace him after the Sept. 14 recall election.

But come back in 40 or 50 years, and most California cities would look very different if these bills passed.

Cities would be bigger, housing would be cheaper (after inflation is factored in) and living conditions would be more crowded than ever before. Neighborhoods filled with single-family homes on distinct lots would be far more rare than today.

That is, if enough water and energy can be found to make these changes possible, two problems that grow larger and less predictable the longer the current drought continues and the more often dry spells recur in an era of expanded climate change.

Those realities are all but sidestepped in the lengthiest and most seemingly authoritative academic study yet on the likely effects of Senate Bill 9, likely to have earlier effects than its companion bill, Senate Bill 10. SB 9 would allow any owner of a property zoned for one residence (R1 zoning) to subdivide their lot and replace the one house there now with two duplex structures.

One home becomes four, and there’s nothing neighbors or city and county governments can do to stop it if SB 9 becomes law. A homeowner who chooses to sell their property to someone else planning to remake it will likely take away more cash than from simply selling to a new occupant of the same home.

But nearby properties would likely lose value if neighborhoods become dotted with duplexes, producing heavier traffic, more smog and other environmental impacts. Of course, no one will know those impacts very precisely in advance if this bill passes, because such smallish new multi-unit developments would be exempted from the environmental analyses required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The companion bill, SB 10, could create even more densification, as it allows city councils and county boards to override local land use restrictions in approving housing developments of up to 14 units on existing R1 lots. But building would not be by-right with automatic approval unless local governments voted for that.

All this would have relatively little impact for years to come, if you believe the newest study from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.

Study co-author David Garcia, the center’s policy director, notes that SB 9 excludes property in wildfire risk areas, historic zones and lots sized under 2,400 square feet.

Because of this and high construction costs, the study says only about 6% of all California R1 properties would be affected, with no more than 700,000 new housing units created, none in the affordable category.

It may or may not be significant that the Terner Center has major funding from mortgage holding companies and developers. Those interests would want to downplay potential impacts of SB 9, which would enlarge markets for both mortgage holders and developers.

Garcia noted that the Terner study’s estimate of slightly less than 6% of single-family homes being affected would rise considerably if either construction costs or land prices were to drop.

So far, every major Republican candidate to replace Newsom in the recall election has promised to veto both SB 9 and SB 10 if given the opportunity.

Said Doug Ose, a GOP recall candidate, real estate developer and former three-term congressman from the Sacramento area, “Local land use decisions are always best left up to local governments.”

But Newsom has not indicated what he would do if either or both bills pass. Newsom has been a strong advocate for building more housing in California, pushing in his 2018 campaign for developing 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, a goal that’s nowhere near realization. So despite his silence, it’s likely he would sign both measures.

The bottom line: SB 9 and SB 10, or either one by itself, would make California more crowded and less green than today, and would eventually make major changes in the lifestyle that has drawn many millions to this state.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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