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October 2021

California abolished single family lots

California governor abolishes single family zoning in move to boost housing supply, affordability

October 2021

To increase his state's housing supply, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that fundamentally eliminates single family zoning in the nation's most populous state. As a result, owners can redevelop their single family lot and add up to four housing units on it.

The move marked one of Newsom's first actions after voters overwhelming rejected an attempt to recall him and signified a continuation of his commitment to create more access to affordable housing.

In signing Senate Bill 9, Newsom also greenlighted other bills designed to boost housing production in California where the median home price exceeds $800,000. Along with spurring the creation of more housing, the package of bipartisan legislation Newsom signed is expected to streamline permitting and increase density to create more inclusive and vibrant neighborhoods statewide.

Supporters believe three recently signed bills (SB 8, SB 9 and SP 10) will help address homelessness and housing costs -- two major concerns for Bay Area voters, according to recent polls. Research conducted earlier this year showed 89% of those polled said homelessness was an extremely serious or very serious problem, and nearly as many (86%) said the cost of housing was an extremely serious or very serious problem.

SB 9 allows homeowners to split their lots or convert their home into a duplex (including having a duplex on each side of a divided lot), regardless of local zoning. Theoretically, it opens up high-opportunity neighborhoods, and lowers rents and housing prices.

SB 10 simplifies zoning requirements by creating a process for local governments and developers to streamline development of new multi-family housing projects of up to 10 units built near transit or urban areas.

Local governments are charged with planning for the creation of more than 2.5 million units of housing statewide. That number more than doubles their "fair share" obligation under the previous Regional Housing Needs (RHNA) cycle.

Advocates of the new measures say the bills will help address the state's persistent housing crisis while correcting city zoning laws that have contributed to racial segregation.

"Leaving neighborhoods so that they only allow single-family houses to be built essentially assures that no new housing will be built," said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate in Metropolitan Housing and Communities at the Urban Institute.

Supporters of the legislation also believe is will "help address the interrelated problems of climate change and housing affordability by promoting denser housing closer to major employment hubs" - a critical element in limiting California's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Most Californians can't afford a typical single-family home and our state's desperately limited housing stock has a lot to do with it," said President and CEO of the California Building Industry Association Dan Dunmoyer. "This suite of bills will ease some of the obstacles to home construction and help combat the already record-high cost of housing in our state. I am grateful to Governor Newsom and legislative leaders for their courage to enact policies that support the construction of low- and middle-income homes with the goal of providing attainable, secure housing for all."

Opponents fear the change will destroy the character of residential neighborhoods. "Livable California," a slow-growth coalition that was among 100 cities and groups who opposed SB 9, called it a "radical density experiment" and suggested developers would be able to remake neighborhoods without community input. Coinciding with the signing of SB 9, the group issued a statement outlining eight reasons why they believe it is a "bad idea."

Analysts at UC Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation determined the new laws likely would add fewer than 700,000 housing units across California, citing criteria that must be met under SB 9. That study, based on a version of the bill without subsequent amendments, indicated development "would be realistic in only about 410,000 parcels in California at most, or 5.4% of land now occupied by single family houses.  Restrictions include a lot's size and provisions that the owner must live there for a minimum of three years before splitting the property.

"The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity," Newsom stated. "Making a meaningful impact on this crisis will take bold investments, strong collaboration across sectors and political courage from our leaders and communities to do the right thing and build housing for all."

Newsom said meeting the housing goals is "absolutely imperative if we are serious about building an equitable future." He also emphasized housing's connection to climate goals. "It is similarly imperative to meet these housing targets because unaffordable housing leads to hours-long car commutes - directly inhibiting our efforts to meet our climate goals. Creating denser housing closer to major employment hubs is critical to limiting California's greenhouse gas emissions."

With the latest legislation, the governor has signed 31 affordable housing bills intended to cut red tape and hold cities accountable for providing their fair share of housing. In a news release, the governor's office highlighted several of the achievements:

  • A new Housing Accountability Unit at HCD to support local jurisdictions' efforts to create housing.
  • The California Comeback Plan, which funds new $100 million grant program for low- to moderate-income homeowners to build accessory dwelling units.
  • Advancing $800 million in new or accelerated funding to build affordable, climate-friendly housing and infrastructure.
  • Establishing a voluntary, streamlined process for cities to zone for multi-unit housing, and making it easier and faster to construct homes.

Newsom's focus on California's housing crisis dates to his first year in office when his budget included a record $1 billion to fight homelessness and an additional $1.75 billion to build more homes, along with the creation of a homelessness task force.

The governor and his administration view the latest measures as complementary to his $22 billion housing affordability and homelessness package that is expected to yield more than 84,000 new housing units and exits from homelessness. The California Comeback Plan has been described as the most significant investment in housing in California's history.