California’s war against our neighborhoods

June 14, 2021
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


California’s neighborhoods and the cities that harbor them are under mounting attacks by its Legislature that’s determined to pass a spate of ill-conceived bills that will change our neighborhoods forever.

If bills like SB 9, SB 10, SB 478, AB 1401, or AB 1322 make it through legislative committee hearings that are happening now, get ready for some real and negative changes to the livability, functionality, and safety of your neighborhood.

If you live in a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood — whether it be in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Pismo Beach, or in any other local town — the changes outlined below will come, perhaps not immediately but certainly soon:

1. Densification without representation: Under SB 9, the state would shoehorn higher density into low-density neighborhoods by allowing single-family lots to be divided into two parcels as small as 1200 square feet and have them developed with a total of anywhere between four to eight units where one home now exists. There has been no effort from the state to reach out to the cities, neighborhoods, and residents will be negatively affected by this bill.

2. Without warning: SB 9 would force local governments to approve these developments without any discretionary review, public hearing, or public notice to neighboring property owners. You could wake up one morning with construction starting next door with no warning.

3. Increasing traffic: Imagine if half the houses on your street in a single-family neighborhood were subject to “urban lot splits” under SB 9 and developed with four to eight units where one house stood. What would traffic be like on your street?

4. Inadequate parking: SB 9 and AB 1401 would prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever if the property is within ½ mile walking distance of a transit stop. Get ready for some ferocious competition for on-street parking in your neighborhood. Where would service vehicles, landscape maintenance, special delivery, visiting family members, and other vehicles park? In San Luis Obispo where the city is removing on-street parking in single-family neighborhoods for unnecessary bike lanes, the task of finding parking in one’s neighborhood will be even more challenging.

5. Inadequate water resources: The state’s efforts to push multifamily housing into single-family zones comes at a time when California is in another exceptional drought with no prospects of increasing water supplies. Reservoirs are almost empty. We’re only in the second year of this drought and we don’t have enough water to serve the people who are already here. Get ready for some increasingly draconian water conservation measures that will only get worse over time.

6. Exposure to wildfires: On top of California’s exceptional drought, we are entering yet another scary wildfire season. With so little water in our reservoirs — whether it be Lake Nacimiento, Lopez Lake, or other State lakes like Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville, or Lake Mendocino — how can you fight wildfires when these reservoirs are almost empty?

7. Arbitrary development standards: A state-established set of top-down, one-size-fits-all arbitrary development standards will govern all future development within your neighborhood. The same rules that apply to Fresno would apply to Cambria, Santa Margarita or Avila Beach. Over time, our neighborhoods throughout the state will witness a creeping “sameness” in their appearance and declining livability.

8. Vanishing yards: The state’s imposition of minimum side and rear yard setbacks of 4 feet will essentially eliminate private yards where your kids once played. Front yard setbacks and their landscaping will also be up for grabs with high density development in our neighborhoods.

9. Loss of privacy: Those who continue to live in their single-family homes will find high-density development next door to them overlooking their yards and homes.

10. Loss of tree canopies: Mature trees in long established single-family neighborhoods will likely be on the chopping block to make way for high-density development, eliminating the carbon sequestration values that these trees have in fighting climate change.

11. Increasing heat island effect: Eliminating yards through high density development will transform porous green spaces into hardscape and buildings unshaded by mature trees, hardening the environment of your neighborhood and increasing the heat island effect.

12. Increased stormwater: The hardening of the landscape through high-density development will generate considerably more stormwater and urban runoff than the neighborhood may be equipped to handle.

13. Rampant real estate speculation: Today’s soaring costs of buying a home will only get worse. Increasing the development potential of single-family lots will only increase those costs beyond the ability of younger Californians to enjoy the American dream of homeownership. Well-financed predatory speculators will swoop in and outbid those with a limited ability to buy a home.

14. Lack of affordability: While these proposed laws are couched in terms “addressing the lack of affordable housing”, they do nothing about requiring, facilitating, or funding housing that would be affordable to moderate, low, and very low-income households. Instead, these bills promote the rampant development of high-end market rate housing, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.

15. Displacement: Primarily in heavily urbanized areas with mass transit, these bills and the gentrification they will bring will surely displace communities of color where Blacks and Latinos have worked hard to attain the American dream of homeownership while taking pride in their neighborhoods.

16. Overburdened infrastructure: The infrastructure of single-family neighborhoods was designed and installed to serve low-density development. Increasing the sizes of water and sewer lines, storm drains, fire flows, will eventually come to roost. Yet the state provides no money or impacting local infrastructure. As single-family neighborhoods begin to fill in with multifamily development, it’s almost certain that consistent expensive emergency repairs will need to be made at great disruption to the neighborhood.

17. Ignoring local planning rules: These laws, in one fell swoop, will forcibly amend every General Plan and Zoning Ordinance in every one of California’s 482 cities and 58 counties. It’s no surprise that the League of California Cities strongly opposes SB 9.

18. Loss of local control: This batch of state legislation will essentially destroy the ability of local governments to plan for the future of their communities. The state will be taking those powers away from local government If one would complain to your council member about changes these developments bring to their neighborhoods, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it because the state will have taken away the self-determination of local governments and their ability to plan for their futures in character and context with the uniqueness of their communities.

Unless Californians wake up, realize what is about to happen to the places where they live, and take immediate action to contact their state representatives to fight this legislation, these changes will happen to their neighborhoods.

For those of you who live in San Luis Obispo County, you should know that our state representative, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, just voted for AB 1401 to prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever for parcels within ½ mile walking distance of a transit stop.

Last year, Cunningham voted for SB 1120, a bill that would have up-zoned every single-family neighborhood in California had it not failed at the end of the 2020 legislative session. SB 1120 was essentially identical to SB 9. He’s at it again but it’s not too late to try to change his mind.

All of our neighborhoods are in the state’s crosshairs. It’s time to rise up and fight back! Call or email your local assembly member and state senator today to stop this madness and let them know how you will vote in the next election if they vote for these bills.

T Keith Gurnee is a member of the Board of Directors of livable California a statewide nonprofit organization representing thousands of Californians fighting to protect their neighborhoods and for the self-determination of local governments. He is also a professional planner and urban designer, a former San Luis Obispo City Council member, and past president of the California Planning Roundtable.

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‘For those of you who live in San Luis Obispo County, you should know that our state representative, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, just voted for AB 1401 to prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever for parcels within ½ mile walking distance of a transit stop.

Last year, Cunningham voted for SB 1120, a bill that would have up-zoned every single-family neighborhood in California had it not failed at the end of the 2020 legislative session. SB 1120 was essentially identical to SB 9. He’s at it again but it’s not too late to try to change his mind.’

Not to mention the fact that Jordan Cunningham is representing a former law enforcement retiree, now owner of a wine bar (upset he got fined for breaking the law!!!) , in between voting on these bills. Locals are getting rich off of turning properties into event hosts like Cunningham’s Hartley Farms in north county. In SLO proper, you have people like the Richardson’s and Spaulding’s (city employee & wife owns a downtown biz) carrying on their generational wealth, no more views of the mountains they grew up amongst, no more low-cost housing. The foxes are in charge of the hen houses, at the local level and state level. All those new manufactured homes on south higuera…. where did the previous tenants go??

In furthering my opinion .. Who wants to go grocery shopping while living in their sardine housing …park their car at the street grab 2 bags of groceries lock the car walk 100 feet to their dwelling …back and forth till car is empty in 95 degree heat or windy downpouring rain ? Or maybe they don’t own a car rely on UBER or public bus ..or the store is 2 blocks away and bus stop is 1 block away ….are they going to get a cart to haul their groceries ? Waiting at the bus stop in 95 degrees or once again windy blowing rain with their groceries after walking 1 block to bus stop in that weather finally the bus arrives their refrigerated items are now cooked their dry products soaked with rain ….the inconveniences are numerous …all that Hell just to get 3 or 4 days worth of groceries ..then repeat 8 or 10 times a month ….Everyday chores/errands etc etc would then become major tasks or projects

After reading some of the comments …people actually want to live like sardines in a can .My question is why ? Don’t people treasure free space at their home and low noise levels .Privacy is a wonderful thing …coming home having to navigate thru a maze of cars crammed into every nook and cranny on the street does not seem peaceful or even something people would actually vote yes for . Let alone when there’s an emergency ….I don’t grasp this thought process , maybe if I was 20 years old and seeking my first place to live would I want to live in a warehouse apartment complex …that type of living gets old quick especially when the SWAT Team is visiting every other week…Or coming out to their vehicle parked on the street with broken windows and their personal property missing …it would be a shopping mall for the thiefs …cars are broken into in broad daylight these days thiefs don’t care who sees them even allow themselves to be filmed as they empty out peoples vehicles or taking the whole vehicle

The public needs to do a better job of recording their real-estate full cash value with the assessors office. For example, when you buy property you are paying tax on the full cash value which includes all of the peripheral benefits that come with your purchase. This concept is nothing new, currently some make a point to add development potential entitlements on their tax role, I would guess to protect their entitlements from zoning changes. Remember, the law requires compensation for a taking so if you have lost your parking space or your water rights, etc. through a jurisdictional taking, the compensation check should be in the mail as well as your property taxes lowered for that value of taking from your property full cash value. Plan on a fight while having the law and statutes on your side because the protected narrative is for new taxes and no compensation. You’ll also discover that the law is for those who can afford lengthy litigation with your taxpayer funded adversaries. Some property owner engage in a Quiet Title action to preemptively protect their rights and avoid such dormant consequences.

Based on recently approved State laws, California no longer has single-family zoning. Gurnee, you forgot AB 626, which allows microenterprise home kitchen operations – restaurants (retail food facilities) in private homes.

Keith, this is real bad. You’re wrong on so many points here. For one, you won’t be able to build 8 units. Sorry that your Livable California group discussion couldn’t figure that out.

Local control is just borrowed authority. You’ve been doing it wrong, and it shows, so it’s being taken back.

As someone looking to buy a small home for my parents to live nearby, I welcome every single one of these well thought out ideas by experts in the housing field that will increase housing stock and help stabilize home prices. Yes In My Back Yard!

If these laws take effect, you won’t have a backyard.

Keith, I know this was intended as a very witty comeback, but just to clarify, 4-plexes absolutely do have back yards. Calm down. I know change is scary for you.

Explain how you have a backyard when you build 4 units on a 6 thousand sqft lot….

Why don’t you move your parents into your house? That’s what I did. I’m sure you’ll have some excuse.

“Do something about the homeless situation!!!”

“How dare you put up more housing in my neighborhood!”

Can’t have your cake and eat it too. Want your own space, privacy, and parking etc?

Then don’t live in the city! Problem solved.

I completely agree. Even though Ca is losing population we are now in the midst of damaging our neighborhoods with these dangerous bills. Seems to me this movement will only damage our culture by cramming more people into small boxes with no real connection to the land or their neighborhoods.

Those boxes are called homes. Sadly, we all can’t be as connected to the land as Keith is in his single family neighborhood, where he drives his car, parks his car, doesn’t want his neighbors getting too close (or too many), then drives 6 blocks to his favorite restaurants, where he also has ample free parking. Very agrarian and neighborly lifestyle.

Sounds like a good living arrangement to me. If you want to live like a bunch of mice in a box, go right ahead. Just don’t force me to do it.

None of these laws are forcing you to do anything.

These laws are intended to force a life style change. That’s why they are being proposed. The less the government interferes with my life the better. People can only be pushed so far before there are bad consequences.

So your lifestyle depends on everybody else around you having the same lifestyle, and you’d like to legislate that conformity through city zoning laws. Very reasonable position. Hope it works out for you.

???? No. I’m not totally opposed to areas of high density housing. But if I want a single family home on a 2 acre lot, the “government” is going to disallow that!? You’re saying I can’t live the way I want? I have to live the way some “politicians” dictate? In a box, or with high density boxes on all sides? This is how you drive the tax base out of the state. It’s already happening. Nobody wants to live in a box. Nobody believes that.

You clearly don’t understand what’s being proposed here. You can continue to live however you want. Nobody is disallowing you to live in a single family home.