Patterico's Pontifications

4/30/2024

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.

– JVW

22 Responses to “California Cities Win Court Victory over Density-Loving Progressives”

  1. The two Democrats representing Redondo Beach in the California Legislature, Assemblyman Al Muratuchi and Senator Ben Allen, both failed to vote on this legislation. Their party backed the legislation while their constituents opposed it, and rather than make some kind of brave determination they naturally took the coward’s way out.

    JVW (b835a4)

  2. The result will be a revision of the law that DOES call for subsidized housing. Still 4 units on one current R-1 lot, but one of them will be for poor people, subsidized by the other 3.

    The real problem in CA is that the middle class is being forced out. The rich have no problems (other than taxes) and there are plenty of protections and programs for the servants of the rich. But the bulk of the population, with modest education and careers are being force out by high housing costs, terrible traffic, costly utilities, high prices and increasingly controlling government.

    It’s unlikely that more control will help, but that’s what’s on offer. Even the upper middle class is noticing that their $3 million house could be exchanged for a free-and-clear $1 million house anywhere else and a pile of cash to boot.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  3. The real problem in CA is that the middle class is being forced out. The rich have no problems (other than taxes) and there are plenty of protections and programs for the servants of the rich. But the bulk of the population, with modest education and careers are being force out by high housing costs, terrible traffic, costly utilities, high prices and increasingly controlling government.

    That was the whole idea of SB 9, to help the middle class for once instead of obsessing over the poor. The idea was that not only would developers divide up lots with duplexes and four-plexes, but also that homeowners would be incentivized to create “granny flats,” or small casitas in their (already small) back yards, which could also be rented out to singles or even small families. But of course there was no guarantee that the housing market wouldn’t just end up pricing those units at ridiculously high prices, so therein lies the conundrum.

    JVW (b835a4)

  4. There is no right to “affordable housing”. If you can’t afford a house in California, then move your ass out of state. I know, because that’s what I did. 😊

    norcal (9bd575)

  5. the housing market can only price the units above market rate if there is some sort of price support going on, and the problem right now is that market rate is insanely high due to artificial supply constraints imposed by local governments.

    the idea behind SB9 is that since local governments preventing construction is propping up an insanely high market rate, and local governments haven’t changed their behavior for decades, the only way to get around it is to take the power away from the local governments.

    i think the court is probably right about the application of this to charter cities, because the power of charter cities derives from the people rather than from the state, but most cities are not charter cities, so a lot of the intent of the measure can still be carried out.

    aphrael (fe14e4)

  6. norcal — the problem is that the cost of housing factors into the cost of, well, *everything*, and a lot of people who fill jobs that the economy needs to have filled can’t afford to live here in anything other than absolutely horrible conditions.

    *societally* we need the cost of housing to come down for our economy to function well. unfortunately right now that means centralizing power in the state instead of local communities, because local governments for a generation have been playing a “we want someone else to bear the burden of more housing” game, and it’s creating a social and economic catastrophe.

    aphrael (fe14e4)

  7. it’s pretty funny to me to see JVW describing “density-loving progressives” since in the cities whose politics i’m most familiar with, the so-called progressives are generally NIMBYs who oppose development, and the people who want more housing development are accused by progressives of being shills for the evil developer industry.

    aphrael (fe14e4)

  8. Case in point: SF mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin is the “progressive” option and very much against increased density (or really much building at all).

    Sam G (74da99)

  9. norcal — the problem is that the cost of housing factors into the cost of, well, *everything*, and a lot of people who fill jobs that the economy needs to have filled can’t afford to live here in anything other than absolutely horrible conditions.

    aphrael (fe14e4) — 4/30/2024 @ 4:03 pm

    If the economy needs them, the economy will find a way. Either wages will increase, or businesses will relocate, etc.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a city having strict zoning, or even saying “no” to growth. Yes, this may lead to expensive housing. If residents don’t like the city’s policy, they can leave. I did.

    norcal (632524)

  10. One of the most idiotic arguments involves “added traffic.” A few points:

    1. No one in Los Angeles moves further from work. Ever.
    2. Moving closer to work shortens ones daily driving.
    3. Much of the traffic you complain about is someone driving through B going from A to C.

    But they just look at cars going in and out of the new complex as if they all arrived from Philly.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  11. Oh, sure, 1there is 1a, where people move further from work because the housing is cheaper in the boonies, but it still doesn’t mean that infill housing is a bad idea.

    One proposal that was fought to death would have added apartments to the edge of a shopping center that had way too much parking, across the street from a shopping mall, and within 2 blocks of a LOT of hi-tech startups. The argument? It would add so so many car trips (rather than put a lot of folks in walking distance of their life).

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  12. But as I said, there result will be to add low-income housing, which will make the NIMBYs even crosser. “Section 8!” they will cry.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  13. Here is the answer:

    Impose a tax on the ratio of house size to land area. Sure, I’d hate it, but it gets past the charter cities issue.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  14. Don’t get me started on Section 8 housing, Kevin.

    norcal (632524)

  15. It never is section 8 housing. That’s just a dog whistle.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  16. I mean the whole idea of it. Section 8 housing shouldn’t exist.

    norcal (632524)

  17. It’s not like whole cities are actually making the decisions on density or zoning via ballot propositions: I stead, there’s public hearings where the only people that show up are those with the ability to do so. That tends to be older, retired members of the community that are opposed to building.

    In regards to zoning, a simplified system of residential/mixed use/industrial is probably best – but that would likely have to be a statewide reform.

    SamG (4e6c22)

  18. *instead

    SamG (4e6c22)

  19. it’s pretty funny to me to see JVW describing “density-loving progressives” since in the cities whose politics i’m most familiar with, the so-called progressives are generally NIMBYs who oppose development, and the people who want more housing development are accused by progressives of being shills for the evil developer industry.

    I think there’s a huge difference between gentry progressives and their less-wealthy comrades. It’s quite true that whether it is Redondo Beach or Del Mar or Carson or wherever, the gentry progressives are the ones who don’t want to see more people moving into their neighborhoods, taking up street parking, swelling school enrollments, etc. And it’s equally true that a lot of conservatives are very protective of their own neighborhoods too. But there are plenty of progressives of the Alexandria Ocasio Cortez mode, or, more locally, a politician like a Toni Atkins or Robert Rivas who is more attuned to the need of the middle-income and low-income families and thus are pushing for more development.

    I was too lazy to do this last night, but here is the name, party affiliation, and home city of everyone who voted against SB 9 back in 2021, in both houses of the legislature:

    Assembly
    Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D) – Orinda
    Frank Bigelow (R) – O’Neals
    Richard Bloom (D) – Santa Monica
    Tasha Boerner Horvath (D) – Encinitas
    Tom Daly (D) – Anaheim
    Laurie Davies (R) – Laguna Niguel
    Jim Frazier (D) – Discovery Bay
    Laura Friedman (D) – Glendale
    Jesse Gabriel (D) – Encino
    Jacqui Irwin (D) – Thousand Oaks
    Marc Levine (D) – San Rafael
    Al Muratsuchi (D) – Torrance
    Adrin Nazarian (D) – Sherman Oaks
    Patrick O’Donnell (D) – Long Beach
    Cottie Petrie-Norris (D) – Irvine
    Kelly Seyarto (R) – Murieta
    Thurston Smith (R) – Apple Valley
    Randy Voepel (R) – Santee
    Marie Waldron (R) – Escondido

    That’s a lot of Democrats living in some really high-rent areas.

    Senate
    Patricia Bates (R) – Laguna Niguel
    Andreas Borgeas (R) – Fresno
    Steve Glazer (D) – Orinda
    Brian Jones (R) – Santee
    Melissa Melendez (R) – Lake Elsinore
    Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R) – Yucaipa
    Scott Wilk (R) – Santa Clarita

    What’s probably more instructive on the Senate side is the locations of the Democrats who managed to absent themselves from the vote. They are as follows: Ben Allen (Santa Monica), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (Los Angeles), Monique Limon (Santa Barbara), Josh Newman (Fullerton), and Henry Stern (Calabasas).

    So yeah, gentry progressives are the ones who have a problem with high-density, and other progressives are its supporters.

    JVW (b835a4)

  20. It’s not like whole cities are actually making the decisions on density or zoning via ballot propositions

    Santa Monica does just that. And all those locked-in rent-controlled renters all vote against more housing.

    Kevin M (a9545f)

  21. Kevin M is correct. In Redondo Beach the voters have on more than one occasion voted for huge restrictions on new housing.

    JVW (b835a4)

  22. JVW, your last paragraph was Catoggio-esque in elucidating the dualing perspectives.

    norcal (632524)

Leave a Reply


Powered by WordPress.

Page loaded in: 0.1482 secs.