Senate Bill 9, the contentious zoning law that has divided Californians for the past year, may be more of a lame duck bill than the fierce debate surrounding its inception anticipated.
According to a new study by the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation, the bill—which took effect at the start of 2022 and allowed homeowners to split their home lot in order to construct up to four homes on a single-family parcel—has had a limited or non-existent impact in 13 major California cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. SB 9 was initially hailed as a major victory for zoning reform, particularly as an avenue to allow small-scale homebuilding in California neighborhoods rendered otherwise impenetrable by the existing elite. Now, according to the Terner Center report, local governments are creating hyper-specific restrictions that are leaving many SB 9 construction projects dead in the water. Height limitations, design rules, and low maximum unit size are among the major obstacles.
Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, housing advocacy group California YIMBY spokesman Matthew Lewis noted the resistance to SB 9 as something that might warrant legislative revision, but not surrender. While YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) first supported the measure, he said that it might now warrant reconsideration. “If there’s still a lot of resistance to SB 9—which I think there is—then we are getting what we would expect,” Lewis said. “So as we learn about what’s working and what’s not, I think we’re always ready to go back and improve upon legislation.”
The brainchild of Senate Leader Toni G. Atkins, SB 9 was originally touted as a means of widening access to housing while providing homeowners with “more options to create intergenerational wealth.” When the bill was signed into law, Atkins released a statement calling the dream of homeownership a far-off goal for far too many Californians.
“The years-long housing crisis has had a deep impact on our state, and has contributed to overcrowding, long commutes, and undue disadvantage for lower-income families,” she said. “The intent of SB 9 is clear–to streamline the process so homeowners can create a duplex or subdivide their existing property up to four units–and aims to set California’s housing availability on a path of inclusion so that more families can attain the California dream.”
Lofty goals not withstanding, the Terner Center’s report found that cities like Bakersfield and Santa Maria have received zero applications for lot splits. Long Beach and Anaheim have received just one and two, respectively. And while Los Angeles has received 211 applications for SB 9 units, only 38 have been approved.
According to the report, however, scant inquiries and applications from people wanting to take advantage of the rule don’t necessarily reflect low interest, but “could also suggest that more can be done at the local and state levels to improve overall utilization.”
Adopting more flexible local SB 9 ordinances and creating more prescriptive state standards, as well addressing small-scale homeownership barriers, might be a key start, the report suggests.
These are not the first obstacles SB 9 has faced. Some communities have gotten creative, if not a bit ridiculous, in their arguments against the measure. In February, the Silicone Valley suburb Woodside wanted their community exempt from the law due to resident cougars. It wasn’t long before Woodside was filing a petition to list the community as an “Evolutionary Significant Unit” for said at-risk mountain lions under the California Endangered Species Act. Another affluent Los Altos Hills community pushed an ordinance requiring a colloquially known “Poor People Hedge”—evergreen perimeter shrubbery required along all developments.
Still, despite opposition and the slow growth of SB 9, Atkins remains optimistic about its continued potential, just not as an overnight fix.
“This bill was never intended to be a sledgehammer approach,” Atkins said in a statement. “It was meant to increase the housing supply over time, and as awareness of the law increases and more homeowners have the ability to embrace the tools, I’m confident that we will see results.”