Ahead of Recall, Newsom Lets Housing Bill Sit on His Desk

The governor has not publicly discussed the bill, which would allow duplexes on lots throughout California, as he navigates the complex politics of a recall election.,


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Ahead of the recall, Newsom lets a polarizing housing bill sit on his desk.


Sept. 14, 2021, 10:51 a.m. ET

Sept. 14, 2021, 10:51 a.m. ET

A bill in California, yet unsigned, would open up single-home sites to building duplexes in an effort to ease the housing shortage in the state.
A bill in California, yet unsigned, would open up single-home sites to building duplexes in an effort to ease the housing shortage in the state.Credit…Jamie Rector for The New York Times

Sitting among the hundreds of unsigned bills on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk is a measure called Senate Bill 9, which would allow duplexes on lots throughout California, including neighborhoods where apartments have long been banned.

The bill was the centerpiece of this year’s legislative efforts to tackle the state’s housing and homelessness crisis, by increasing density and helping to backfill the shortage that is at the root of the state’s affordable housing problem. Economists from both parties have long advocated just such a move.

Although Mr. Newsom had campaigned in 2018 on a “Marshall Plan for Housing,” he made no public statements about S.B. 9 as it made its way through the Legislature, and his office had no comment on whether he intends to sign it.

One can only guess why Mr. Newsom is being quiet on the issue, but it seems quite likely that he is shying away from any controversial topics before the recall vote on Tuesday.

And few things in the state have become more contentious than the subject of single-family zoning, a debate that pits the need for more housing density against politically active suburban neighborhoods whose spacious yards and low-slung character have for more than a century been held up as the California dream.

Mr. Newsom is far from alone. While the governor has cast the recall election as a referendum on Trumpism, a distinct sort of housing policy has emerged when people talk — or conspicuously do not talk — about the affordability crisis that consistently ranks as voters’ top area of concern. Candidates, even those who have governed in a pro-density manner, have either defended single-family zoning or shied away from any discussion of ending it.

Take Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor who is trying to unseat Mr. Newsom and has highlighted his bipartisan record as a Republican mayor in a city with a majority-Democratic City Council.

That record includes legislation that makes it much easier to build accessory dwelling units — better known as in-law units and granny flats — in single-family neighborhoods. Thanks in part to this legislation, it is possible to turn single-family plots in San Diego into what are essentially small apartment complexes, with four or more units in the backyard. The zoning has not changed on paper, but in effect it has.

Yet when he was asked about single-family zoning in a recall debate, Mr. Faulconer backtracked on his own policy, saying: “When we see some of these pieces of legislation that want to eliminate single-family zoning in California, that’s wrong. I will veto that.”

In the same debate, Kevin Kiley, a Republican who voted for S.B. 9 in committee, and Doug Ose, a former G.O.P. congressman who dropped out of the race after having a heart attack, spoke in favor of local control and single-family zoning, before saying that the state needed to speed up permitting and reduce development fees. They left out the part about how the state has been passing legislation to do that, and that permitting is largely a function of local control.

Housing is an impossible subject because the only way to fix California’s housing crisis is to ease the supply shortage. But building housing where people already live — in particular the state’s expansive single-family neighborhoods — is so politically difficult that lawmakers have been vexed by the problem since the 1970s.

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