Duplex housing law meets fierce resistance from California cities

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The state’s housing department is preparing to send stark warnings to cities trying to circumvent a new housing law that advocates hope will bring more affordable housing.

Senate Bill 9, a state law that took effect Jan. 1, allows homeowners to build duplexes, and in some cases fourplexes, on most single-family lots in the state. Cities, more than 240 of which opposed the bill, pushed back against the state with ordinances that would severely limit what property owners can build.

The Department of Housing and Community Development confirmed that it had received complaints about 29 of these towns. He told CalMatters he plans to investigate. If it determines that the cities are indeed defying state housing laws, the department will send letters offering technical assistance and requesting a plan to resolve those issues within 30 days.

The first of those letters will be sent out “relatively soon,” according to David Zisser, who heads the housing department’s new Housing Accountability Unit. Zisser said he hopes the department doesn’t have to send letters to every city it investigates.


“By the time we send out a few letters, hopefully jurisdictions will start to see themselves in those letters and start making corrections to their own orders,” he said.

If a second warning letter fails, the state attorney general’s office, which they coordinate closely with, would intervene.

In fact, Attorney General Rob Bonta has already intervened twice. Pasadena has included exemptions for iconic neighborhoods in the new law, which could apply to large swathes of the city. Bonta told the city last month that they could face trial if they did not change course. In a response letter, the city’s mayor said they were in full compliance with the law.

In February, Bonta also called Woodside, a wealthy Silicon Valley town that claimed its entirety was protected habitat for mountain lions and therefore could not accommodate duplexes. He quickly reversed course following the state’s warning.

Both cities were on the housing department’s list of 29 cities.

The state housing department doesn’t have the authority to enforce the duplex law, Zisser says, which is why cities on their list will be investigated for defying the 16 laws. on housing within their jurisdiction, one of which limits a city’s ability to restrict new housing development.

Who’s on the rogues list?

Temple City, a Los Angeles suburb of 36,000 with a median value of nearly $1 million, drew up an ordinance in December — before the law took effect — with a list of more than 30 standards of development and design that owners must respect. to develop new homes under the state’s new duplex-friendly law. The purpose of the order was no secret.

“What we’re trying to do here is mitigate the impact of what we think is a ridiculous state law,” councilman Tom Chavez said at a 21 city council meeting. December, in which they unanimously passed an emergency ordinance limiting the effect of the duplex law in the city. He acknowledged that the state might push back.

The traditional single-family zoning — with room for a single-family home with a front yard and a back yard — is what has always drawn people to Temple City, said William Man, another council member.

“SB 9, at least in principle, is dismantling this right before our eyes,” he said.

Temple’s ordinance states that homeowners must clear their garage or driveway before obtaining a building permit, and residents of the new unit will be prohibited from obtaining street parking passes . New tenants cannot own a vehicle and must plan to walk, cycle or take ubers to the suburbs, according to a planning memo.

The city also requires all new units to meet the highest level of LEED certification, a designation typically held by high-end office buildings like Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park.

Finally, the new ordinance states that new homes cannot exceed 800 square feet — also the minimum set by state law — and must be rented at below-market value to be affordable for low-income families during 30 years, a standard. this is reflected in the anti-duplex ordinances of several cities. A family of four would need to earn $94,600 or less to qualify and could only be charged 30% of their total income in rent, or $2,365 per month.

The affordability requirement threatens the viability of such projects, according to Muhammad Alameldin, policy associate at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, who reviewed several ordinances for upcoming analysis.

While developers who build affordable housing typically depend on federal and state government subsidies to operate, “they are just landlords who receive no help from their locality or anyone, and lack technical expertise. “, did he declare.

Another city on the housing department’s list: Sonoma, a historic town north of San Francisco known for its chic wineries. In addition to requiring similar affordability clauses for new housing, Sonoma now requires any potential duplex property to have at least three mature trees and 10 shrubs. The new duplex or detached house would be up to 800 square feet in size and at least 600 square feet of shared yard space.

The number of cities with restraining orders is higher among some housing advocacy organizations, like the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund. They identified more than 55 towns by tracking city council and planning department meetings where “it’s pretty clear that the intent is to limit the use of SB 9 as much as possible,” the executive director said. of the group, Dylan Casey.

The typical median income across the 55 cities was $129,000, while the average home cost $1.9 million.

“With few exceptions, it’s mostly very expensive, very high-income suburbs that are rushing to prevent the implementation of SB 9,” Casey said.

A few other cities have come up with creative strategies to get around the law without yet catching the state heat.

Absent from the state’s watch list, Laguna Beach, a surf town in Orange County, plays with geometry to ensure landlords don’t split their lots, according to Isaac Schneider, co-founder of Homestead, a startup that helps owners grow. Secondary suites and, more recently, split their lots under the new duplex law.

Schneider said the power of the law lies in lot splits, through which landowners can cut their land in half to create smaller, more affordable plots and thus boost home ownership. The Laguna Beach ordinance states that the landlord cannot do this unless the new lot is a perfect rectangle.

This poses a problem, Schneider explained, because the line for most lots would have to be drawn behind an existing home — in the back yard. But to gain access to the street, as required by law, planners normally create a flag shape, with a driveway or other access point to reach the new home without demolishing the existing structure. (Sonoma’s ordinance also prohibits flag packs.)

The ordinance also requires the new lot to border the road for at least 30 consecutive feet. However, typical terrain is 50 feet wide at Laguna Beach, Schneider’s group found. This means that if a house is located in the center of the lot, a split lot would require demolition of the existing house.

“They created a math problem that you can’t solve,” Schneider said.

When CalMatters asked if these restrictions would make most projects unworkable, Laguna Beach Community Development Manager Marc Wiener wrote in an email, “The intent is that subdivided lots will have standard property lines and that there is adequate vehicular access to both plots. and meet the 30 foot frontage requirement, so it is not considered a limiting factor.”

While the duplex law was a biter in the legislature and continues to incite resistance among cities, it barely made a dent in housing production. Bay Area city planners haven’t heard of homeowners looking to split their lots or build a duplex.

Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, says the law has only been in effect for 90 days and resistance from cities is just one feature of housing legislation in the state.

“It is not at all surprising that there is resistance and that cities are trying to find loopholes,” he said. “We just need to enforce the law, and we now have the attorney general and (the housing department) ready to do that, as well as private litigants who will sue if necessary. And if it turns out that ‘there are loopholes that need to be closed, we can do that.”

But cities are also returning to legal challenges. A four-city group in Los Angeles County, led by wealthy Redondo Beach, filed a March 29 lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the attorney general’s office, claiming the state had “eviscerated” control of city land use.

Bonta’s office released a statement in response: “We look forward to defending this important law in court and will not be deterred from our continued efforts to enforce SB 9 and other housing laws in the United States. State.”

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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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