Housing advocates have reasons to celebrate today. Senate Bills 9 and 10, which empower property owners to build additional homes on their lots and speed up the rezoning process for mid-density housing, respectively, had become the law. After months of negotiation in the legislature, weathering a recall election, these two bills mark the symbolic end of single-family zoning in California and will help towns across California combat the worsening housing crisis.
As an LA resident who’s benefitted from the gentle density these bills allow — I live in a small apartment building in a resource-rich neighborhood that’s otherwise dominated by multi-million-dollar homes — I applaud our leaders for encouraging the construction of more affordable homes. At the same time, I refuse to let them declare victory against skyrocketing rents and hours-long commutes just yet. Instead I call on them to further reform our outdated housing laws, because the problems they have caused are far from vanquished.
To put the magnitude of our housing problems into perspective, median rent has increased by 11.4% in the United States. Here in California more than 750,000 households, most of which are low-income families and people of color, are behind on rent. Even as the rental market heats up, rapidly rising home prices keep would-be buyers in their apartments. This one-two punch of skyrocketing home rental and purchase prices squash young people’s dreams of homeownership while exacerbating the affordability crisis for renting families.
The only long-term fix to this massive affordability problem is to pass legislation that will legalize more homes than ever, both market-rate and income-restricted. Market-rate homes can help fund affordable housing and open up homeownership to middle-income families, allowing them to vacate affordable rental units that less well-off people need. Equitably built income-restricted units in all neighborhoods help low-income families and advance fair housing.
And then, there is the looming climate crisis. With California unlikely to meet its climate goals and car tailpipe emissions increasing, it’s time to recognize housing as a key solution to climate change. Studies suggest that gentle density, achieved through dense layout of low-rise buildings, is the best for low-carbon emission cities. With wildfires having already forced thousands from their homes this summer, it gives me hope that we only need to make small changes to our city and lifestyle to avoid a total climate catastrophe.
Solving these twin problems of affordability and sustainability can be approached with gentle density, and doesn’t require any negative impact on the character of neighborhoods. It does require continued action and deeper land use reforms, however, which is why SB 9 and 10 alone won’t cut it. To keep the momentum going, legislators must revisit parking reform, which benefits both housing and climate. They should also look into ways to make more housing production feasible under SB 9 (without additional incentives, SB 9 enables redevelopment where none was feasible previously for only 1.5% of all single-family parcels statewide). Legislators can borrow ideas implemented in cities across the nation and even the world. For instance, leaders in Paris successfully reformed its obstructionist housing policy to double housing construction, with much of it occurring in the city center and inner suburbs. These sorts of forward-thinking policies will help keep the California Dream alive in the face of new challenges; it’s up to legislators to make them a reality.