By Ryan McDonald and Mark McDermott/Photography by JP Cordero
(This story first appeared on Nov. 12, 2021 in Easy Reader. Republished here with approval of the authors.)
Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand visited the State Capitol building in Sacramento in early 2018 to meet with state legislators about the numerous efforts underway to address the state’s housing crisis.
Two of those efforts were authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). Senate Bill 827 would have required cities to allow four- and five-story apartments and condominiums within a half-mile of transit centers and in jobs-rich areas. Senate Bill 828 used a part of the state’s housing law, called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), to require cities and counties to double the area available for condominium and apartment uses, and to increase overall residential zoning. SB 827 failed to gain traction, while a weakened version of SB 828 passed.
At the time, however, over 60 other pieces of housing legislation were in various stages of development in Sacramento. Wiener was involved in many of them. For Brand, the implications were clear. Bills would keep coming, creating what he viewed as a fundamental reordering of the way land-use decisions would be made by shifting power away from local government to Sacramento.
“At the time, I realized that for Scott Wiener, this was a long game,” Brand said. “This was his call to action, and rallying cry. This was going to go on for years, this idea that the cities and counties are responsible for the housing shortage and affordability crisis. He was going to strip our control of what goes on in our town.”
Brand began his political career in the early 2000s as a citizen activist opposing major development in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor. This has trained him in thinking about “the long game,” because no sooner had one development proposal been defeated by activists than another would appear. It was like a game of whack-a-mole designed to wear down opposition.
“And so I started thinking about something similar we had done in Redondo Beach, which was an initiative that went to the voters,” Brand said, referring to Measure DD, which required voter approval for all large developments in Redondo Beach.
“In this case, it would be the voters of California, who want control of zoning in their towns. Do you want faraway legislators doing it, who have never even been to your town? Or do you want your local agencies, represented by people who live where you live? I thought the answer was clear.
“I realized if you were going to have that kind of transfer of power, you were going to have to amend the State Constitution, which I had never read. So I sat down and read it, and figured out, ‘Oh, I see. We are going to have to amend Article 11, and transfer the power back to local communities.”
Brand discovered that any citizen could request the assistance of the Office of Legislative Counsel — the attorneys who help legislators write laws — to assist in the writing of an initiative. He followed their guidelines, petitioned for help, and was duly assigned attorneys to help him write an initiative. After months of back and forth, by early 2019, he had language for an initiative that would ensure local control of zoning.
“I am sitting here with this statewide initiative to strip Sacramento of its ability to rezone the whole state, thinking, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with this?’” Brand recalled. “So I just kind of sat on it.”
Wiener kept working. In 2019, he authored SB 50, a sweeping piece of legislation that proposed allowing up to four housing units on land zoned for single-family homes throughout the state, and limited cities’ ability to block four-to five-story apartment buildings proposed for sites close to transit hubs, or in jobs-rich areas. SB 50 died in committee. But Wiener, as Brand had intuited, was far from done. This year, he co-authored SB 9, which eliminates single-family zoning statewide by allowing up to four units on all single-family parcels. On September 15, SB 9 was signed into law.
“The intent of SB 9 is clear — to streamline so homeowners can create a duplex or subdivide their property — and aims to set California’s housing availability on a path of inclusion, so that more families can attain the California dream,” SB 9’s lead author, Senate President pro tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said in a statement after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill.
And so last week, Brand and a group of like-minded civic leaders unveiled the [Our Neighborhood Voices] initiative, which would block the state from imposing most kinds of zoning requirements on cities and counties. Brand and his allies have until April of next year to collect the 1.5 million signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the November 2022 statewide ballot.
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What irks Brand is that the state’s approach is largely market-based, relying on supply and demand to create more housing in the hopes of driving prices down rather than more directly addressing the creation of more affordable housing. Brand denies that his bill is a result of “NIMBYism,” short for “Not In My Back Yard.” He believes that what is at stake in the battle between SB 9 and the [Our Neighborhood Voices] initiative is the survival of the American Dream in California.
“What is missing in so much of the discussion of this is the speculation that is going on in the real estate industry,” Brand said. “This is really an anti-speculation initiative, as well as an affordable housing push. What the state is doing is taking the lid off residential real estate and opening it up to Wall Street. NIMBY is not the problem. What they want to engage in is really WIMBY, or Wall Street In My Back Yard. Institutional investment is driving speculation across the world to take over real estate, and turn it into another financial engine for their investors….Blanket upzoning with no affordability requirement is exactly what they need. We want homes for people, not investors.”
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