Patterico's Pontifications


California Cities Win Court Victory over Density-Loving Progressives

Filed under: General — JVW @ 6:19 am

[guest post by JVW]

The Los Angeles Times has the details:

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ruled that a landmark law ending single-family-home-only zoning in California is unconstitutional, a decision that could lead to the law being invalidated in the state’s largest cities.

Judge Curtis Kin determined that Senate Bill 9 does not provide housing restricted for low-income residents and therefore cannot override state constitutional protections afforded to local zoning practices.

“Because the provisions of SB 9 are not reasonably related and sufficiently narrowly tailored to the explicit stated purpose of that legislation — namely, to ensure access to affordable housing — SB 9 cannot stand,” Kin wrote in a April 22 ruling.

Kin’s decision now applies to the five Southern California cities — Redondo Beach, Carson, Torrance, Whittier and Del Mar — that challenged SB 9, which passed in 2021. If his ruling is appealed and upheld, it would affect 121 communities known as “charter cities,” including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, that have greater autonomy under state law.

California progressives envision a future where we all live in high-density housing — conjoined townhomes for the luckiest of us and high-rise apartments for the hoi polloi — which would all be within walking distance of public transportations lines. It’s part of the utopia of the no car culture that Greens would gladly impose upon us, until the entire state looked like all of Manhattan or most of San Francisco. I live in Redondo Beach, one of the cities who challenged Senate Bill 9 (despite the fact that our late mayor was a staunch Democrat who never hesitated to endorse the sorts of people who voted “yes” on this legislation), and though we still do have plenty of single-family homes in our town we do have enough compact living that wags often refer to us as “Re-Condo Beach.”

It therefore comes as no surprise that two beach cities, Redondo Beach and Del Mar, challenged this mandate. Both cities are relatively wealthy (OK, Del Mar is obscenely wealthy) and there is very much a strong anti-density sentiment in both, especially since lots at the beach tend to be much smaller than lots in a suburb like Pasadena or Glendale. They were joined by Torrance, a mid-sized city of mostly middle-class families which also extends to a small portion of the beach. Carson had traditionally been known for its large population of middle-class black families, but in the past couple of decades it has become more Hispanic and Asian. Still there remains a strong sense of homeownership in that community, with homeowners outnumbering renters by a 3:1 ratio, and with 78% of homes being single-unit dwellings. Both the homeownership rate and percentage of single-unit dwellings are higher in Carson than any of the other four cities. The final municipal litigant,Whittier, boyhood home of Richard Milhous Nixon, is an inland community which was once mostly farmland owned by white families. Today it is now heavily Hispanic, but continues to have more than two-thirds single-unit homes and three-fifths owner occupancy.

The author of the LATimes article, Liam Dillon, does a very admirable job in letting opponents of SB 9 have their say. The law would have made pretty much any local zoning ordinance subservient to the state’s demand that developers be allowed to build up to four units on a single lot in most cases. The cities who challenged the bill in court feared the effects of increasing density, from the additional automobiles on the streets to worries about overcrowding schools. They also pointed out that despite the progressive aims of the legislation, SB 9 did nothing to help the poor of the Golden State. Because the authors of the bill feared that requiring developers to build more low-income housing would get in the way of the aim to provide more “affordable” housing for middle-class families in the affected cities, they did not include any additional mandates for low-income housing in the legislation. The cities (perhaps somewhat cynically in the case of Redondo and Del Mar) cried foul on the misuse of the term “affordable housing” when it was not used in conjunction with government-subsidized low-income housing. Of this, Mr. Dillion writes:

Kin agreed. The law’s stated intent calls for increasing access to “affordable housing,” a term that Kin said elsewhere in the text refers explicitly to housing restricted for low-income residents. Because SB 9 doesn’t require those kinds of developments, it fails to meet the state Constitution’s high standards to override local control over zoning in charter cities, Kin said.

“In order to justify SB 9’s interference with the municipal concerns of land use and zoning regulations, the Legislature cannot rely on a potential, eventual decrease in prices resulting from increased housing supply to demonstrate that SB 9 would increase the supply of affordable (i.e. below market-rate) housing,” Kin wrote.

In other words, beyond creating government-mandated housing for low-income families, which is what “affordable housing” has come to mean in California, the state has no business in regulating housing supply in each and every community by requiring cities to allow more families be packed in onto the same lot. The article quotes a law professor who believes both that the pro-SB 9 crowd will win on appeal and also that the legislature could easily pass a new law which would lay to rest Judge Kin’s concerns; one of the Democrat legislators favoring SB 9 who naturally insists that the judge is a big old meanie for letting confusing and imprecise language in the legislation override Sacramento’s obvious good intentions; and finally Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb, who helped guide the case through the court successfully and defends the judge for pointing out the legislature’s typically sloppy drafting folly which is the cause of all of this mess.

I’m sort of torn on this question. A part of me resents the state trying to heavy-handedly impose their vision of density upon all localities under their jurisdiction and ignoring the primacy that individual municipalities ought to have in determining their growth. At the same time, I have great distaste for cynical NIMBYs uniting with ridiculous environmentalists to oppose any efforts to build new housing in communities which they insist ought to be allowed to remain the same size forever. In my own community I have seen a number of proposals to build new apartment units and smaller townhomes blocked by specious claims of environmental damage or unmanageable traffic, so I know that cities don’t always make a good faith effort to increase their own housing supply. And of course I believe that a lot owner should generally be allowed to build more than one unit on his or her lot, whether it be for personal use or as a investment development, subject of course to some degree of protecting sight lines and maintaining architectural consistency, especially in historic neighborhoods. I guess this is why we have contentious debates about housing policy. But I will never trust Sacramento to solve these issues on our behalf and I think I’m glad that the arrogant legislature got swatted down on this question.


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