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Did SB9 Kill Suburbia in California?

This week on Design Create Inspire I'm curious: Is suburbia as we know it officially dead in California?

On September 16, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed 2 pretty big bills that will affect housing in California. SB 9 and SB 10, which both affect single-family zones. Zoning regulations have come with a long history of issues, including racism, developmental barriers, limiting healthy urbanism, and walkable cities. There has also been a housing shortage in CA for years, so planners and lawmakers are continuously trying to figure out how to improve the current framework. So, let's dive into SB 9 and discuss how it could affect your neighborhood.

let's talk about California + single family housing

Wait. I actually wrote an entire thesis about Levittown, suburbia, and the single-family residence back in 2013. There is way too much information to include in this short blog post, so I'll keep it simple. Nearly two-thirds of all the residences in California are single-family homes. And as much as three-quarters of the developable land in the state is now zoned only for single-family housing, according to UC Berkeley research.

Single Family Residential (SFR as we like to call it in the industry) lots are essentially already nonexistent based on current code. What do you mean SFR zoning is nonexistent? Yep! This is true, yet we don’t really think of it like that. Technically in CA, you can build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on a lot within a single-family residential zone. So, essentially you can have 2 units instead of just 1. Even though this has been the case for years, we still think of SFR zones as neighborhoods and the housing fabric hasn’t changed drastically.

Even though lots have been allowed to have 2 units, SB 9 has an immediate and direct effect on the zoning that will have more drastic effects than the ADU law. SB 9 allows lots within single-family zones to be subdivided into 2 lots and contain the main house and an ADU. So, what has always been a single lot, can now be 2 lots with 2 main houses and 2 ADUs - essentially a 4 unit lot.

Don’t expect to see micro-lots everywhere though, there are some stipulations. The bill is designed to preserve rental and low-income housing, deter developers who want to come in and take over, and still allow local jurisdictions to have control over design standards.

Rules + Regulations

Some of the rules put in place to address these issues include:

  • Only applies to urban areas or urban clusters. Farms, wetlands, lots at high risk of fire or flooding, and sites in historic districts are exempt.

  • Units reserved for low-income housing or that had been rented within the previous three years could not be altered or demolished. The bill is intended to bring in more housing, not to reduce the supply of existing rental and affordable units.

  • Local governments can implement design standards and regulations regarding setbacks, heights, max floor area, and more.

  • Only one off-street parking spot is required per unit and no off-street parking is required if the units are within half a mile of public transit.

  • No short-term rentals are allowed! So, a unit must be rented for a minimum of 30 days.

  • One of the units must be owner-occupied for at least three years.

  • The subdivided lots have to be at least 1,200 square feet each and roughly the same size (60/40 rule). Units could be adjacent or connected and have to be at least 800 square feet.

  • Can’t be within a historical district

  • Does not require CEQA approval (California Environmental Quality Act, which is an environmental report required for new construction and other developments)

  • Parcels have to have access to the right of way

  • Lots cannot have been split previously and can only be split once - so you can't break up a lot into more than 2 parcels.

When Does it go into effect?

The new law goes into effect in January 2022, however, each jurisdiction has the right to approve within its own context. This means they would choose to adopt the new code and adjust it how they see fit (setbacks, max area, and other items mentioned above). The local agency can't impose objective zoning standards, objective subdivision standards, and objective design standards that would have the effect of physically precluding the construction of up to two units or that would physically preclude either of the two units from being at least 800 square feet in floor area, but they may have implement standards that affect it otherwise. The coastal overlay zone is also a beast of its own that needs to be considered. It wasn't definitive in the bill, but it would likely require a coastal permit.

So, is Suburbia Dead?

While this is big news for California, suburbia as we know it isn’t totally dead. Don’t worry NIMBYs, your neighborhood character isn’t going to instantly change. There are more options now, designed to create more housing, but that doesn’t mean all homeowners are going to jump on this change. The cost of construction, the feasibility of getting 4 units on a site within the site’s limitations, and the size of existing single-family residences, are all limitations that will affect whether a homeowner decides to take advantage of this new law. You might see a few lots increasing their density, but I don’t expect things to look different for many years to come.

Watch the video on YouTube or listen anywhere you listen to podcasts for a more detailed dive into the topic.



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