A state housing law that was expected to upend single-family home neighborhoods in California has had minimal impacts in its first full year, according to a report released this week from the University of California Berkeley.
Senate Bill 9 faced opposition from community groups and local lawmakers who said its allowance of duplexes, and in some cases, fourplexes, in neighborhoods that were previously zoned for single-family homes would strip away local control and diminish the character of those communities.
However, across many of the state’s largest cities, just a few dozen SB-9 applications were approved in 2022. Long Beach saw just one application turned in and it wasn’t approved, according to data compiled by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley that was published Wednesday.
Los Angeles saw the most applications for lot splits (28) but approved zero, according to the report. It also received the most applications for SB 9 units without a lot split (211) but approved just 38.
“SB 9 has the potential to help solve the state’s housing shortage, particularly by creating more units in single-family neighborhoods and providing entry-level homeownership opportunities, but only if the law’s promise is realized through implementation,” the report said, adding that it’s still too early to say if SB 9 is not working.
The report said that the slow uptake could be due to a number of factors. The cost of construction has swelled during the pandemic due to supply and labor shortages, which could mean that home additions of 800 square feet—the limit set by SB 9—could cost several hundred thousand dollars.
The bill also prohibits units from being altered if they’ve been rented in the past three years and requires an owner who wants to subdivide their lot to live on the premises for three years.
There are also additional roadblocks that have been put in place by some cities that the report says could have discouraged housing production under SB 9.
Some cities, like Beverly Hills, have requirements that the new units have to be rented to people making 80% or less of the area median income, along with other limitations on height, the number of rooms that can be rented and parking requirements that could make them difficult to build.
The city of Woodside near Palo Alto even tried to have its city designated as a mountain lion sanctuary in an attempt to exempt the city from state housing laws.
“They’re trying very creative things to avoid housing growth, which is unfortunate,” said Long Beach Development Services Director Christopher Koontz. “Here in Long Beach we’re trying to grow, but do it responsibly in deference to individual communities.”
Koontz said that it could take another year to see a more clear picture of how SB 9 could affect the city because not everyone knows how it works, and it takes time to get projects together.
“I don’t think we’ll get one per year, but I also don’t think we’ll get very many of them,” Koontz said.
Part of the issue is that Long Beach lacks the large lots necessary to make SB 9 attractive to owners looking to build. The City Council’s State Legislative Committee was told in 2021 that the law was likely to have a small impact on the city. Of the over 59,803 single-family zoned lots in Long Beach, only about 4,600 are over 8,000 square feet, the size city planning staff thought is required to take advantage of the lot split provision of SB 9.
Potentially whittling down the number of owners who could use SB 9 to build on their property is the requirement for the existing units not to have been rented for three years prior to construction. Accessory dwelling units, which the city expects to play a small role in meeting a goal of creating 26,500 units by 2029, provide owners the ability to build the same size structure (800 square feet) in some cases with less legislative red tape. Koontz said the city permitted about 500 ADUs in 2022.
The report suggested that changes could be made by legislators to make it easier to utilize SB 9 when building, including creating more flexible home design standards by walking back the square-footage cap and limiting costs like impact fees that owners have to pay to local agencies for things like sewer hookups, fire and police services, along with fees used to support local school districts.
It pointed to ADU legislation, which didn’t initially see a boom in ADU production after it was first passed. But after a few tweaks, it has led to substantial increases across the state.
“The passage of SB 9 in 2021 was hailed by many as a significant housing milestone that could create meaningful amounts of new homes in high-resourced neighborhoods while partly addressing the nefarious origins of single-family-only zoning,” the report said. “However, ensuring major policy shifts achieve their intended goals often requires a sustained effort beyond one legislative cycle.”
Koontz said that the city is working on its own SB 9 ordinance, which he anticipates being before the City Council by the end of 2023. The ordinance would mainly clarify the process and rules for building under SB 9, not create more roadblocks, Koontz said.
“The goal is just to have clear, understandable rules and process, not to add additional burden,” he said.