Editorial: To Save California, Sacrifice Single-Family Zoning
For decades now California rulers have been stuck in a low density, single family mindset, not in my 20th century backyard. The result is a severe housing shortage that pushes more Californians into poverty, deepens inequalities and harms economic opportunities.
The exorbitant cost of buying or renting a home in California is taking its toll. Rents have grown faster than incomes, and 1 in 3 households across the state now spend more than half of their income on rent, leaving many families with a rent increase or a missed paycheck to lose their income. House. When residents can’t afford to live close to their jobs, they often move to remote suburbs and commute every day, exacerbating traffic jams and air pollution. Employers say high housing costs are hurting the state’s economy by making it difficult to attract and retain skilled workers – a situation that has led some companies to relocate to states where their middle-class workers can afford to buy houses.
The heart of the matter is this: California has failed to build enough housing to keep up with population growth and demand. California needs to add between 1.8 million and 2.5 million new homes by 2025 to ease the housing shortage that is pushing up rents and house prices. But when more than two-thirds of residential land in California is zoned for single-family homes, it becomes difficult and expensive to add housing.
It’s not just a California problem. Across the country, approximately 75% of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Too many communities make it too difficult to build a diversified building stock. They prioritize the construction and preservation of single-family homes, excluding apartments, condos, and townhouses which would be more affordable for middle and low-income renters and buyers. This is fueling a housing shortage; the United States needs an additional 3.8 million homes to meet growing household demand and to provide enough inventory for prices to stabilize.
Restrictive zoning has its roots in racist public policies. Single-family zoning has often been adopted over the past century as a way to separate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group. Today, restrictive or exclusionary zoning perpetuates racial and economic segregation by banning lower cost apartments and townhouses in high potential single family neighborhoods with good schools, parks and other amenities. President Biden and his economic advisers have warned that restrictive zoning widens the racial wealth gap and hinders upward mobility.
In California, lawmakers have an opportunity this year to take small but essential steps to alleviate the housing crisis. Senate Bills 9 and 10 would allow small multi-family buildings on single-family lots. These are the two most controversial housing bills this year. This should tell you how politicized housing legislation has become because, despite all the angst, these bills are unlikely to have a big impact on house building anytime soon.
And yet lawmakers should still pass SB 9 and SB 10, and Gov. Gavin Newsom should still sign them. California must dismantle exclusion zoning. It will have to be a bill-and-city-by-city process until, finally, communities in California remove restrictions that stifle housing creation and perpetuate segregation and inequality.
The more ambitious of the two bills is Senate Bill 9 from Senate Speaker Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). SB 9 would allow up to four housing units on a single family lot. An owner could create a duplex. Or the owner could subdivide the property into two lots and build up to two units on each lot for a maximum of four units. Properties should generally conform to existing design standards.
While SB 9 may seem like a drastic change, it isn’t. California has already passed laws in recent years that override single-family zoning to allow homeowners to build three units on their property. A single family home may have a separate or attached apartment on the land, and a smaller junior unit attached to the main house.
SB 9 allows one more unit than the existing law. It would also give owners more options as to the types of units they build and allow them to divide the lot and sell – not just rent – the new units. These new options could encourage more homeowners to build additional homes on their property. But given the restrictions built into SB 9 and market conditions, only about 1.5% of single-family homes in the state are likely to benefit from SB9, according to a recent analysis. Again, this is a modest reform but well worth it.
Lawmakers have given numerous excuses to reject past zoning reform bills, and Atkins sought to alleviate those concerns in SB 9. The bill would not apply to historic neighborhoods or environmentally sensitive areas, such as wetlands and certain areas at high fire risk. It would not apply if a house has been occupied by a tenant in the past three years, a provision designed to prevent the tenant from moving.
Last week Atkins revised SB 9, in another attempt to appease opponents. An amendment allows local governments to shut down a duplex or division of a lot if the project would have an irreparable impact on public health or safety. Another amendment requires a landlord to live in one of the units for three years after a lot is divided. This change is designed to allay fears that the bill will encourage real estate speculators and corporations to buy single-family homes in low-income communities, fueling gentrification and displacement.
Yes, the owner occupancy requirement will further reduce SB 9’s ability to create more housing. But it’s a reasonable restriction if it helps allay concerns in disadvantaged communities. This is important because SB 9 is truly a proof of concept bill. It’s about showing people that adding a little density and a few more houses won’t destroy their neighborhood.
SB 9 is also the next step in continuing to legalize a style of construction that used to be quite common, with single-family homes alongside duplex, triplex, and quadruple apartment buildings. This mixture of dwellings was not prohibited until later by single-family zoning.
Senate Bill 10 is an even more modest housing rationalization bill. It shouldn’t be controversial. It is however the case.
SB 10 would allow a local government to zone any parcel of land, including a single-family lot, to allow for a building of 10 units or less. The property should be infill in an urban setting or close to public transit. SB 10 would allow local governments to expand the area without going through a lengthy review of California’s Environmental Quality Act or facing lawsuits under CEQA, which can delay projects and projects. make it more expensive. Local governments can also use SB 10 to override voter-imposed land use restrictions that would block such small residential buildings.
SB 10 is not a warrant. Cities can Choose to upstream properties close to public transport. Or not. SB 10 gives cities and counties local control and streamlining of CEQA – two policies that local elected officials consistently demand. Under SB 10, local governments are allowed to require affordable housing in these projects in urban areas.
SB 10 is completely voluntary, which is why it’s so baffling that the Los Angeles City Council and other local governments have opposed it. If cities do not want to rationalize the construction of small apartments near public transport, they do not have to. It is optional. The vehement opposition probably has more to do with the author, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), than the bill itself. Wiener has been the champion of zoning reform for the past three years and has thus become the preferred target of NIMBY groups. But in their rush to demonize density and housing production bills, LA and other cities may be depriving themselves of a useful tool.
Ending the zoning of single-family homes is not the silver bullet to ending California’s housing crisis. But it is an important part of a larger effort by the state – and the nation – to correct flawed policies and misplaced priorities that have led to a shattered housing market and a safety net. woefully inadequate housing security. There is a lot of work to be done. SB 9 and SB 10 can help.