Some California cities are trying to blunt new duplex law with restrictions on new development

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A secondary suite under construction in West Adams, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

As California is poised to allow multi-unit housing in neighborhoods previously reserved for single-family homes, some cities are rushing to enact restrictions on new development.

Senate Bill 9, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires communities across California to allow duplex, and in some cases four units, in most single-family neighborhoods.

The passing of the law this summer came after years of debate over how to address a shortage of available housing at the root of the state’s housing affordability issues.

But opponents of the new law argue that it will invade single-family neighborhoods with development that goes against the character of their communities and will lead to excessive traffic. They also argue that authorized housing will not be affordable. Cities across the state, from Los Altos Hills and Cupertino in the Bay Area in Pasadena and Redondo Beach in Los Angeles County are considering measures that would mitigate the effects of the new law.

Among other restrictions, local plans aim to limit the size and height of new developments, mandate parking spaces and require that such accommodation be rented only to people with moderate or low incomes.

“We want to make sure we put in place the few permitted constraints,” said Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, whose city is considering capping the number of homes allowed among other provisions. “It all happens very quickly and randomly as people try to figure out what they can and can’t do.”

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the change the new law could have in California. Nearly two-thirds of all residences in the state are single-family homes. And up to three-quarters of the state’s developable land is now set aside for single-family housing, according to UC Berkeley research. Also, the “California Dream” has long been mythologized like living in a suburban single family home with a garden and a barbecue.

When Governor Gavin Newsom signed the law in Septemberthe state became the second in the nation to eliminate single-family home-only zoning in most areas, after Oregon, who did it in 2019.

In other respects, however, SB 9 might not have a significant impact. The law does not prohibit the construction of new single-family homes. It only allows owners to build duplexes – or quadruplexes – on their land if they wish. Too, other zoning changes in recent years have already made it much easier for landowners to build small second homes — called granny flats, casitas, or secondary suites — on their zoned single-family lots.

Indeed, UC Berkeley researchers found that it would make financial sense for owners of just about 5% of the state’s 7.5 million single-family lots to add more houses to their property in accordance with the new law.

Some proponents characterize SB 9 as a modest effort to spur growth in areas that have long been off-limits, and argue that many of the restrictions planned by cities are actually attempts to stop people from building at all.

“It’s unfortunate that some of these cities are trying to obstruct state law instead of embracing new housing, but that’s the world we live in,” said Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), a proponent of the law and author of several of the most aggressive housing production bills in recent years.

Wiener said he expects state housing officials, who recently created a new department to investigate local compliance with state lawswill examine attempts to limit the effects of SB 9 to see if they violate the law.

But some local officials say their measures represent legitimate efforts to maintain key development priorities. Under a proposed bylaw in the city of Pasadena, for example, those building under SB 9 may have to plant a “minimum of two mature trees on site” from the city’s list of native and protected species, a provision that is likely to add costs to the project.

David Reyes, Pasadena’s director of planning and community development, said the city’s proposal is designed to protect Pasadena’s tree canopy and the requirement could be waived if a builder shows the rule would make a duplex or an impractical quadruplex.

“It’s going to happen,” SB 9’s Reyes said. “We’re not going to come up with any regulations that would be contrary to the intent or the word of the law.”

“If we wanted to stop this,” Reyes continued, “we could have said, ‘Make all parking underground.'”

In addition to Redondo Beach and Pasadena, Temple City and Hermosa Beach are among Southern California cities discussing regulations that would limit certain developments under SB 9. Brand, which is promoting a proposed amendment State Constitution of 2022 restricting the state’s ability to override local development rules. , believes that many cities can adopt regulations, with some testing the limit of what is allowed.

“Ultimately it will be something that will be determined by a court,” he said.

Opposition to the law was also noisy among some in South Los Angeles neighborhoods who fear the measure will fuel continued gentrification and displacement of longtime black residents. In order to allay concerns, a late change made to the law before its adoption said those wishing to divide their land to build more housing must intend to live on the property for at least three years thereafter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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