Opinion: Ask Gov. Newsom to say no to SB 9 – it will put people in harm’s way

The zoning bill is a one-size-fits-all state-mandated policy that will put Berkeley at risk.

SB 9 was approved yesterday by the Assembly by a 45 to 19 vote (41 votes are required for approval). On this morning’s newscasts, I heard Sen. Scott Wiener describe SB 9 as allowing the building of duplexes in single-family neighborhoods to help meet the need for more housing. Earlier on June 15, without hearing from the public, the majority of our City Council refused to oppose SB 9 unless amended. These actions are wrong, and here’s why.

SB 9 puts people in harm’s way:

SB 9 is a one-size-fits-all state-mandated policy that treats tiny Angels Camp the same as gigantic Los Angeles (whose City Council recently voted to oppose SB 9). It eliminates single-family zoning and can allow the development of four to six units where only one existed before. Permits to do this will be given “ministerially” that is, they will be issued by a city staff worker without any notice to neighbors or any environmental review.

Berkeley’s single-family zoned neighborhoods in the hills are laced with some 44 miles of winding roads so narrow (26 feet wide or less) that they impede response by fire engines and are inadequate to serve as safe evacuation routes in the event of a wildfire. Some end in cul-de-sacs and some wider streets have sharp turns that are so narrow, or driveways so steep, that emergency vehicles cannot directly respond.

A 2019 UC Berkeley study done using 1991 Oakland/Berkeley fire data indicates that Berkeley residents have 2 hours to evacuate safely out of these hill areas. Since then, fire officials warn that due to the drought and increased number of dead trees, wildfires are more intense and frequent. I heard former Fire Chief Dave Brannigan say that under the right circumstances, Berkeley will burn down in 1 hour. Recently, the city advised hill residents to not wait for evacuation orders, but to leave their homes whenever there are severe weather conditions. These hill neighborhoods not only have narrow, winding roads to contend with, but they have also to contend with the Hayward Fault Zone, now said to be the most dangerous in the Bay Area, as well as USGS designated landslide areas. Adding density to this area defies common sense. Lives are at risk, especially if you are older and don’t want to be burned alive in your car as happened to many of the 25 people who died in the Oakland/Berkeley fire or the 85 who died in the Paradise fire.

Some believe that SB 9 exempts designated high-risk fire areas. However, legislative savvy analysts at Liveable California say that SB 9 really says that no areas are exempt from its provisions. (The group linked to this newsletter as an explanation). Increasing density in these acknowledged high-risk fire areas increases the danger to everyone down the line when an order to evacuate actually comes even if done by evacuation zones as is currently being planned. Just think about how clogged your street will be, no matter where you live in Berkeley. SB 9 makes absolutely no mention or consideration of evacuation routes.

SB 9 doesn’t provide the affordable housing we need:

I agree that more housing is needed but it needs to be more affordable housing. SB 9 doesn’t provide for any affordable housing whatsoever. It is highly unlikely that the average homeowner will ever build SB 9 related new housing because the existing mortgage will have to be paid out in one lump sum (average is around $371,000) and the high price of the existing land and the huge costs of building the added housing ($1 million) ensures that only the cash-ready residential development corporations will do the deed. The numbers point that out clearly, no matter what wishful thinking is applied. In anticipation of huge profits, people are already being contacted by circling around real estate investors for an “as is” purchase. People who think that density drives down housing costs need only to look at Portland which tried this approach and found it didn’t work – read Patrick M. Condon’s book Sick City, or look at the city of New York, the densest city in the U.S. where the price of housing and rents have never, ever gone down and which currently offers a one-bedroom apartment for close to $3,000 a month, the highest in the nation.

What can you do?

SB 9 must now make a “concurrence” stop in the Senate which has already approved the bill.  If it moves out of the Senate to the governor within the next week, the governor has 12 days to take action. If the governor does nothing during this time the bill becomes law. If the bill arrives on the governor’s desk between Sept. 6 and the 10th, the governor has 30 days to decide.

By Aug. 31, each one of us needs to tell the governor that we object to SB 9.  It’s easy to do – just google “California governor email,” and it will help immensely if we all speak up. After all, this is supposed to be a democracy and SB 9 puts you, your friends and neighbors in harm’s way in Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, Albany, Kensington, Richmond and all over the State.  That’s why the League of California Cities opposes it.  A recent poll done by Berkeley Neighborhoods Council indicated that in each Berkeley Council District more than two-thirds of the residents oppose the bill.  So let’s come together, defeat SB 9 and then work out a way that Berkeley can safely and sanely solve the issue of providing more affordable housing.

Update, Aug. 28: This oped-ed was updated to correct the statement that SB 9 would allow 4-6 units on a lot. The author believes it does, but not exactly in the way it was worded. The op-ed previously had said that could happen in lot splits, which is not the case.