Cities fight to maintain distinct characteristics

Anyone familiar with California will realize that Palo Alto doesn’t look much like nearby Mountain View. Or that Pasadena bears very little resemblance to neighboring Altadena. This Rancho Mirage is quite different from Cathedral City next door.

These distinctions are often called character. They make places different from each other; they make life less boring and provide choices for people to decide where they would like to live and what lifestyle they want.

Of course, it costs more to live in some places than in others. And yes, some people and their families can afford bigger homes than others.

America, after all, presents itself as a land of equal opportunity, even if it is far from perfect in this respect. But it never pretended or sought to be uniform. Many laws suggest that every American should be provided. No one says that everyone will have the same means.

Yet the state of California has sought housing uniformity in recent years, led by Democratic Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who for years tried unsuccessfully to pass bills requiring that every city in the state becomes much denser.

Wiener’s perseverance paid off last year, when he pushed through new laws best known for their number, Senate Bills 9 and 10, which ban the zoning of single-family homes anywhere in California. SB 9 allows six residential units on nearly every lot where there is now one; SB 10 allows up to 10 units on any lot near rapid transit.

There is no law that requires builders to provide new parking lots or parks, to alleviate additional traffic, to secure water supplies, or any of the other requirements typically imposed on developers of new residential developments. There is also no control over what proportion of new accommodation can become short-term vacation rentals or temporary corporate accommodation.

It’s open season, then, on the character of each city in the state. If Wiener were successful, California would only have apartments and condominiums, not houses with sizable yards and open spaces. For him — and for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will apparently sign any bill Wiener writes — it’s good if all cities look alike. A one-size-fits-all, even in cities that already have lots of vacancies, as many do now.

When cities try to slow this down, seeking to preserve their unique qualities, Newsom-appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta.

This is of course Bonta’s right, which he considers a duty. And it’s in the tradition of state attorneys general to enforce the laws they like and ignore the ones they don’t. Every attorney general in the past 50 years has done it: Republican Dan Lungren has enforced almost no laws to ensure equal housing opportunities for minorities. Democrat Xavier Becerra has done little to enforce state masking mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. And so on, going back at least 50 years.

Bonta makes it his mission to tackle cities that try to make exceptions to SB 9 and 10. When leafy Woodside tried to exempt itself as cougar habitat, Bonta warned of a lawsuit and the city retreated.

When multifaceted and racially plural Pasadena attempted to limit SB 9 lot splits and resulting teardowns to areas with significant historic or architectural dwellings, Bonta denied that such areas should be exempt because, according to his deputy principal, they are not really historical. But he couldn’t refute Pasadena’s argument that in the neighborhoods the city calls landmarks, there is “historical, cultural development and/or architectural context.”

It doesn’t matter, says Bonta. Go ahead and buy historic bungalows, he basically told developers, then tear them down and split lots if you want.

Do that, of course, and Pasadena will lose much of its distinctive character.

Some cities, of course, readily accede to state housing demands, despite relatively high vacancy rates. Much of the former resort town of Santa Monica, for its part, now looks a bit like a mini Miami Beach, with many new apartments and condominiums lining its main streets.

Only time will tell how much California will change, and feelings are mixed among homeowners, with some licking their chops selling their long-serving homes and others determined to resist.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]

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