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A Year in Review: SB 9 Slow to Gain Traction

February 9, 2023 Articles

A year since the approval of Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), it appears few Californians have taken advantage of the new legislation that aims to streamline small-scale housing development. The bill allows for the development of either two primary residential units on a parcel currently zoned as single family or the subdivision of a single-family lot into two smaller lots without triggering a public hearing process. With counties and cities finally putting forward ordinances in response to SB 9, perhaps we will begin to see more applications submitted ready to utilize the provisions of the bill.

Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), also referred to as the California HOME (Housing Opportunity & More Efficiency) Act, was signed by Governor Newsom on September 16, 2021. Aimed at addressing many barriers affecting homeownership and inequality, some of the objectives of the bill include:

  • Providing opportunities to build intergenerational wealth
  • Benefitting homeowners not institutional investors
  • Establishing maximum number of units so that no more than four units can be developed on a current singe-family parcel
  • Respecting local control by requiring conformance with local building standards
  • Promoting strategic infill growth in designated urban centers, identified by the US Census.

Key Provisions

The provisions of this bill allow an owner to build an additional single-family residence, demolish an existing single-family residence to construct a new duplex, or convert the existing single-family home into a duplex. Alternatively, the owner could split the lot. The approval of a two-unit project would be made via the same process currently used for ADUs; by submitting a complete building permit application which is then only processed ministerially.

If a lot split is pursued, the resulting parcels must be at least 1,200 square feet in size, and would not result in more than two lots with up to two units per lot. Approval of an urban lot split would be made by submitting a tentative parcel map application. Once approved, a final parcel map would be created by the applicant and their civil engineer, submitted to the County surveyor, and recorded in final form with the County Recorder’s office.

Some additional key requirements of SB 9 are that one unit must be owner-occupied for at least three years, units must be allowed to be at least 800 square feet in size, and up to two primary units are allowed per parcel. Any provisions that would preclude development must be waived. For instance, a local jurisdiction may not require a setback from existing structures or that the structure must be built in the same location or dimension as a previously existing structure. A blanket four-foot side and rear setback has been established to minimize restrictions in implementing the benefits of this bill. Furthermore, the bill restricts the further subdivision of any lot split created under SB 9.

Certain areas are excluded from SB 9, including historic and landmark districts, land in very high fire severity zones, prime agricultural land, and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Accessory Dwelling Units

In the event of a lot split, an agency must allow two units on each resulting lot. Primary Units (single family or multifamily units), ADUs, and Junior ADUs are counted towards the total two-unit limit. A local agency could opt to allow more than two units per lot.

In the event of an application without a lot split, the lot retains the eligibility for ADU and Junior ADU development. The local agency must allow, in addition to the two permitted primary units under SB 9, the development of accessory dwelling units. SB 9 clarifies in all instances, that no more than four units are permitted as a result of any application.

In Practice

One year in, we continue to see limited utilization of the benefits of SB 9. Many California cities, including St. Helena and Yountville in Napa County, have passed urgency ordinances implementing additional regulations required prior to implementing the benefits of SB 9. The low number of applications throughout the Bay Area and Napa County, suggests that the benefits of this streamlined process have not been utilized. The Turner Center for Housing and Innovation conducted a study about the success of the bill and found that there has been limited use of the bill. For instance, in San Francisco, only 4 of 25 applications have been approved, and in Berkeley, none of the applications have been approved. In Napa County, as of November 2022, when the county planners presented an ordinance in response to SB 9, one application had been submitted and zero applicants have gone through the process. 

Some factors that may contribute to the low number of SB 9 applications are financing and permitting obstacles. Securing financing for SB 9 projects might also present obstacles if lenders are hesitant to venture into a new area of the law. Although SB 9 streamlines the permitting process, each city has its own limitations and requirements and some cities have been slow to establish an application process for SB 9 projects or have put regulations in place in an attempt to block the use of SB 9. Some extreme examples include the City of Woodside declaring the entire city exempt as mountain lion habitat, and Pasadena’s attempt to broadly exempt areas from SB 9 requirements by declaring the areas “landmark districts.” Though both these attempts have been shut down, navigating the city-specific regulations and restrictions continues to be a potential hurdle.

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