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What do mountain lions have to do with California housing?

The new episode of the California housing crisis podcast spotlights local resistance against a new law allowing duplexes on single-family lots.
Credit: Erni - stock.adobe.com
Puma or Mountain lion, Puma concolor, single cat in snow, captive

CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters

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A small, wealthy enclave in the heart of Silicon Valley became the subject of internet scorn when town leaders claimed to be exempt from a new California law that supporters hope will create more affordable housing. 

The reason: mountain lions.

Woodside, with a population of about 5,000 and a median home price of $4.5 million, claimed it couldn’t implement Senate Bill 9 — which says single-family home lots can now have two houses or a duplex, or be split in two to make room for as many as housing units — because the town, in its entirety, is a habitat for the potentially endangered species.

The story went viral on Twitter, inspiring the spurn of even mountain lion conservation groups. Attorney General Rob Bonta quickly stepped in and called the move “a deliberate and transparent attempt to avoid complying with the law,” prompting the town to swiftly reverse course and say it would consider applications under SB 9.

In the new episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast,” CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon discuss other ways that some California cities have previously tried to block the development of low-income housing, including failed attempts to count prison beds, student dormitories, and even households with foster children toward housing requirements. But local opposition isn’t the sole culprit behind the shortage of affordable housing; there are also broader market forces and tax policy that affects incentives for homebuilding.

Liam and Manuela also interview Jessica Trounstine, a political science professor at UC Merced and author of the book Segregation by Design, about local housing decisions.

“A lot of people assume or believe that segregation is something that happens by accident, that it is just a pattern that occurs because people have differences in wealth, or because people prefer to live in certain neighborhoods versus others,” Trounstine said. “And what I discovered in doing this research is that to the contrary, segregation was and is by design.”

Trounstine said Woodside’s move exemplifies her book’s findings.

“By making one part of town or the whole city unavailable to, say, multifamily housing, or housing that is located on a smaller lot, what that means is that all the housing in that particular area becomes more expensive and then unavailable to people with lower incomes,” she said.

Granted, a duplex in Woodside will remain unaffordable to most. But Tounstine argues that, “on the margins, developing more housing will increase integration in the community.”

In more recent research, Trounstine found pretty much everyone, regardless of race, income or political party, prefers single-family homes to multifamily development. However, she says that white and wealthy residents have always had more power to push their preferences.

“What really has to happen in order for integration to work is not to shove more housing into the same neighborhoods that have always had more housing,” she said. “It’s to put housing everywhere, and to make sure that the most exclusive places don’t get to maintain their exclusivity.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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