Housing policy is back on the political agenda this year. After two years of inaction, the state Legislature has taken up a slew of housing bills. Among the best known is Senate Bill 9. This important, though limited and incremental bill has unfortunately been subjected to a coordinated smear campaign. I urge Santa Clara County residents to support our elected officials in voting yes on SB 9.
I encourage residents to imagine not how our neighborhoods look today, but how they might look in the future. Many of us take for granted a dichotomy between neighborhoods of single-detached homes, which embody the suburban lifestyle, and neighborhoods of multi-story apartment buildings which are associated with population growth. But what if there was a way to welcome new residents into a suburban neighborhood without destroying its visual appeal? In fact, there is.
Walking around my hometown of Mountain View, I have noticed many homes that look from a distance like any other, but in fact are duplexes or even three- or fourplexes. Many detached homes could, if the law allowed, be rebuilt as duplexes to welcome more residents into our thriving post-pandemic economy. SB 9 would allow up to four units per lot, statewide.
Some will ask: why must we do this? Don’t we have enough people already? Can’t we just ask all those extra people to go live somewhere else? The arguments in favor of allowing “infill” development are many.
First, the altruistic case, which has been covered extensively in the local press, deserves a brief review. In most parts of the country, a couple consisting of a teacher and a police officer is middle-class. Here, they’re hard-pressed to put a roof over their heads, let alone start a family. The plight of manual laborers is even worse: society declared it “essential” that they come to work, but never declared it essential that they have places to live. Despite building more homes in recent years, Mountain View now has 2.5 times as many jobs as households, which is sadly typical for Santa Clara County cities, according to [email protected].
As a result, prices are now high enough to inflict pain on most home-seekers across the board. According to Santa Clara County data, a median household needs more than 10 full years of income to buy a house, before accounting for interest.
In 2016—before the latest price increases—out of the 290,000 households in the county below the median income, 29% paid more than 50% of their income for housing. A further 37% either paid more than 30% of their income for housing or were overcrowded with more than one person per room. This situation results directly from a long history of racially-motivated policies, which are described in detail in Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law.”
A common reply points out, accurately, that recently built apartments cost more than older ones, and claims inaccurately that building more will only further increase average prices. In fact, the housing shortage gives market power to landlords, who have their pick of wealthy tenants. Building enough apartments for highly paid engineers will create vacancies in older apartments at prices the middle class can afford.
Strong as the altruistic case is, there are also plenty of arguments that should appeal to those who support property rights, business and a conservative outlook. Zoning rules such as height limits, setbacks, prohibition of lot splits, etc. interfere with your right to do as you please with your home, including tearing it down and building something larger in its place. In practice, few homeowners think of their homes this way. But a little creative thinking reveals real options that should appeal to many homeowners—or would if they were legal.
An older couple whose children have moved away, or a divorced or widowed individual, may find themselves in possession of a three- or four-bedroom house with a large yard. Those rarely-used extra rooms and land all need care and maintenance. Separating one side of the house into a separate unit can provide space for an adult child to “move back home” while maintaining autonomy.
Conversely, younger families may appreciate the possibility to have grandparents next door without the awkwardness of sharing a household. Furthermore, turning an upper level into a separate “stacked” unit can both allow older or disabled homeowners to age in place and provide a guaranteed source of income. Sadly, most cities outlaw these options, which would become legal under SB 9. Accessory dwelling units, aka ADUs or granny flats, are now allowed, which is good, but they have major limitations.
The housing shortage also hurts businesses. Speaking just from my own experience in the tech industry, my company is outsourcing more and more high-wage jobs to Italy—not known for a business-friendly environment—and Taiwan. Despite our world-famous talent pool for high tech, major employers have recently made headlines by moving to other states. Talk about a “tech exodus” may be premature, but expect trends to continue unless housing costs decline.
Santa Clara County will have some tough decisions to make. I ask readers to support policy changes, especially SB 9.
Ilya Gurin lives in Mountain View and is a member of South Bay YIMBY.