“It’s like acting on climate change — you can’t count on everyone to step forward in unison in a way that gives everyone confidence that they are getting a benefit for their cost,” said Michael Andersen, a senior researcher at Sightline Institute, an urban think tank based in Seattle. “Zoning reform has a political cost at every level, but only has political benefit at the collective level.”
In California, where the median home price recently eclipsed $800,000 and more than 100,000 people sleep outside each night, a vision of a single-family home with a yard to enjoy the sun is encoded in residents’ dreams. The move to pass zoning reform has been a yearslong odyssey with the twists and turns of a screenplay.
It began in 2018, when Mr. Wiener introduced a bill, S.B. 827, that would have allowed eight-story buildings near major transit stops, regardless of local zoning rules. After the bill failed, Mr. Wiener introduced a similar measure called S.B. 50, which was voted down in early 2020. Moments after the S.B. 50 vote, Ms. Atkins gave a floor speech in which she said “the status quo cannot stand” and vowed “a housing production bill will succeed this year.”
The next month she convened a Senate housing group that designed a new package of bills that included a duplex bill similar to this year’s S.B. 9. The measure passed the Senate and made it to the Assembly floor on the last day of the legislative session. As the clock crept toward midnight, Buffy Wicks, a Democratic Assembly member from Oakland who was not allowed to vote by proxy, arrived masked and holding her newborn to give an impassioned speech in favor of the bill. The bill passed the Assembly but was unable to clear a Senate concurrence vote before the session ended.
Single-family-only zoning is something of a California creation: In 1916, Berkeley became what was probably the first U.S. city to restrict neighborhoods to one-family homes. A century later it’s become a bedrock value that homeowners across the nation euphemistically describe as maintaining “neighborhood character.”
According to an analysis of the bill by the Terner Center, S.B. 9 would enable the creation of an estimated 700,000 more units in the state’s existing neighborhoods (California permits roughly 100,000 new housing units each year). The bill’s crucial feature, Ms. Atkins said, is that by allowing homeowners to split their lots it would expand homeownership instead of just rental housing.
In a series of speeches before the vote, phrases like “gradual density” were countered with “planning chaos.” Some Assembly members said it would expand generational wealth. Others said it would destroy it.