‘Get off my lawn’ crowd braces for new housing laws

SACRAMENTO – In its opposition to a new state law that eliminates parking requirements for developments located near transit lines, the city of Newport Beach offered this whiny complaint to the Legislature: “We believe cities, not the state are best suited to determine the parking needs of development projects in their jurisdiction.”

Well, I’ll one-up the Newport Beach City Council. I believe citizens and businesses, not city officials, are best suited to determine the parking needs of their customers as they propose new projects. Why fight over which level of bureaucrat will run our lives? Why not just let people make their own decisions? When it comes to local development issues, that’s the central political question of the day.

Sadly, many Republicans have abandoned free-market principles in favor of culture wars, which often puts them on the side of the Not In My Back Yarders (NIMBYs) who oppose market-oriented housing policies. Equally weird, Democrats – who believe that more government is the solution to virtually every problem – are starting to learn about the value of deregulation.

Conservatives often depict Democratic efforts to jumpstart urban housing construction as a plot to force us all to live in “stack and pack” housing. They act as if single-family-only rules are sacrosanct, rather than being a government-imposed, post-World War II construct. Those who think that way should, just for fun, visit downtown Fullerton or Pasadena and note the diverse land uses that were common before modern zoning took shape.

Democratic inconsistency is equally bizarre. As my former Orange County Register editor used to say, “Everyone, Steve, is a libertarian on the 25 percent of things they really care about.” Regarding housing policy, a majority of Democrats is so committed to increasing urban density and walkability that they are willing to do the unthinkable – reduce the role of government and allow markets to work.

Sure, some Democrats are in the “protect our communities” NIMBY group and some Republicans have admirably voted in favor of major housing-deregulation bills. Generally speaking, though, the housing debate has caused an ideological shift. Liberals are open to less government (because it yields the results they want) and conservatives want more government (because it yields the results they want).

The “get off my lawn” crowd still is fuming about last year’s passage of two housing laws – and wealthy cities (including liberal and conservative ones) are trying to obstruct their implementation. Senate Bill 9 allows Californians to build duplexes in single-family neighborhoods on a “by right” basis – eliminating bureaucratic subjectivity and the heckler’s veto from your nosy neighbor. Senate Bill 10 eases permitting of 10-unit developments near transit.

Other similar land-use statutes are coming their way. Gov. Gavin Newsom touts a list of 41 housing bills that he signed this year that should help jumpstart housing construction. Most of them offer minor legislative tweaks or include the usual array of subsidies. But a handful of them are as significant as SB 9 and 10 – and worthy of applause.

I previously mentioned the parking bill, AB 2097. Current parking minimums are absurd (and designed for peak hours) – and a constraint on the market. If you own a store or are building condominiums, then you should determine the amount of parking your customers need. These requirements explain why so much of our built environment has the ambience of an airport landing strip. By the way, the coolest downtowns I’ve visited have little parking – and the bleakest ones are a sea of parking lots.

It’s an issue everywhere, of course. “Excessive parking obstructs housing development, impedes adaptive reuse of buildings and hinders the creation of vibrant spaces that allow our community to flourish and feel connected,” wrote Alaska Assemblyman Kevin Cross, in calling for Anchorage to reduce its parking minimums.

Newsom also signed Assembly Bill 2011, which “allows for ministerial, by-right approval for affordable housing on commercially-zoned lands, and also allows such approvals for mixed-income housing along commercial corridors,” wrote California YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). Senate Bill 6 does something similar, but is more restrictive. Both bills passed as a compromise to placate competing union demands.

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In plain English, the measures allow conversion of decrepit shopping malls into housing – provided developers follow a number of conditions related to the amount of “affordable” housing included in the project. I don’t care for the “we’re deregulating provided you follow all these new regulations” aspect of the laws, but they are more good than bad.

It was encouraging that both shopping-mall measures had overwhelming bipartisan support, as did two other new housing laws. Assembly Bill 221 further loosens the rules surrounding the construction of granny flats. Senate Bill 886 exempts from CEQA housing projects at public universities – made necessary after a community group used the environmental law to challenge Berkeley’s expansion plans.

Perhaps the best news is it’s getting increasingly difficult to be a NIMBY in Sacramento anymore.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.