By Jerry Sullivan
That rumbling you hear in the residential real estate market is SB9—either a silver bullet or a boogeyman, depending on where you stand.
Senate Bill 9 is the latest law with the potential to reshape California. The handiwork of State Senator Scott Wiener, the bill overrides local zoning regulations to allow the development of rental properties in single-family neighborhoods. It limits rentals to four units per lot and imposes other restrictions with a stated aim of preventing real estate investors from squeezing profits out of leafy enclaves.
But SB9, in its potential for unintended consequences, is beginning to take on the feel of Prop 13, the law Californians passed by referendum in the late 1970s that struck a fundamental chord among voters, limited property taxes and touched off the Reagan Revolution. Prop 13 spared homeowners any significant property tax hikes, as intended, but also pushed local economic development to adjust by shifting too hard toward the sales taxes to be collected from strip malls, auto dealerships and the like.
Cities throughout the state are trying to slip SB9’s punch altogether, setting new design standards that would render rental units economically infeasible, or forwarding far-fetched claims about wildlife preservation.
Dismiss that as disingenuous NIMBYism if you’re looking for an easy out.
Anyone looking for a better understanding, however, should think again as Wiener and other self-described progressives cast SB9 in moralizing tones.
Housing is so expensive, they say—and California’s economy is so inequitable—that we must allow rental properties everywhere, local preferences or laws be damned.
Reserve some circumspection, also, for the American Enterprise Institute and other self-described conservatives who tend to cast SB9 in the lecturing tones of market orthodoxy. They see it as a breakthrough in individual property rights.
These bedfellows of SB9 might turn out to be as few in number as they are odd.
They combine to make a noisy crowd, to be sure, but it’s likely their flock falls well short of the legions of folks who unapologetically oppose SB9 based on a desire to live among fellow owners of single-family homes. I’m referring here to the descendants of Okies who lost their lands to the Dust Bowl and climbed back up to get a piece of Southern California, Black people who escaped Jim Crow and struggled through redlining, refugees of economic deprivation and stifled freedoms from Guatemala to the gulag, Tehran to Tiananmen Square.
Waves of them came to Southern California for work and the chance for some elbow room. Many dedicated themselves to the former to achieve the latter through single-family homes with backyards that allow them to take full advantage of the special atmosphere—it matters in all of this that California is one of only five zones in the world with a Mediterranean climate.
Many of these same Californians see SB9 as a threat that will overload communities that were built for purposes other than sprouting rentals.
That’s reason enough to proceed cautiously on grand schemes that could rearrange neighborhoods throughout the region.
It’s also reason for a broad, lively discussion in the public square.
Yet Southern California’s civic leadership seems to settle for cognitive dissonance in place of genuine debate or thoughtful strategy.
This is starting to look like a slow-motion disaster—a state law sparking local governments to stymie it with additional ordinances on everything from property setbacks to rent control. Every layer of gamesmanship holds the potential to be multiplied over hundreds of localities and work against the rational development of good housing and healthy neighborhoods.
Such dysfunction came into focus with a couple of recent reports in the City of Alhambra—a middle-class chunk of the San Gabriel Valley just east of Los Angeles. Alhambra has a population of just shy of 85,000, largely Asian and Latino, with a median household income near the countywide average, and about 40 percent of its housing stock owner-occupied.
Its five-member City Council voted unanimously on Feb. 18 to extend an “emergency ordinance” that holds the implementation of SB9 at bay.
March 3 brought this headline in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune:
“Newly installed Alhambra Mayor Jeffrey Maloney focusing on sustainability, fighting Asian hate”
That probably could go without saying in Alhambra and most other places in Southern California at this point.
What shouldn’t go without saying at a mayoral inauguration in Alhambra is the whys and wherefores of the city’s stand on SB9. That unanimous vote to frustrate the state law didn’t come from nowhere—it reflected the views of everyday folks who make their city tick.
What’s a Southern California politician to do when faced with the rumblings of a voter revolt?
The playbook seems to call for anything other than a clear explanation or respectful debate—more like “think globally, distract locally.”
Alhambra’s Maloney couldn’t be reached for comment.
There’s a lot of that going around.