On SB 9 and its First Year
It’s been just over a year since California passed Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), a radical change in policy that effectively got rid of most single-family zoning in the state. Heralded and vilified for its sweeping changes, SB 9 was expected to be a game changer that would create more attainable homes and help ease the state’s housing crisis. One year in, however, the results are, well, underwhelming.
In fact, a recent report from the Turner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley surveyed thirteen major cities in the state and found that across the board SB 9 projects have been “limited or nonexistent” in the law’s first year. In those cities, for example, only 282 applications were submitted for SB 9 units and only 99 were submitted for SB 9 lot splits. Of those applications, only 53 and 28 have been approved, respectfully. For comparison, in 2021 those same thirteen cities received applications for a combined 445,449 dwelling units and approved applications for 159,059 of them, according to state data. SB 9 has been a comparative drop in the bucket so far. But why?
Before exploring this question, a quick overview of SB 9 is in order (we’ll delve deeper in a later post). Also known as the HOME Act, SB 9 essentially got rid of single-family-only zoning in the state, allowing up to four units on any single-family zoned lot. It does so by allowing by-right the development of a two-unit dwelling on any single family zoned lot. In addition, it allows for almost any existing single-family zoned lot to be split into two lots, each of which would be allowed a two-unit development. There are certain exceptions, of course, but in this way the law’s intent is to make single-family zoning a thing of the past. So, why hasn’t it?
Well, first it is worth noting that the law is still very new. Housing of any sort is a big investment and takes a long time to plan and execute. Or, as the LA Times Editorial Board put it: “patience, please. Undoing damage from decades of anti-housing policy in California won’t happen overnight.” While theirs is an admittedly sardonic take, it is not incorrect. It is unreasonable to expect any legislation to have an immediate effect on the dearth of housing in the state. For homeowners, adding a unit (or three) to their property is a huge decision that it may take some time to get behind. Just because the option becomes immediately available once the law takes effect does not mean that homeowners are immediately ready for it. The law’s newness also means that it is not yet well known, and its use is bound to increase as awareness does. Indeed, according to that same report from the Turner Center, planners in the cities surveyed attested that while actual application numbers are low, the number of inquiries about the law that they are fielding are increasing. It is worth noting that the law’s first year in existence has also been marked by one of the most volatile housing periods in recent history. It could just be that the law needs more time to get off the ground. Or it could be more.
Compared to ADU applications and permits, SB 9 units are lagging far behind (almost 20,000 ADUs were permitted in 2021 according to state data), and the stark difference has been pointed to as evidence of the law’s failures. The comparison is apt inasmuch both represent similar options of increasing units on a homeowner’s property. The vast difference in preference, though, points to a deeper difference between the two. Building a duplex and—especially—splitting a lot are significantly more technical, difficult, time consuming, and expensive than creating an ADU. A major reason is that ADU laws have created clear guidelines for ADUs that have made their construction easier and more standard. Getting to this point, however, has taken many rounds of revisions and updates since the original ADU laws passed in 2016. In its first version, SB 9 fails to set up clear guidelines for its implementation, meaning that the path forward can be nebulous for most people not familiar with these processes already.
In addition to this, SB 9 requires that at least one of the lots created be owner-occupied for at least three years. This requirement disincentives experienced developers and builders—exactly the people with the required know-how to get this done—from pursuing these sorts of projects altogether. Removing this provision from further versions of this law as well as working to create clear guidelines for its implementation could help make adding units and/or splitting lots more viable and attractive to homeowners and investors alike.
More prescriptive measures could help maintain a higher baseline of adherence at the local level as well. SB 9 faced fierce opposition from various local groups before it passed, and there are plenty of jurisdictions that are actively looking to undermine it. As an extreme example, the Silicon Valley suburb of Woodside went so far as to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary in order to avoid having to comply with SB 9 (a move that merited a stern warning from the state attorney’s office). It took many rounds of ADU laws to circumvent these sorts of obstructions by local municipalities; it will take similar revisions to provide the same protections for SB 9 projects.
In short, SB 9 isn’t perfect, but we shouldn’t discount its lack of immediate success as any real condemnation. It will take time—likely many years—for the law to hit its stride. To quote the LA Time Editorial Board: “The slow progress so far doesn’t mean the law has failed. SB 9 was never going to be a magical solution to California’s housing crisis. It was (and is) an important step to lift restrictive zoning laws that have made it too hard to build enough homes to keep up with population growth.”
SB 9 has the potential to make a sizeable dent in our housing crunch, and to create more small-scale homeownership opportunities that are affordable to moderate-income buyers. We should, of course, keep an eye to improving the law so that it can live up to its intent, but we should also just give SB 9 time to work.