If you’re fortunate enough to own a home in California, you may feel like your backyard is your kingdom. It’s where you can barbecue, sunbathe, grow veggies, or play ball with your kids.
Commentator Joe Mathews has been savoring his backyard for a different reason recently. He's set up a shrine there for Governor Gavin Newsom. He explains it in this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California.”
A snarky reader, noting praise of California’s governor in this space, recently asked: Where do I keep my shrine to Gavin Newsom?
My answer: The same place everyone should — the backyard.
My little shrine’s location honors one of contemporary California’s crazier contradictions. Even as state government regulates more and more of our lives and livelihoods — even the straws through which we drink — it has fervently deregulated the spaces behind our homes. And Newsom, who has intruded more deeply into our daily realities than his predecessors, also has become, improbably, the liberator of our lots.
That’s the context behind the governor’s recent signing of SB 9, the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act. It allows most homeowners to build a second home on their lot or turn their lot into a duplex. The new law follows 2019 legislation that Newsom signed to give homeowners more freedom to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or granny flats, in their backyards, and in place of garages.
What turned our technocratic governor into our very own Backyard Bolívar?
The short answer: The housing crisis, including the homelessness surge, has overwhelmed long-standing opposition to housing from environmentalists and NIMBY groups. Building backyard housing is cheaper than other forms of affordable housing
The longer answer involves an irony: Even as the California dream long favored homes with large outdoor spaces for living and playing, our local governments outlawed building habitable additions in those outdoor spaces.
Today’s backyard liberation sweeps aside long-standing restrictions on such building. But in this shift lies a new irony: freeing homeowners to build in their backyards also threatens the very existence of the backyard.
This is to the good. Sure, some pool parties and barbecues will become things of the past. But it’s safer for elderly Californians to live in granny flats in their kids’ urban backyard than in exurban cabins in the path of wildfires. And denser living can be more energy- and water-efficient.
Even more important, this should produce more housing. If one-in-eight California homeowners used their new backyard freedom, we’d have more than one million additional housing units.
This new housing won’t necessarily make our divided state more equal. Backyard freedom benefits mostly those lucky enough to have backyards. It makes our single-family homes more valuable, since we now have the right to build more. But it also provides openings for financial institutions to buy up homes and gain even more control over the rental market.
As a homeowner, I’m one of the potential winners. But I don’t have the cash to build my own ADU. Even if I could borrow the money, I don’t have the time or skills to manage such a project.
But it sure would be nice to have rental income to help with the mortgage, especially since journalism is a tenuous profession. An ADU might save money if it could become a home for my elderly relatives.
For now, I mostly enjoy looking at my small backyard and imagining what I might build, if I ever got my act together.
I also like how backyard freedom has put my own small city in its place. A few years ago, a city planning staffer responded with hostility when I asked if I could replace my decrepit garage with a shed. But, just last week, the city sent out a letter offering to legalize any previously unpermitted backyard building, and announcing a new virtual planning desk for anyone with backyard building ambitions.
So, yes, I’m not ashamed to say that I put together a small shrine to the governor in my backyard — with photos from his 2019 signing of the ADU bills and a copy of his 2014 book, “Citizenville.”
Now I’d like to add some candles, which I’d happily light in gratitude to Newsom and other backyard gods.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.