They campaigned. They wrote letters. They produced social media videos. They organized town halls with their state assembly members. But in the end, it didn’t make a difference.
United Neighbors, a coalition of neighborhood residential groups founded by Maria Pavlou Kalban, was hopeful California would vote against a bill eliminating single-family zoning in California. “Packing more and more people into smaller and smaller spaces is not my idea of a great solution,” Pavlou Kalban said.
However, the fight for local control and land use decisions is not quite over.
Even before Senate Bills 9 and 10 were signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom Sept. 16, another opponent of the bills, Californians for Community Planning, had already begun collecting signatures to put the issue in the hands of California voters. They believe the bills will promote gentrification and destroy unique characteristics of countless communities. So, they’re working to gather almost one million signatures to get the initiative on the November 2022 ballot.
For months, opponents of the bills have been advocating for state legislators to vote against them and send letters to the governor explaining why they believe the bills will not address the state’s housing issues as intended. In fact, more than 244 California cities voiced their opposition to SB 9 along with the League of California Cities, an association that represents local governments.
United Neighbors quickly gained support throughout L.A. County as well as in Northern and Southern California as more people realized what the bills could mean for their neighborhoods.
“All of us had concerns but everyone was kind of doing their own little thing through their own organizations,” Pavlou Kalban said. “It wasn’t enough of a voice to be heard by any legislators except your own personal one.
“United Neighbors encouraged members to send opposition letters to their assembly members, making their concerns known. “It’s been a huge effort and it took a lot of time for all of us,” Pavlou Kalban said.
However, despite these actions, Gov. Newsom signed the bills into law. They will take effect at the beginning of 2022.
“Obviously, we didn’t reach nearly as many people as we should have,” Pavlou Kalban said.
United Neighbors and other groups who oppose the bills are pivoting and starting to back the Californians for Community Choice initiative. “That’s an effort [United Neighbors] will probably get behind with all of our organizations because they’re going to need signatures and donations,” Pavlou Kalban said.
Opponents of the bills cite disenfranchisement, gentrification, the destruction of single-family homes and homeownership as well as decreased local control. They do not see the bills solving the state’s housing shortage (some experts estimate California is in need of around 2 million new housing units).
Gary Painter, a USC professor and chair of the school’s Department of Public Policy, doubts that the new zoning laws will change California communities all that much.
“It’s only going to move from single-family to multi-family if there’s demand from the marketplace to do so,” Painter said. “We’re going to see additional housing units built but it’s not going to be a wholesale change in the character of communities as some might fear.”
One of the solutions United Neighbors is advocating now that SB 9 and 10 have passed includes the development of commercial corridors that were already struggling before the pandemic. These corridors are usually low-rise, single-use buildings with huge parking lots that could potentially be redeveloped into housing units.
“We’re working with City Council members and trying to show them alternatives that we think would be better and try to work within the system to see how we can all win in a situation like this,” Pavlou Kalban said.
Ultimately, the goal on both sides of the bill is to address the state’s housing needs, especially affordable housing needs. A California Housing Partnership 2020 report said California was in need of 1.3 million units of affordable housing, yet there are different opinions on the best way to achieve that goal.
“More than housing, we need more affordable housing,” Pavlou Kalban said. “When you look at SB 9 and 10, they are bills that have nothing to do with affordable housing, so they do nothing at all to add any kind of affordability to this problem.”
Matthew Lewis, director of communications at nonprofit advocacy group California YIMBY, said while there are no affordable housing requirements in SB 9 and 10, the bills would help provide housing to the 90% of Californians who do not meet the requirement for affordable housing. He noted that opponents who argue the bills take away local control have also not taken any local action to address the housing crisis.
“It’s just dishonest for them to say they care about affordable housing when all of the things that cities can do to build affordable housing, they’re doing none of them,” Lewis said.
Historically, Painter said, cities in California have largely avoided adding density because of parking, congestion or infrastructure concerns. The outcome: too few units.
“Local control has led us to an outcome that has actually harmed affordability in California and it’s harmed our families because they’re paying higher portions of their income in rent,” Painter said. “What we need to do is find a path forward that allows for higher levels of affordability in our communities.”
Cities have also resisted current housing increase mandates such as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), which requires cities in California to plan for a set number of housing units at each economic level to be built in the next eight years. Counties and cities, including Pasadena, Costa Mesa and Irvine, among many others, appealed these mandates to lower their required number of units. Few of the appeals succeeded.
“The entire reason we have all this process in place is that California cities are uniquely and historically opposed to more homes,” Lewis said.