What just happened to single-family home zoning in California?


Governor Gavin Newsom signed two bills on Thursday to help build more homes in California.

The first, Senate Law No. 9, allows the construction of more than one residential unit on land previously reserved for only one. The second, SB 10, enables denser development near public transport corridors such as bus and train lines.

Here is an explanation of the concepts and the new laws.

What is single family zoning?

Let’s break the term down into two parts, starting with the zoning. Zoning regulates how land can be used or what can be built where. Can a business be built on a particular piece of land? This area is designated for commercial use. Can a house or a condominium be built there? This is residential zones. In a downtown area, you can have mixed-use zones, such as retail stores on the ground floor and residential units in the skyscraper above.

A residential area in which only one residential unit can be built on a particular piece of land is referred to as a single-family house zoning. Think of the Southern California suburb of a house with no shared walls – in other words, no duplex, triplex, or apartment building complex. If you live in a house with a driveway, garage, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and front, back, and side courtyards, it is almost certainly a single family home.

For example, in the city of Los Angeles, single-family home zoning is known as R1 – which means one dwelling unit on a piece of land. Other zone names are R2 (two residential units on one property, plus other uses) and R3 (which can include pensions and childcare facilities). There are many other names and variations.

Almost two-thirds of all homes in California are single-family homes. And, according to a study by UC Berkeley, as much as three quarters of the arable land in the state is now only earmarked for single-family homes.

Equally significant is the single-family home that is part of the myth of Southern California.

“Living in the suburbs has drawn so many Americans from all over the country to sunny California,” said Kevin de León, Los Angeles city councilor. “Especially when the Rose Bowl was played in the winter months. On the East Coast and the Midwest, people said, ‘Wow, orange trees, lemon trees, front yard, back yard, a swimming pool, a single family home. Let’s pack it up, let’s leave Michigan, let’s leave Ohio and let’s go to the west coast. ‘”

Those behind the recent legislative changes argue that single-family housing development is a relic of a past that is no longer justifiable. It originated in the city of Berkeley a century ago as a segregationist practice to prevent a black-owned dance hall from being near an all-white subdivision.

Proponents of ending single-family home zoning also argue that in a state with such a deep affordability crisis, opening up neighborhoods to more development will enable cheaper housing to be built. The average retail price for a single family home in California was $ 811,000 in July, according to the California Assn. from brokers.

Proponents of single-family zoning are concerned about how increased density could change the character of quiet neighborhoods and affect their property values. In a country facing both drought and grid load, the question arises where additional supply resources for more housing would come from. And some fear that the market is being dominated by developers trying to make money by building flashy new homes as cheaply as possible and renting them out for peak prices, accelerating gentrification, and not addressing the underlying problem of housing affordability at all .

For a deeper insight into the zoning of single-family homes, check out The Times podcast “Gimme Shelter”: He and co-host Manuela Tobias from CalMatters discuss the history of single-family home zones in California and their advantages and disadvantages in a recent episode.

What new laws are there? What problems are they trying to solve?

Of the housing developments Newsom signed this week, only one – SB 9 – would have an immediate and direct impact on local development. Put simply, SB 9 would give many single-family homeowners the right to split their lots in two and build up to three additional apartments on them, essentially turning a one-unit lot into a four-unit lot.

This is a clear shift compared to the current law, which allows up to two large units – a house and an ancillary apartment – per single-family home.

However, SB 9 has numerous exceptions and restrictions aimed at preserving rental and low-income housing, deterring speculators, protecting them from displacement and maintaining local government control over design standards while preventing local officials from enacting regulations, that undermine the law. These include:

  • The zoning changes only apply to urban areas or urban clusters. Agricultural businesses, wetlands, land at high risk of fire or flooding and locations in historic districts are particularly excluded.
  • Units that were reserved for low-income homes or that were rented in the past three years were not allowed to be altered or demolished. The point is not to reduce the supply of rentable and affordable units.
  • Local governments can still impose safety standards and regulate the appearance of units and, to some extent, their placement on a property. However, you may not need more than one off-street parking space per unit, or one off-street parking space if the units are within half a mile of public transportation.
  • Units built in accordance with this law may not be offered for short-term rental.
  • Anyone applying for the subdivision of a property must undertake to live in one of the residential units there for at least three years.
  • The subdivided parcels must each be at least 1,200 square meters and approximately the same size. Cities would have to allow units of at least 800 square feet and could not prevent them from being adjacent or connected.

SB 10 does not prescribe any changes in local land use. Instead, local authorities can change their zoning rules much faster to allow housing developments of up to 10 units if they are in areas with good transport links or in urban areas that are already largely residential.

Local governments already have the authority to make this type of change in their zoning, but because the process is covered by the California Environmental Quality Act, it is costly and takes years. SB 10 allows such changes without triggering a CEQA review, although multi-unit projects proposed in the new zones would still be subject to environmental law.

The Times writers, Liam Dillon and Jessica Roy, contributed to this report.


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