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Ballot Initiative Seeks to Override Recent State Housing Laws

Josh Stephens on
Jan 27, 2022

Update: As of Feb. 18, the campaign to put the "Our Neighborhood Voices" measure on the November 2022 statewide ballot has been suspended by its backers and is now focusing on the November 2024 ballot. An announcement addressed to supporters reads, in part, that the campaign "will re-file their measure to qualify for the 2024 ballot and continue organizing an ‘unstoppable neighborhood grassroots movement’ of several hundred thousand Californians to make that qualification a certainty." “We are not ever going to give up until we have restored a neighborhood voice in community planning,” said proponent Bill Brand, Mayor of Redondo Beach, in the statement. “New State laws like SB9 are stripping local communities of their ability to control what happens in their own towns. This cannot stand and thanks to the thousands of Californians joining our cause, it will not stand." 

A regulatory approach to housing that was intended to bring subtle, incremental changes to California's housing supply has inspired what could be a massive, tectonic shift in the relationship between the state government and California cities.

Prompted by dissatisfaction over Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10--2021 laws that, respectively, eliminate most instances of single-family zoning and make it easier for cities to approve medium-density housing developments near transit--an advocacy group led by municipal officials is seeking to put a measure on the November ballot that would not only undo those laws but also curtail almost all of Sacramento's power to influence local planning, zoning, and housing production.

The ballot initiative goes by the slogan "Our Neighborhood Voices" and is officially called the "Brand-Huang-Mendoza Tripartisan Land Use Initiative," named for its three major backers: Mayor Bill Brand of Redondo Beach, Council Member Peggy Huang of Yorba Linda, and Council Member Jovita Mendoza of Brentwood. The initiative's filing documents list John Heath, executive director of New Life Development, as the main point of contact.

CP&DR repeatedly contacted several proponents of the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative and got no reply.

“We know you think your cities are full and you like them the way they are,” said California YIMBY Director of Communications Matthew Lewis, of the local activists backing the initiative. “But you can’t throw out literally everything because you’re angry that now we’re making it legal to build more homes. It kind of feels to me like an epic temper tantrum.”

Though it was triggered by SB 9 and SB 10, the initiative would do far more than reverse just those laws.

The initiative "[p]rovides that city and county land-use and zoning laws (including local housing laws) override all conflicting state laws." The initiative allows for only three exceptions: the Coastal Act, the siting of power plants, and development of water, communication, or transportation infrastructure projects. Essentially every other land use decision would be the exclusive domain of local jurisdictions. The duplexes and lot splits permitted by SB 9, the ministerial approvals for certain housing projects under SB 35, and the state's laws concerning accessory dwelling units -- among many others -- would go by the wayside.

The initiative also focuses on voter initiatives, specifying that state law cannot override local popular votes -- even and including those that oppose new housing. This provision responds to an element of SB 10 that enables jurisdictions to ministerially approve certain medium-density housing projects. SB 10 includes projects that might be disallowed through local voter initiatives. Though SB 10 is voluntary -- city councils must proactively choose to adopt SB 10 -- its threat to voter initiatives has made it a target.

In a recent interview with The Planning Report, Brand described this provision as “very dangerous;” he said the same about SB 10’s relief of environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Also at risk: the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. While the initiative would not necessarily undo the targets that the Department of Housing and Community Development sets for the state’s regional planning areas (which are, in turn, allocated by the respective metropolitan planning organizations), it could gut recently adopted laws that strengthen the RHNA process and compel cities to meet their RHNA targets. 

The initiative has been cleared for signature-gathering by the attorney general. It needs to submit 997,139 verified signatures by May 2.

Proponents say that statewide land-use laws, including, presumably other recently passed legislation like SB 35 and SB 330, unfairly infringe on local officials' powers. More substantively, they say that even in the face of the state's housing shortage, cities need the freedom to determine where and how to add new housing. Sweeping measures like SB 9, they say, simply may not be appropriate in many places.

That was the argument many member cities of the League of California Cities made when the bill was moving through the legislature. In a joint letter sent in September, over 240 cities wrote, in part, “Policymakers must avoid pushing new, unproven policies that would undermine local planning, change the rules midstream, or conflict with the myriad of new housing laws recently passed that cities are now implementing.” Even so, the organization's board recently voted to take no position on the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative.

Via a statement provided to CP&DR, Melanie Perron, League of California Cities Deputy Executive Director, Advocacy and Public Affairs, said, “the underlying premise of the proposed ballot measure is sound, however a Cal Cities working group, dedicated to studying the initiative, identified the potential for multiple unintended and negative consequences beyond housing that could arise if the initiative were to pass."

Many recently adopted housing laws have not mandated or otherwise given cities support for affordable, below-market-rate housing. Proponents of the initiative say that this shortcoming renders the laws inappropriate and ineffective. They claim that the status quo caters to market-rate development that can crowd out potential affordable developments. (The initiative itself includes no specific provisions to increase housing supply or to promote affordable housing.)

In The Planning Report, Brand said, “It's not just about supply, it's about getting more affordable housing built. The state's making it more difficult by sending us these market rate housing bills that are really just upzoning the entire state for market rate—that's not what we need.”

Some affordable housing developers oppose the initiative outright. In a recently released statement, Jill Breidenbach, a professor of housing policy at Occidental College, and Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, wrote, “This proposed initiative is a full retreat from efforts to enact statewide legislation tackling local barriers to housing production.” In their analysis, efforts to undo recent housing laws benefit, “wealthy homeowners in exclusionary neighborhoods [who reap] unprecedented equity accumulation that stems directly from local government choices.”

The measure received "major funding" from Reyla Graber, a resident of the City of Alameda, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The latter has in recent years advocated against development, especially in its home city of Los Angeles. It sponsored 2017's Measure S, a slow-growth initiative in Los Angeles, and two statewide initiatives, in 2020 and 2018, that would have strengthened rent control. All three measures failed by substantial margins.

 AIDS Healthcare Foundation spokesperson Ged Kenslea confirmed that the organization had donated to the initiative campaign. He wrote in an email, “our involvement begins and ends with providing initial seed money for the campaign start up,” but refused to offer further commentary.

The organizers have not released signature counts thus far. The initiative did get a major boost, however, from the Regional Council of the Southern California Association of Governments. The council voted 32-12, with three abstentions, to support the initiative. Last year, the council adopted a Regional Housing Needs Allocation plan that requires its constituent jurisdictions to zone for over 1.4 million new units in the next eight years.

A SCAG spokesperson responded to an initial inquiry from CP&DR but did not follow up.

Perron cited concerns about management and mitigation of natural disasters, including earthquakes and fires; efforts to further environmental justice for disadvantaged communities, and "the undoing of decades of housing laws that establish shared goals and policies by cities and the state that largely defer to local governments on implementation."

Voters might not want these laws undone either. A recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Council Institute found that 55% of voters surveyed support SB 9 while 27% oppose it, with 18% undecided. The same poll found that 68% support SB 10 and 13% oppose it. Renters who responded to the poll were overwhelmingly in favor of the laws, while homeowners were split evenly.

“I don’t think (initiative proponents) understand the degree of commitment of the legislature or the growing majority of Californians who are fed up with the status quo and ready ready to make it legal to build homes in our cities,” said Lewis.

Contacts & Resources

Our Neighborhood Voices

Initiative Text

Matthew Lewis, Director of Communications, California YIMBY, matthew@cayimby.org

Related CP&DR Coverage

Cities Move Quickly to Regulate SB 9 Housing Units

How Will SB 9 Affect Planning in California?

Revised SB 35 Guidelines Near Completion



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