California Legislature Passes Bills to Limit Exclusionary Zoning and Increase Density

The California Assembly passed a pair of bills in August that would reduce exclusionary zoning, increase residential density, and mitigate the affordable housing shortage. Senate Bill 9 (SB9) makes it legal for property owners to subdivide lots into two parcels and turn single-family homes into duplexes. If signed into law, SB 9 would effectively legalize fourplexes on land previously reserved for single-family homes. Senate Bill 10 (SB10) authorizes local governments to rezone for up to ten homes per parcel in transit-accessible and job-rich neighborhoods without undergoing a lengthy review process under the California Environmental Quality Act. The California Senate approved SB 9 and SB 10 on August 30. Both bills await the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom (D), who has until October 10 to sign or veto the legislation. 

More than two-thirds of residential land in California is zoned for single-family homes, which limits the state’s overall supply of housing and contributes to the state’s extreme affordable housing shortage. Many advocates view SB 9 and SB 10 as modest but meaningful steps to increase density, boost the state’s housing stock, and meet the needs of low- and middle-income residents. As highlighted in NLIHC’s 2021 edition of The Gap, California faces a shortage of 962,667 rental homes affordable and available for extremely low-income (ELI) renters. Only 24 rental homes are affordable and available for every 100 ELI households—the second-largest disparity of any state, following Nevada.

Proponents of SB 10 emphasize the bill’s impact on racial equity. According to California YIMBY, more than 55 percent of Black and Hispanic children in California live in low-opportunity neighborhoods, while more than 63 percent of white children live in high-opportunity neighborhoods. By increasing density in job-rich, transit-accessible neighborhoods, SB 10 would enable more families of color to access educational and economic opportunities.

To respond to opponents’ concerns about real estate speculation, Senator Atkins amended SB 9 to include an owner-occupancy requirement, which mandates that homeowners live in one of their units for at least three years after receiving approval for a lot split. SB 9 also includes safeguards against tenant displacement, and it does not apply to environmentally sensitive areas or historic districts.

The passage of SB 9 and SB 10 follows a series of state and local victories for inclusionary zoning in recent years. Oregon all but outlawed single-family zoning in 2019 (see Memo, 8/12/19), and municipalities including Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, Sacramento, Cambridge, and Berkeley have done the same (see Memo, 4/12). Building further momentum for inclusionary zoning, the Biden Administration recently announced that the Federal Housing Finance Agency will conduct a study on the degree to which the mortgage activity of the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) is concentrated in jurisdictions with exclusionary zoning policies, and will hold listening sessions for stakeholders to exchange best practices on local zoning reform (see Memo, 9/7). The House Financial Services Committee’s portion of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure and economic recovery package also proposes $4.5 billion for an Unlocking Possibilities Zoning Program, which would include grants to help communities pursue zoning reforms and streamline local regulations.

California YIMBY sponsored SB 10 and was the statewide advocacy organization leading advocacy efforts to support SB 9. In response to the passage of this legislation, Brian Hanlon, president and CEO of California YIMBY, stated, “California’s middle-class workers and families have long been invisible in the debate about our housing shortage and affordability crisis, but no longer. Senate Bill 10 gives cities a tool to prioritize exactly the kinds of homes that our workers and families need—apartments in modest-sized buildings that can fit seamlessly into our existing neighborhoods. By legalizing duplexes and fourplexes, SB 9 will enable many more middle-class Californians to achieve the dream of affordable home ownership. With these two vital housing bills, the California legislature has told middle-class families: Help is on the way.”

Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) is lead author of SB 9, and Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) is lead author of SB 10.