Wake up: It’s time to rethink the American Dream and build multiunit housing

STATE AFFAIRS: SB 9 is a crucial move, but it doesn’t ensure that new housing is affordable and sustainable.

Illustration of a family outside of a house
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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A luxury car, 2.5 children and a home with a white picket fence are supposedly the measures of success — proof the American dream has been achieved. But this dream has long been out of reach for marginalized communities. With most of its developable real estate featuring single-family homes, the passing of SB 9 has the potential to change the state’s landscape for the better. But SB 9 is just the first step. The reality is the American dream isn’t sustainable, and for many, simply finding affordable housing is a nightmare.

Beginning Jan. 1, SB 9 will give homeowners the ability to turn their single-family homes into up to four units of housing. This bill is similar to the one the city of Berkeley passed in March, which removed single-family zoning and allows up to four-unit buildings to be built on land previously zoned for one-unit residence.

SB 9 will be crucial in combating the state’s severe housing shortage. However, additional state and local legislation must also be passed to encourage people to add to their homes and ensure these units will be affordable and sustainably built.

Simply increasing housing is not enough — measures must be taken to avoid multiunit housing becoming equivalent to expensive “hacker houses” in San Francisco. Fifteen neighborhoods in Los Angeles recently joined hundreds of others where the typical home is valued at $1 million or higher. Berkeley has seen its communities become increasingly gentrified, and homes are selling at a median listing price of $1.2 million.

Statewide policy must be passed to guarantee that the thousands of new homes to be built under SB 9 will serve existing city residents and will not become a pipeline for increased gentrification.

This bill also does nothing to increase sustainable housing. Subsidies for natural heating and cooling, gray water usage and other environmentally conscious initiatives must be considered if California is going to remain a desirable place to live in the coming decades.

SB 9 is only the first step toward making housing in California accessible to all and reversing the significant impacts redlining has had on generational wealth and stability for marginalized communities. California needs policies that don’t just allow residents to move away from single family-zoning, but encourage it. Legislation was a critical first step; now we must turn those ideas into new communities.

It’s going to take far more than this bill to make real change — it’s going to take a shift in how Californians define success and status. It’s easy to say housing should be increased, but it’s much harder to decide to transform one’s own bright green lawn and white picket fence house into accessible and sustainable housing. And yet, if Californians want the world to change, their lives are going to have to change with it.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2021 opinion editor, Emily Hom.