Could this be the end of single-family zoning in California?
Changes to the comprehensive housing measure Senate Bill 50 – already hotly debated – allow property owners broad rights to turn single-family homes and vacant lots into two-, three- and four-unit homes and apartments.
The changes could plant multi-family housing in even the most exclusive of neighborhoods, although experts say it’s unlikely to cause immediate, noticeable changes. If successful, the bill could make California the first state in the country to overhaul property regulations some say are based on a century of discrimination.
“It will allow for more housing in a light-touch way,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. “Single-family homes will always be a significant part of California.”
The proposal comes as the state wrestles with highest-in-the-country housing prices and a crippling deficit of homes and apartments estimated at 3.5 million units across the state. Allowing for more density – called “up-zoning” in housing circles – could bring relief for many young professionals, low-income and middle-class residents overwhelmed by high housing costs. Seattle and Oregon are considering similar measures, and Minneapolis already has passed a new zoning law.
But in California, the proposal to loosen local zoning rules – long the purview of elected county, city and town boards – already has sparked resistance.
“This is poor policy and poor planning,” said Susan Kirsch, founder of slow-growth group Livable California. “It would be dramatic.”
Housing advocates say the changes are needed to overcome a decades-long neglect and antipathy toward residential development by local officials.
The proposal to allow fourplexes in neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes was incorporated into SB 50 from a bill authored by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
In addition to new zoning requirements, SB50 would bring other sweeping changes to housing and development in the state. As drafted, it allows heavier density around rail, bus and ferry routes, with taller buildings and apartments along busy traffic corridors. Those provisions also have drawn criticism.
Proponents say loosening restrictions on single-family zoning could be a gradual, effective way to add housing.
The bill makes it easier for builders to turn vacant lots and abandoned buildings into apartments and condos with up to four units, as long as construction conforms to height, size and design guidelines in the neighborhood.
The bill also allows property owners to convert existing homes into multi-unit buildings as long as they keep 75 percent of the exterior walls in place and abide by local restrictions. Single-family home conversions may not add more than 15 percent to a building’s size.
But it’s not carte blanche for builders. Owners won’t be allowed to tear down existing structures to make the conversions, and the bill will not ban more construction of single-family homes.
In Minneapolis, city leaders in December green-lighted triplexes in every neighborhood. The mayor and city council members said the effort was part of a long-term plan to add housing and break a municipal code designed to exclude minority residents from parts of the city. The move toward so-called “inclusionary zoning” would undo housing policies from a century ago that instituted and enforced segregation.
Jessica Trounstine, associate professor of political science at UC Merced, said the property regulations across the country date back to the early 20th century and were designed to increase property values and provide access to high quality services such as water, sewers, roads and schools. Minority communities were regulated out of certain neighborhoods by city law and developer covenants.
Trounstine, who has researched the topic, said housing policy recently has also become a force in economic segregation.
The bill could bring new housing and diversity to some communities, she said, but “I don’t think this is going to Manhattan-ize the Bay Area.”
Michael Lane, deputy director of Silicon Valley at Home, said the region’s lofty home prices mean small condo and apartment units are a good way for middle class workers, including teachers and first responders, to get into the market. “It creates more options,” Lane said.
Carol Galante, faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, said the proposal likely would add a meaningful amount of homes, but it’s full impact would be difficult to measure.
The business strategy of most developers focuses on building large projects and residential neighborhoods, not small patches of infill housing and renovation, she said.
“This is a trend for all those places that have high job growth and high population growth,” Galante said. “It’s an important step.”
But concern remains with local officials, who may fight the bill as it moves forward. The bill still faces several more hurdles in committee hearings, public scrutiny and approval from Gov. Gavin Newsom before it becomes law.
Jason Rhine, with the League of California Cities, said the group has not taken a position on the zoning change, but members are concerned about losing control over community standards for infill housing. Small apartment buildings might not fit in every neighborhood.
“It’s important to have the conversation with the community,” Rhine said. “We need to find a way to add more density to our communities.”