Commentary: SB 9 Moves Closer, but the Debate Continues

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – SB 9 passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on a 12-1 vote on Thursday.  It is moving toward a showdown now.  But the debate is not subsiding.

In a release this week, the League of California Cities warned: “Current legislative efforts in Sacramento, like SB 9 (Atkins), not only threaten the ability of local governments to plan for the type of housing that’s needed in their communities, but also disregard local democracy by ignoring the voices of local leaders and residents.”

They add, “SB 9 would allow developers to build up to four housing units on a single parcel in residential neighborhoods traditionally zoned for single-family homes. While high-density housing is part of the solution, SB 9 goes about it in the worst way. It is a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to land use policy that fails to recognize or incorporate local flexibility, decision-making, and community input.”

David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, whose organization studied the impact of SB 9, doesn’t believe that SB 9 will change people’s neighborhoods in the way they think or fear.

In an op-ed in the Bee on Thursday, he notes, “A recent analysis by UC Berkeley found that SB 9 could play a role in the state’s overall housing solution, but financial and geographic factors will limit its impact to just a small percentage of the state’s single-family homes.”

While the bill “has attracted fierce opposition in recent months,” he argues, “Research has shown, however, that the changes proposed in SB 9 would not lead to the wholesale changes that opponents fear.”

The findings, again from the Berkeley study, show that “relatively few of the state’s roughly 7.5 million single-family parcels would see any new home construction whatsoever as a result of SB 9. The bill would only enable about 110,000 new parcels to feasibly add new housing — just 1.5% of all single-family parcels statewide.”

“Why are so few single-family lots impacted?” Garcia asks.  “Construction costs are exceedingly high.”

This is a point that we keep making over and over again.

Why can’t we build more affordable housing in downtown infill?  Construction costs.

Why can’t we build the housing we need for the next RHNA cycle through redevelopment?  Construction costs.

Garcia adds: “Even today’s skyrocketing rents and home prices are not enough to cover the development costs on most single-family parcels across the state, whether the new housing is a single-family home, a duplex, two single-family homes or any other housing types considered in our model.”

We keep seeing readers arguing—would you want someone building a duplex on the lot next door?

But what the studies show: “Concerns of widespread demolition of existing single-family homes are unsubstantiated. For 97% of single-family homes in California, demolition would not be financially advantageous.”

That means that there is not really an incentive to do that.  But Garcia goes further.

He points out that, even in cases where this type of redevelopment does occur, “the most likely path to add units is dividing an existing home into two.”

In other words, you won’t see a lot of split lots become fourplexes, in part because the “lots are simply too small for multiple homes.”  Even in a neighborhood like mine with large houses, you could create a duplex, but splitting the lot is probably not feasible.  Plus, why would you go through the expense of doing that when you can sell the base home for over $1 million without having to demolish and rebuild?

Garcia does think, despite these limitations, that there will be potential benefits.

He writes: “SB 9 still offers potential benefits, particularly in incrementally expanding wealth building and homeownership opportunities. While recent legislation has made it possible for homeowners to add an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), our research has found that the benefits of these policies largely go to affluent homeowners who can leverage significant equity or cash savings to build an ADU, financing options that are not available to low- and moderate-income homeowners.”

He concludes: “SB 9 is a modest housing production bill. Certainly, new homes will be built that would not otherwise be allowed under current zoning, but the scale of this development is not enough to solve California’s overall housing deficit. However, while other strategies are needed to adequately address our housing crisis — such as lowering building costs and focusing resources on affordable housing — SB 9 can be an important piece of the solution.”

That’s my view as well.  SB 9 is not really a game changer.  Not in a good way or a bad way.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith Y Echols

    Yeah, for most people; their neighborhoods won’t be effected.

    However, some lower and possibly on the more rural edge of many cities, those lot splits will happen (mostly not in Davis).  Some of the more rundown neighborhoods will mowed over and redeveloped.  So yes more housing but less affordable housing.

    Where it will be really felt is in new home development.  Take the proposed Palomino Place.  If it gets by the voters, and approved for annexation, what’s to stop the developers from simply splitting all of the lots into duplexes and fourplexes?  That won’t make the folks that are vigilant about traffic issues on Mace too happy.  So good news more homes and a denser project.  Bad news is that it’s kind of off on an island on the edge of the city with little planning on how it will effect traffic.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Bad news is that it’s kind of off on an island on the edge of the city with little planning on how it will effect traffic.

      Can’t think of many “islands” contiguous to ‘development masses’ on 3 sides.  And, the land is within the city (on the fourth side, it is bounded by a City-owned open space/bike-ped path).  Island?  Really?

      As to planning… and traffic effects… compare current trial balloon to the full EIR for Wildhorse Ranch, and guesstimate the increment, +/-.  “little planning”? Really?

      What is your REAL point?

      1. Keith Y Echols

        I don’t know the specifics of the project.  But here is the last line of David’s article:

        This would be a Measure J vote.  Their goal is November 2022.

        I wasn’t specific enough with my island comment.  It would be a MEDIUM DENSITY island development right off of Mace….meaning I don’t believe there are other existing or proposed houses in the area that are that dense right off of Covell/Mace curb.

        Did the traffic study and EIR for Wildhorse Ranch take into account 2X-4X the proposed density?

        What is your REAL point?

        What is my “real point”?  That there are unintended consequences for these kinds of changes to established planning….ie..shoehorning in a a solution sometimes works but also has issues that need to be addressed.

        1. Don Shor

          Current proposal has significantly lower density than the Wildhorse Ranch proposal that was rejected by the voters.
          Wildhorse Ranch: In 2009 Parlin Development proposed to develop Wildhorse Ranch to include 73 single-family homes, 78 townhomes, and 40 apartments for a total of 191 homes. [DavisWiki]

          Duplexes 4
          Cottages 15 + 8
          Move-up 29
          Mid-level 28
          Half-plex 22

          Total 106

          [Source: Aug 1 2021 rendering from previous article on Vanguard]

          Traffic will be the major argument about this project, regardless.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Fair responses.

          I don’t see medium density as a problem next to lower density.  My take, others free to feel differently.

          There are always unintended consequences.  Called “life” and life decisions.

          As to traffic… you asked,

          Did the traffic study and EIR for Wildhorse Ranch take into account 2X-4X the proposed density?

          Well that’s a fair, but complex question… gets to density for the site overall, or in specific sub-areas…  one would have to look at total units, and they have a pool ‘complex’ and a pretty big parking lot.  That definitely reduces the potential DU count, as to ‘density’, as does the other open space… you have to understand that this is a ‘trial balloon’ and has not enough substance to evaluate.  That would be the next step, is to have a bona fide proposal, specific enough to permit an analytical evaluation… it’s not “there” yet… we’ll have to wait and see… there are so many variables… so, I withhold judgement… I am concerned about traffic (including EVA), but also utilities, including drainage.  But we don’t really know what may be formally proposed.  Speculation isn’t ready for ‘prime time’ judgements… that’s all I’m saying.

          So, no, the previous analysis did not account for the possibilities of “changes”… which was/is appropriate… that’s why analysis of an actual proposal will need to be done, no question.

          Right now, speculation is like someone finding out they were pregnant (let’s say 6 weeks), and wanting to know the gender of the child, how they will behave, full weight and height at maturity, whether they will be successful in school and/or career, and who they choose to love.  Not ready to even hazard a guess, in my opinion.


        3. Keith Y Echols

          Thank you for the info Don.  So then I’m assuming the traffic study and EIR from 2009 does apply to the density that could happen if the lots are split?

          If the move up and midlevel lots are split into duplexes and 4 plexes (say an average of 3 units) then that’s 171 units plus the other units makes it a 220 unit project.

          I’m not really for or against the project at this point…I don’t know enough about it.  If that winery open area and the pools are open to the public…then I might consider supporting it.

          I just want to point out how SB 9 would really effect housing….more so on new construction and less so on existing neighborhoods (except those run down neighborhoods where mowing over homes makes economic sense….thus likely getting rid of some affordable housing).

          1. Don Shor

            The developer couldn’t do it. The most recent amendment of SB9 is:

            The bill, until January 1, 2027, bill would require an applicant to sign an affidavit stating that they intend to occupy one of the housing units as their principal residence for a minimum of 3 years from the date of the approval of the urban lot split, unless the applicant is a community land trust or a qualified nonprofit corporation, as specified. The bill would prohibit a local agency from imposing an any additional owner occupancy requirement on applicants unless specified conditions are met. standards on applicants. By requiring applicants to sign affidavits, thereby expanding the crime of perjury, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

            So in theory a home buyer in any new subdivision could divide the lot to have two houses, but that seems to me like an unlikely practice with a brand new home and mortgage. Assuming I’ve read this correctly.

        4. Keith Y Echols

          Once again Don, thank you for the info.

          New homes are often sold as paper lots to the homebuyers BEFORE the homes are constructed.  In theory a developer could sell the lot to the buyer and say…”hey, want a 4 plex instead”?

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