California High-Density Housing Bill Shelved for Now

September 3, 2020 Updated: September 7, 2020

A proposed housing bill that would abolish zoning for single-family homes in many California cities passed the Assembly on Aug. 31, but failed to make it through the Senate before the legislative session ended at midnight, a deadline set in the state Constitution. The Senate is expected to vote on it early next year. 

Senate Bill 1120 (SB 1120) would allow developers to bypass local government restrictions to split single-family housing lots and make way for duplexes and other high-density housing. 

Proponents say it’s a way to create much-needed affordable housing, and it also offers owners of the single-family homes the option of creating units for rent. 

Opponents say the housing won’t be affordable and that the bill benefits developers more than the people in need of housing. 

The bill is also controversial, in part, because it would affect some neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Latino. 

Peggy Huang, a Republican Yorba Linda city councilmember and vocal critic of SB 1120, told The Epoch Times that people in neighborhoods that could be affected say SB 1120 is about gentrification. 

In the Ladera Park and Baldwin Hills neighborhoods of Los Angeles, some residents have told Huang that the bill could disproportionately affect black and Latino neighborhoods, as it would allow developers “to come into [a] working-class neighborhood or middle-class neighborhood, buy the homes at whatever price [they] want … and then completely build and gentrify the neighborhood.”

Huang said developers usually offer homeowners fair market value, or more, for their houses. But she agrees it will change the character of these neighborhoods. She said splitting lots to increase housing density won’t bring truly affordable housing to metro areas, because developers will increase the rates of local rent to earn returns on their investments. 

SB 1120 is the child of a bigger bill that was defeated in January, Senate Bill 50 (SB 50), authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). SB 50 sought to replace single family homes with high-density housing near public transit hubs and job centers regardless of zoning. 

When SB 50 failed, Huang said Democrats broke up the bill into smaller bite-sized pieces of legislation that could be more easily passed through the Legislature. 

SB 1120, authored by Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would not prohibit single-family dwellings, but would force local governments to permit homeowners to convert single-family homes into two-family duplexes, or to demolish a single-family home, replacing it with a duplex or two single-family homes.

But Huang warned that SB 1120 would allow more than just duplexes. Combined with recently passed legislation allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) known as granny flats, SB 1120 would allow four-story duplexes with eight housing units built on the same lot where a single-family home would have been, she said.

As a city councilmember and a Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) regional council member, Huang contends the state should leave zoning and planning issues up to local governments. 

“This is the state saying, ‘Yeah, that’s nice you have your general plan. You plan to have a residential area, commercial area, whatever. We don’t care.’”

Citizen groups have sprung up both in support and opposition of SB 1120 and the other bills spawned by SB 50. Livable California and Nix the Nine are in opposition. California Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) is in support.

On Aug. 31, Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) presented the bill on the Assembly Floor on behalf of Atkins. 

“We all know, there is no silver bullet. There is no easy solution to solve our state’s housing crisis. We need to be hitting this problem from multiple angles, and clearly, we need to be creative,” Rivas said. “Every day more and more people in our state are pushed into homelessness.” 

The bill “builds on our successful approach to Accessory Dwelling Units, which has led to the permitting of thousands of naturally affordable units statewide,” he said. “Terner Center [for Housing Innovation at University of California] Berkeley has recently found that if just 5 percent of eligible parcels created a duplex, it would result in 600,000 new homes. That’s almost a quarter of the state’s housing construction goal over the next eight years.”

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who was feeding her newborn baby when the bill came up, rushed to the floor, her baby in her arms, and said: “I strongly believe we need to pass this bill.

“We are 3.5 million homes shy of where we need to be right now in the state. … It’s the simplest way we can have density that still adheres to neighborhood character.”

Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) strongly opposed the bill, saying it would compromise the character of neighborhoods and limit local control over land use. 

“I strongly believe that we need to build more housing. Yes, supply is important. Yes, density works in many areas. But we continue to put forward these bills and we say that we need affordable housing, and we’re living in a state where we actually have been duped into thinking that affordable is paying $12 for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. That is not affordable,” she said. 

“The state is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and so rather than creating a dynamic where you set up essentially an invasion into small communities by developers and speculators, we should actually be having serious conversations about how to develop non-market, price-guaranteed housing, because those are the kinds of units that our teachers, our students, our grocery workers, our cashiers, our working class families, and Californians deserve—not this bill,” Kamlager said.

“Quite frankly, the kinds of folks that would be able to purchase the land and create these duplexes and quads are more likely than not going to be multinational or international investors, changing the character of our communities. This isn’t saying let’s have owner-builders …” she said. “And what happens when you have developers calling your phone every day asking if you’d be willing to sell your property and then having appraisers come in and undervalue your property so that folks can get it at the cheap?” she asked. 

Kamlager said black Americans have fought and worked hard for generations to own land, and now black communities are facing “gentrification and displacement.”

“I don’t think we should be asking for an invasion by developers and into communities across the state because we’re too lazy, quite frankly, to have more meaningful conversations about how we’re protecting communities and finding ways to build housing that people truly can afford,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
A car drives by a building advertising apartment leases in San Francisco, Calif., on Sept. 1, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) supported the bill, citing the state’s “massive housing shortage.”

“Everybody knows that,” he said. “Every single person in this room today sitting here knows we have a housing shortage. So, we are either serious about solving that problem or we are not. If we are serious about solving that, then we will make good use of existing resources. We’ll let people divide lots. We will let people build ADUs to move their grandparent in next door to them. Those are common sense things we can do to make existing use of resources. And we should do that.”

If nothing is done to create affordable housing in the state, “it’s going to be unaffordable for the next generation. Totally unaffordable. And, we all know it,” he said. 

Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) voted against the bill, but said everyone agrees California needs more homes and affordable housing. 

“In my community, we have a lot of communities of color. We have a lot of communities that are very poor and disenfranchised, where we’re going to have investors come in and offer them money and do things to chase them out so they can split up these homes,” he said.

Assemblyman Jay Olbernolte (R-Hesperia) voted against the bill, arguing that taking away local control over zoning, defeats the purpose of having local planning laws.

“I struggled with this bill because generally my philosophy is libertarian, and I figure if someone wants to subdivide their lot, if someone wants to build a duplex, why should they not be allowed to do that? But here’s the problem with that thinking, if you subscribe to that philosophy: Why do we do land use planning at all?” he said. 

Sewage, parking, and other infrastructure concerns could arise in neighborhoods not designed for a high volume of residents, some opponents of the bill have said. 

Olbernolte said the bill “needs more baking” and chided Assembly members for trying ram it through so close to the end of the legislative session. 

“The problem with this bill is it’s a huge change to land use policy in California. Little that we’ve done in the last six years that I’ve been in the Legislature has had the potential to affect land use planning to the extent that this one does, and we’re here debating it at 11:30 p.m.”

SB 1120 passed the Assembly just a few minutes before midnight with a 44–18 vote. The Legislature reconvenes Dec. 7, and the Senate is expected to have another chance to vote on the bill. 

Sen. Wiener tweeted on Sept. 3, “Let’s be straight up: California failed on housing this year. Various factors came into play—some NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard], some petty, some legit—& good bills died. We can’t give up this fight. We’ll be back with a strong 2021 housing agenda. Because our housing crisis is untenable.”