house on tree lined block
This house on Byron Street was marketed as a golden duplex. Photo: Google Street View

On a few of the vast, verdant lawns in East Sacramento, one of the capital city’s most popular and expensive neighborhoods, yellow-and-black yard signs urge passersby to “save neighborhoods” and keep Sacramento “livable and diverse.” The message symbolizes a big battle taking place at the state Capitol only a few miles away — whether to do away with sacrosanct single-family neighborhoods to address the California housing crisis.

Senate Bill 9, one of several measures alluded to by the signs, would technically allow as many as two duplexes, two houses with attached units, or a combination — capped at four units — on single-family lots across California, without local approval.

The bill would allow more building where it’s now illegal, with the intent of reducing California’s fast-rising home prices and increasing access to homeownership through a greater variety of options, according to state Senate leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who introduced the bill and similar versions in the past.

To lessen concerns from more than 100 cities and neighborhood groups that oppose the bill, Atkins on Monday added a few amendments that give local jurisdictions some veto power over units that threaten public health and safety and curtail potential speculation. The bill — approved by the Senate in May and two Assembly policy committees in June — made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee Monday and was approved by the full Assembly Thursday on a 45-19 vote.

Supporters, decrying “mistruths” by opponents that the bill would end single-family zoning, said the legislation would help ease the affordable housing shortage. Assemblymember Alex Lee, D-San Jose, said young people like him are having to give up their dream of homeownership.

In a statement after the vote, Atkins thanked Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in particular. “This bill is about opening the door for more families to pursue their version of the California Dream — whether that means building a home for an elderly parent to live in, creating a new source of income, buying that first house, or being welcomed into a new neighborhood. It’s about giving parents the chance to pass on wealth to their children and giving neighbors the chance to make our communities more inclusive,” she said.

The bill returns to the Senate for expected concurrence on the amendments before heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

A group calling itself Californians for Community Planning Initiative immediately filed a proposed constitutional amendment for the November 2022 ballot to reassert local control over zoning and land-use decisions in opposition to the bill.

But some analysts say the linchpin of the Senate’s housing package would probably have a negligible impact on the California housing crisis, at least in the short-term. As for the nightmare scenario described by opponents? There simply isn’t enough evidence to back that up, either.

That’s because a change to zoning means very little in reality, starting with the number of units that would actually get built, these analysts say.

Development would be realistic in only about 410,000 parcels in California at most, or 5.4% of land now occupied by single-family houses, according to a new study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley based on the version of the bill without the new amendments.

That could add a total of 700,000 new units across California, if every single homeowner for whom the change made sense chose to develop. “Overall, that’s a sliver of the 7.5 million single-family homes throughout the state,” said David Garcia, policy director for the Terner Center.

One of the new amendments — which requires owners to live in the home for at least three years before they could split their property and build as many as four units — cuts the potential total of new units by 40,000, or 6%.

The analysis was conducted using current land values and development costs, so the number of feasible units could change. But Garcia said that was unlikely in the near-term. The study found that the typical property owner could not afford to build a second unit, much less a third or fourth. Other barriers: The new split lot couldn’t be less than 1,200 square feet, and historic districts, fire hazard zones and some rural areas would be barred from development.

“You would not see the wholesale bulldozing of single-family homes, as we’ve seen characterized in many of the public comments in committee hearings,” Garcia said. “There’s just no financial basis for that fear.”

Equity, equity, equity

Single-family zoning, which SB 9 seeks to eliminate, has deeply racist roots. Originally introduced in Berkeley in 1916, the designation was used to block a Black-owned dance hall from moving into a primarily white neighborhood. The zoning not only precluded the dance hall, but also multifamily units more commonly occupied by people of color.

Single-family zoning was quickly adopted by cities across the United States. So to many California housing advocates, eliminating what they call “exclusionary zoning” is a symbolic and necessary act.

“This is about getting rid of symbols of segregation and racism,” said Kendra Noel Lewis, executive director of Sacramento’s Housing Alliance, which supports a similar local zoning change to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes throughout the city.

The “save neighborhoods” signs in Sacramento’s wealthier neighborhoods are frustrating to Lewis because “white folks have no problem telling other people what to do,” she said.

Many critics of the bill — including Livable California, a group that supports single-family neighborhoods and local control — emphasize that the legislation doesn’t require that any units be affordable or capped at a certain price. So it would only really benefit wealthy people and developers, they say.

The bill’s supporters push back by asking: Where are neighborhood groups during battles over affordable housing projects? Often on the opposing side

While there aren’t any units set aside for the lowest earners, the bill’s backers say that market-rate housing ultimately helps create affordability for everyone. By adding a unit that a middle-class family can afford, it opens up a less expensive unit for a family one step below them on the economic ladder.

“There’s this chain effect across the housing market, sort of like a game of musical chairs, where you just start adding chairs,” said Louis Mirante, legislative director for California Yes In My Backyard, or YIMBY, one of the bill’s main supporters.

Critics of the bill, the majority of whom are homeowners, say their worries aren’t about wealthy, white neighborhoods. Rather, they say the legislation would likely affect mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods, where the land is cheap enough to build, and the potential rent or home prices are high enough to cover development costs.