Commentary: SB 9 So Far Has Not Changed Much – No Real Surprise

Photo tweeted by Senator Toni Atkin

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

A year ago, Governor Newsom signed into law SB 9.  Critics feared that SB 9 would destroy single-family neighborhoods while proponents hoped it would inspire new housing in the form of more affordable duplexes.

As the Sacramento Bee noted this week, “Proponents hailed it as a major step toward addressing California’s housing crisis and helping more Californians afford to purchase homes in desirable neighborhoods. Opponents called the measure a “radical density experiment” that would upend neighborhoods without allowing any community input.”

But a report found that nothing has changed so far.

“I think the people that have been pushing for this for so long were just glad to get it through,” said Lee Ohanian, an economics professor at UCLA and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute (as reported in the Bee). “But it really ends up being much to do about nothing.”

The Bee surveyed areas in the Sacramento and Central Valley and found that while cities are required to report on the number of SB 9 projects, the participation has been low.

The Be found: “The cities of Davis, Stockton, Modesto, Merced and Bakersfield have not received a single application. Fresno has one. Three applications were submitted in Elk Grove, though one was deemed ineligible because it was located in a designated wetland, which is exempt under the law.”

Sacramento actually eliminated single-family zoning ahead of the statewide measure and “has had some success in encouraging homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties. The city allows up to two ADUs totaling 1,200 square feet on a parcel that already has a primary residential structure. After streamlining the permitting process for the units, the number of ADUs built in the city has doubled in recent years.”

While alarm bells went off when SB 9 was proposed, these results confirm the analysis by the Terner Center from 2021.

David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center wrote in the Bee in 2021, “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.”

In their analysis, Ben Metcalf, David Garcia, Ian Carlonton and Kate MacFarlane write: “SB 9 has potential to expand the supply of smaller-scaled housing, particularly in higher-resourced, single-family neighborhoods. In this way, SB 9 builds on recent state legislation that opened up access to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for virtually all California single-family parcels.

“What distinguishes SB 9 is that it allows for the development of new, for-sale homes, either on a newly subdivided lot or through the conversion of existing single-family homes into multiple units. This ability to create duplexes and/or split the lot and convey new units with a distinct title would allow property owners to pursue a wider range of financing options than are available for ADU construction to build these new homes.”

“Yet, the likelihood of creating new housing and homeownership opportunities as a result of SB 9 largely depends on local context,” they write. “While Senate Bill 9 does not apply to single-family parcels in historic districts, fire hazard zones, and rural areas, local market prices and development costs play a large role in determining where there is financial viability for the addition of new homes.”

So, what is the impact?

This analysis, the most detailed one yet on the impact of SB 9, “finds that SB 9’s primary impact will be to unlock incrementally more units on parcels that are already financially feasible under existing law, typically through the simple subdivision of an existing structure.”

However, in contrast to fears by many homeowners: “Relatively few new single-family parcels are expected to become financially feasible for added units as a direct consequence of this bill.”

The study found that “the vast amount of single-family parcels across the state would not see any new development,” said Garcia.

That appears to be exactly what happened.

In fairness, however, a year into a new law is probably not the appropriate interval for analysis.  Especially given the cost of construction, rising interest rates, and the state of the economy and the market at the moment.

That’s a point raised by the Bee analysis as well, “Experts say narrow interest in the law is due to a combination of factors: high-interest rates and construction costs, regulatory loopholes and efforts by communities to limit the feasibility of small developments.”

As passed, SB 9 was meant to spell the end of single-family zoning, opening the door to allow the construction of up to four units on lots that previously only were permitted to have a single home.

The Bee notes, “The legislation marked a historic shift from the land use classification that defined the American suburb, born from the mindset that each residential lot should come with a stand-alone home on a peaceful street with plenty of elbow room and green space.

“But beneath that suburban idyll were often exclusionary housing practices. In California and across the country, single-family zoning was a means of barring lower-income residents and people of color from living in neighborhoods with good schools and other public services.”

In his seminal work, Color of Law, Richard Rothstein, who has spoken in Davis, and whose daughter recently spoke at Bet Haverim, details how single family zoning was used to create segregation.

Single family zoning, he explained in chapter 3 for example, was “developed in part to evade a prohibition on racially explicit zoning.”  What it did was attempt to keep out Blacks from white neighborhoods, “by making it difficult for lower-income families, large numbers of whom were African Americans, to live in expensive white neighborhoods.”

SB 9 could become a tool to undo that, but right it appears costs are too high to convert existing homes into duplexes and four-plexes, but that might not be the best test of the law.  The best test of the law may be moving forward, preventing new developments from becoming single-family zoning.

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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14 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    The Bee notes, “The legislation marked a historic shift from the land use classification that defined the American suburb, born from the mindset that each residential lot should come with a stand-alone home on a peaceful street with plenty of elbow room and green space.

    Yeah – who wants that? What’s the “opposite” of that? (A unit in a building with noisy neighbors, on a busy street with no parking, no “elbow room”, and “no green space”?

    Again, there’s plenty of locations with single-family housing which are “diverse”.  Stockton comes to mind.

    Stockton’s Weston Ranch neighborhood, a subdivision of modest tract homes built in the mid-1990s, had the worst foreclosure rate in the area according to ACORN, a now defunct national advocacy group for low and moderate-income families.[citation needed] Stockton found itself squarely at the center of the 2000s’ speculative housing bubble. Real estate in Stockton more than tripled in value between 1998 and 2005, but when the bubble burst in 2007, the ensuing financial crisis made Stockton one of the hardest-hit cities in United States.[45]\

    Following the 2008 financial crisis, in June 2012 Stockton became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy protection. It was surpassed by Detroit in July 2013. The city approved a plan to exit bankruptcy in October 2013,[47] and voters approved a sales tax on November 5, 2013, to help fund the exit.[48]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton,_California

    And who is to say that densifying will lead to more diversity?  So far, it’s lead to gentrification – more than diversity.  Especially in places where economic conditions encourage density (e.g., San Francisco). But even in S.F., they’re generally not tearing down existing single-family housing and replacing it with more dense development in mass.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Just noticed this regarding Stockton, via the link above:

      It was named an All-America City in 1999, 2004, and 2015 and again in 2017.

      I’m thinking that this is an award you don’t want your city to receive – despite the name of the award.

      Perhaps it’s based upon the amount of sprawling, bankrupt, single-family housing developments a given city approves – as long as it’s “diverse”? In which case, Stockton would indeed be a winner.

      In fact, the entire region might well have received a runner-up award. (Though as usual, resulting “diversity” is more-closely tied to broader factors than whether or not housing therein is “single-family”.)

    2. David Greenwald

      “who wants that? What’s the “opposite” of that? (A unit in a building with noisy neighbors, on a busy street with no parking, no “elbow room”, and “no green space”?”

      By responding as you did, you ignored the problems created by it. I quoted Rothstein at length who explained why single-family zoning was created. The antidote by the way is not to do away with single family homes, it’s to do away with neighborhoods where there are only single-family homes.

      1. Ron Oertel

        By responding as you did, you ignored the problems created by it.

        It’s not a “problem”, as long as it doesn’t continue sprawling outward.

        Most evidence shows that (given a choice), that’s how people want to live – all skin colors. (Again, look at the wording from the Sacramento Bee article, as it already reflects this bias/reality.)

        And again, look what they’re building in cities which are “diverse”.

        I quoted Rothstein at length who explained why single-family zoning was created.

        Yeah, I don’t totally believe that claim.  And even your quote from Rothstein notes that this isn’t the only reason it was created.

        Reminds me of the claim that police departments were created to control run-away slaves (or something to that effect). 

        By the way, were there ever apartment buildings which discriminated against non-white people? (I suspect that there were, and probably some still do.)

        The antidote by the way is not to do away with single family homes, it’s to do away with neighborhoods where there are only single-family homes.

        So, the proposal is to plop-down multi-unit buildings in neighborhoods which (so far) consist of single-family zoning.  Again, where is the evidence that this creates “diversity”?

        So far, I haven’t even seen new developments move-away from single-family housing, for the most part. Regardless of what might be allowed, under the new state law.

         

        1. David Greenwald

          “It’s not a “problem”, as long as it doesn’t continue sprawling outward. ”

          That’s interjecting your own priorities into defining the problem. Ironically enough, the lack of affordable options for infill directly leads to what you call sprawl. So it’s a bit self-defeating.

          “I don’t totally believe that claim. ”

          I encourage you to read Color of Law if you haven’t and you can see if Rothstein is right.

        2. Ron Oertel

          That’s interjecting your own priorities into defining the problem.

          I believe that’s what you’re doing.

          You (and others) are defining the problem as a lack of diversity, while simultaneously providing no evidence whatsoever that what you’re proposing will lead to more diversity. In fact, the opposite has occurred in places which have encouraged more density. In other words, gentrification – which is usually tied to LESS diversity.

          Ironically enough, the lack of affordable options for infill directly leads to what you call sprawl. So it’s a bit self-defeating.

          There’s no evidence to support that claim.  In fact, the opposite is likely true, in that encouraging density ultimately leads to sprawl.

          Or more accurately, encouraging growth (including economic development) causes both density and sprawl. Go to the root of the “cause”, rather than how it manifests itself.

          California’s population has now dropped for the third straight year.  But sprawl has continued, as folks move out of “dense” places such as San Francisco.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            The ultimate problem SB 9 was attempting to deal with is cost of housing and with it supply of housing. It turns out cost is also a barrier to diversity. And it also turns out if you read Rothstein carefully, single family zoning was put into place a means to keep certain neighborhoods white. He also goes on to note other ways by which this occurred.

        3. Ron Oertel

          It turns out cost is also a barrier to diversity.

          Again, there’s LOTS of relatively inexpensive, diverse single-family housing in cities throughout the state.  (Again, see Stockton as just one example.)

          And it also turns out if you read Rothstein carefully, single family zoning was put into place a means to keep certain neighborhoods white. He also goes on to note other ways by which this occurred.

          Noting that there were racial covenants attached to developments is not the same thing as stating that this is THE reason for the development.

          In fact, it may not have even been anywhere close to the primary reason for the growth of suburban single-family sprawl. Lots of factors went into that, including the growth of the country after WWII, federal housing assistance, freeway systems and improved automobiles, etc. (The latter two being the primary reasons, no doubt.)

          Along with a desire to live on a “quiet street, with greenspace” parking, etc.

          And again I ask – did some apartment buildings prevent non-whites from moving in?

          Racial covenants were struck down in 1948.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelley_v._Kraemer

          And again, where is the evidence that increasing density will lead to more diversity?  Why are folks proposing this as a “solution”, when evidence shows that the opposite generally occurs?

          1. David Greenwald

            Instead of arguing with me, maybe you ought to read the book by Rothstein and then we can discuss where you think he got it wrong.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Is this a serious question?

          Of course it is, especially since the claim is that single-family housing is uniquely “racist”.

          Instead of arguing with me, maybe you ought to read the book by Rothstein and then we can discuss where you think he got it wrong.

          Probably not going to happen, as I’m just responding to YOUR article.

          I’m not sure we’re even “arguing” – I just pointed out some facts, and questioned some assumptions.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Turn it back into farmland?

      That’s the thing – once it’s gone, it’s gone.  It’s a one-way, permanent decision.

      Though it’s possible that the seasonal lake that used to occupy the Natomas basin will “return” in a most-unpleasant and costly manner, someday.

      Perhaps some other similar examples include New Orleans, and Detroit (the latter for a “different” reason).

      By the way, didn’t you state that you don’t like Measure J? If so, then you’re a chief advocate of unfettered, single-family suburban sprawl.

      Folks like you would have more credibility if you “picked a lane”, as they say. (Other than the resulting traffic lanes.)

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