Report: New California housing law has done little to encourage building
Once seen as the death knell for single-family neighborhoods in California, a new law meant to create more duplexes has instead done little to encourage construction in some of the largest cities in the state, according to a new report published Wednesday.
Senate Bill 9 was introduced two years ago as a way to help solve California’s severe housing crunch by allowing homeowners to convert their homes into duplexes on a single-family lot or divide the parcel in half to build another duplex for a total of four units. The law went into effect at the start of 2022. The bill received bipartisan support and ignited fierce debate between its backers, who said SB 9 was a much-needed tool to add housing options for middle-income Californians, and critics, who blasted it as a radical one-sizefits-all policy that undermined local government control.
Neither argument has so far proved to be true.
Across 13 cities in the state, SB 9 projects are “limited or non-existent,” according to a new study by the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation.
The report focused on cities considered high-opportunity areas for duplexes because they’ve reported significant increase in the construction of accessory dwelling units — also known as granny flats, casitas or ADUs — in recent years and have available single-family properties for possible divided lots. ADUs are small, free-standing homes most often built in the backyards of existing single-family homes.
The cities include: Anaheim, Bakersfield, Berkeley, Burbank, Danville, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Maria and Saratoga.
By the end of November, 282 applications had been submitted for SB 9 projects, and only 53 had been approved. Los Angeles tallied the bulk of applications with 211 submitted, according to the report, and had approved 38. San Francisco received 25 applications and had approved four, while San Diego received seven and had approved none. Three cities received one application, and in Bakersfield, Danville and Santa Maria, zero were submitted.
Applications for dividing lots seem to be even less popular than for building duplexes. Just 100 applications were submitted, the report noted, and 28 had been approved.
David Garcia, Terner Center’s policy director, said the new law is only in its first year of implementation and should be given more time before it’s judged as ineffective. But he added that lawmakers should consider whether SB 9 needs tweaking.
“It doesn’t seem like Senate Bill 9 in its first year has resulted in very meaningful amounts of new housing,” Garcia said. “Pretty much everywhere you look, Senate Bill 9 activity is very marginal. It is nonexistent in some places.”
Homeowners right now have an easier time building an ADU than a duplex, thanks to local and state laws that have eased barriers to construction in recent years, Garcia said. It took multiple rounds of legislation to see productive ADU development, and the same will probably be true for SB 9 projects, he added.
The report suggested cutting fees associated with new development, or adding more uniform standards for SB 9 projects to ensure local governments can’t attach subjective criteria that discourage applications, such as architectural design requirements or stringent landscaping rules. It also proposed revising a mandate that homeowners who split their lots must live in one of the units for at least three years, a key concession lawmakers made to reduce opposition from organizations worried about gentrification.