New homes in North County
New homes in North County. Image from Newland Sierra brochure

Senate Bill 10, which is making its way through the California legislature, is a blatantly anti-democratic measure masquerading as a housing bill. It could affect the voting rights and quality of life for every Californian.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who is now listed as co-author of the bill and is the most powerful state senator in California, is the one person who can fix this bad bill before it becomes law. 

Housing continues to be a top priority for policymakers in Sacramento, and rightly so. The health and humanitarian crisis facing the millions of Californians who struggle to afford housing must be addressed.

But there are some wrong-headed proposals written by greedy special interests that threaten to undermine important laws without solving the housing crisis. The poster child for housing bills that get it wrong is SB 10, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco.

The bill gives extreme new powers to local politicians to undermine the power of voters and direct democracy. SB 10 gives city councils and boards of supervisors the ability to override voter-adopted initiative measures as well as general plans, which are typically the result of hundreds of hours of public participation.

Right here in San Diego County, the Board of Supervisors has historically made a habit of changing the general plan to accommodate the preferences of developers who are focused on profits but blind to the dangers of climate change and the impacts sprawling development has on quality of life and public health. San Diego voters have pushed back against the supervisors’ reckless decisions by rejecting projects like Newland Sierra, North River Farms and Lilac Hills at the ballot box. These projects all have a long list of negative impacts in common: increased traffic, air pollution, and wildfire risk.

Voters have happily approved other housing development projects such as Propositions G and H and similarly rejected Measure A last fall. But these varied outcomes at the ballot box prove the point: The California Supreme Court has affirmed that the public has a constitutional right to weigh in directly on land use decisions through the power of the local initiative.

Not surprisingly, SB 10 is supported by powerful development corporations and big tech giants that aren’t interested in playing by the rules or respecting our democracy.

This bill would allow upzoing of any parcel to permit 10 units on a lot zoned for single-family housing if it is located near jobs or transit. That would include most of the city of San Diego and many of the other incorporated cities in San Diego County. But the legislation provides no funds to support affordable housing construction, despite a healthy $75 billion state surplus. The bill also does not include any affordability requirements for homes built under SB 10, and it includes no incentives for jurisdictions to do a better job of reaching state-mandated regional housing goals.

The national news is full of stories about how legislators in Republican-led states are undermining our democracy, including by unravelling the integrity of the ballot initiative, and it is unsettling to see some of our Democratic legislators taking a page out of that same anti-democracy playbook.

As the California Supreme Court has explained, the power to adopt local initiatives was added to the California Constitution in 1911 to “enable the people…to reclaim legislative power” from special interests. There is no better example of special interests than deep-pocketed developers pressuring local officials to approve projects on specific parcels of land even when doing so is contrary to a city’s or county’s long-term development plans.

Voters often pursue ballot initiatives when elected officials are politically unwilling to do the right thing. Allowing those same officials to overturn ballot measures cuts the heart out of the initiative process. And if state policymakers are willing to undercut the integrity of the initiative process to address the housing crunch, what’s next?

Are we ready to empower city councils and boards of supervisors to unwind living wage ordinances, tenant protections, fracking bans, and other laws established through the initiative process? Under the precedent set by SB 10, the legislature could whittle away at the initiative process, one hot topic at a time.

Sen. Atkins must work to remove this anti-voter language from SB 10 or she will be complicit with an outright assault on democracy and quality of life in San Diego, and in California as a whole.

Peter Andersen is chair of Stop All Sprawl. He lives in Jamul.