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Newsom signs slew of housing bills after recall triumph

Lawmakers hope the new laws will combat California's persistent problems with homelessness and expensive housing.

(CN) — Fresh off of crushing a recall effort in a landslide, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed two bills meant to increase housing inventory and address the state’s crippling affordability crisis. 

“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said in a statement Thursday. “Making a meaningful impact on this crisis will take bold investments, strong collaboration across sectors and political courage from our leaders and communities to do the right thing and build housing for all.”

Senate Bills 9 and 10 will address the issue in different ways, with the former seeking to increase housing by making it easier for local municipalities to allow property owners to build duplexes or split properties to make way for more residential units. The latter bill provides a voluntary tool for cities and counties to be able to build higher-density housing near transit centers.

Senate Bill 10 was introduced by state Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who has garnered attention in the Golden State for his innovative approach to housing issues. 

“California’s severe housing shortage is badly damaging our state, and we need many approaches to tackle it,” he said. “It shouldn’t take 5 or 10 years for cities to rezone, and SB 10 gives cities a powerful new tool to get the job done quickly.”

State Senator Toni Atkins, who serves as the president of the upper house, wrote SB 9 along with fellow Senators Anna Caballero, Dave Cortese, Lena Gonzalez, Mike McGuire, Susan Rubio, and Wiener.

“The intent of SB 9 is clear — to streamline the process so homeowners can create a duplex or subdivide their existing property up to four units — and aims to set California’s housing availability on a path of inclusion so that more families can attain the California dream,” Atkins said in a statement Thursday. 

SB 10 in particular has proved controversial, particularly before Wiener made it voluntary as many local entitles balked at a loss of control over housing projects in their own jurisdiction. But Wiener and others in the Legislature have argued local decision-making bodies can be too beholden to NIMBY forces who resist change and benefit from escalating property values resulting from tight inventory. 

But ultimately Wiener removed the mandatory provisions from the bill to win more support from his colleagues. The bill was also held up by Newsom, who was loath to sign any controversial measures while fending off a recall effort that ultimately proved laughably futile. 

But addressing housing affordability and the homeless crisis appears to be high on the governor’s priority list as he seeks to solidify his standing in the state heading into his reelection bid in 2022.

Other lawmakers praised the efforts. 

“California needs more housing, and we need it now,” said state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

Not everyone agrees

Critics of the bill say it undermines local control of land-use decisions, circumvents important environmental laws like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and fails to incorporate mandates for more affordable housing. 

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand has argued SB 10 would not create more affordable housing, but would instead lead to a proliferation of luxury housing due to the incentives to developers. 

“It’s environmentally irresponsible and doesn’t address affordable housing,” he said. 

Brand also noted that SB 10 allows jurisdictions to circumvent CEQA, which analyzes the environmental impact of development. 

“CEQA is an important tool to allow growth without destroying our quality of life,” Brand said. 

But Wiener has repeatedly countered these claims by noting that the bill only addresses parcels of land in dense urban areas, and has explicit carveouts for open space areas and other less developed areas. 

In previous years, Wiener’s proposals have faltered in the face of opposition from Republicans and Democrats who feared a state mandate would remove control over housing decisions from local officials. For example, critics cast a previous incarnation that would have lifted zoning restrictions to allow multistory affordable housing units near transit centers as an “attack” on single-family neighborhoods.

But Wiener and supporters like California YIMBY say relaxing low-density laws that have been in place for decades is the fastest way to making a real dent in the state’s housing shortage. They argue the law would also have the added benefit of slowing urban sprawl and that building near transit would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Follow Matthew Renda on Twitter

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