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Cougars or Duplexes: Which Are Scarier? | Insight

Last year, we thought California had killed single-family zoning. But this Bay Area enclave would rather have mountain lions than new homes.

Back in September Harry wrote an Insight discussing the groundbreaking California Senate Bills 9 and 10. Together, these bills were designed and passed in an effort to combat California’s terrible housing shortage. SB9 is especially interesting for its effective annihilation of single-family zoning in California, a mainstay of American housing development.

The bill eliminates single-family zoning by allowing property owners to split lots previously zoned for just one home into two lots and to build duplexes on each, potentially quadrupling density. However, plenty of single-family communities are bound to try to defend their “neighborhood character” anyways. (As a side note, if you’re interested in how SB9 and 10 are good for democracy, we get deep into that in September’s Insight and the accompanying Reflection discussion.)

In Woodside, California, for example, you’ll find a community it’s hard to imagine not doing battle to prevent the implementation of SB9. Not just any wealthy Bay Area town, Woodside is or was home to Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank; Steve Jobs; Kazuo Hirai, the CEO of Sony; and plenty of other tech or tech-adjacent billionaires, with median home values over $4 million. Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, even built a $200 million architecturally accurate Japanese feudal castle there. And the quaintly named local joint, the Woodside Pub, wouldn’t be complete without a Michelin star, of course.

This parody of wealthy Bay Area enclaves, almost unbelievably, gets stranger. A few weeks ago the town declared itself a wildlife habitat for mountain lions in an attempt to exempt itself from SB9 with the help of an obscure ecological preservation clause in the bill. In effect, this would disallow property owners from increasing their own property’s density.

Unfortunately for Woodside’s residents, on Sunday, California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta responded in a memo that the move is in contradiction with SB9 and state law. If you’re interested in the legal nitty-gritty of the arguments, be sure to listen to the Reflection discussion attached to this piece.

I would have imagined a long legal battle to follow, but it seems like Woodside has relented on this peculiar attempt to circumvent SB9. I have almost no doubt, however, that there will continue to be all kinds of disputes and other creative attempts to skirt the law to stonewall new housing and defend "neighborhood character" in many towns and cities. Hopefully, no loophole is found which upends SB9 all over the state of California.

Regardless of what happens going forward, this controversy demonstrates a lesson about democratic policymaking that has probably never been as relevant as it is today. Local environmental regulations like impact review requirements are commonplace and notorious for counter-productively holding up lots of positive developments from more housing, to bike lanes, to solar panels.

These kinds of provisions, and the one in SB9 that has, according to Woodside, opened a loophole are no doubt crafted with the best of intentions, and surely they have a place. But they are founded on a spirit of preventing people from doing any new bad things. In a time like ours, with the environment and housing market, especially in California, as they are, we have much more to fear from the status quo than from whatever new endeavors anyone might undertake.

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Housing Crises and Interest Group Deception | Insight
Following the passage of significant housing legislation in California, NIMBY interest groups maintain a misleading facade in their opposition.
Make sure to revisit Harry's Insight on the politics of the vested interests that don't want to see new housing built.


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