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A district of Valence in 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed two bills to make it easier to build more housing in California.

The first, Senate Bill 9, allows more than one dwelling to be built on land that was previously designated for only one dwelling. The second, SB 10, allows denser development near public transport corridors, such as bus and train lines.

Here is an explanation of the concepts and the new laws.

What is single-family zoning?

Let’s break the term down into two parts, starting with zoning. Zoning regulates how land can be used, or what can be built where. Can a business be built on a given piece of land? This area is zoned for commercial use. Can we build a house or a condo complex there? It is residential zoning. In a downtown area, you might have mixed-use zoning – for example, retail businesses on the ground floor and residential units in the tower above.

Single-family zoning refers to a residential area where a single dwelling unit can be built on a given parcel of land. Think of the Southern California suburb of a home with no shared walls – in other words, not a duplex, triplex, or multi-unit complex. If you live in a home with a driveway, garage, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and front, back, and side yards, this is almost certainly a single family home.

In the city of Los Angeles, for example, single-family zoning is known as R1 – which means a residential unit on a lot. Other zoning designations include R2 (two residential units on one lot, plus other uses) and R3 (which may include boarding houses and daycares). There are many other designations and variations.

Almost two-thirds of all residences in California are single-family homes. And up to three-quarters of the state’s developable land is now zoned only for single-family dwellings, according to a UC Berkeley study.

Just as significantly, single-family housing is an integral part of the Southern California myth.

“Suburban life has drawn so many Americans from all over the country to come to sunny California,” said Kevin de León, Los Angeles city councilor. “Especially when the Rose Bowl was played during the winter months. On the East Coast and the Midwest, people were saying, “Wow, orange trees, lemon trees, a front yard, a back yard, a pool, a single family home.” Let’s pack our bags, leave Michigan, leave Ohio and go to the West Coast. ‘ “

Those behind the recent changes to state law argue that single-family-only zoning is a relic of a past that is no longer justifiable. It was born in the town of Berkeley a century ago as a segregationist practice to prevent a black-owned dance hall from moving near a white-only housing estate.

Supporters of ending zoning for single-family homes also argue that in a state with such a deep affordability crisis, opening neighborhoods to more development will allow cheaper housing to be built there. The median California selling price for a single-family home was $ 811,000 in July, according to the California Assn. real estate agents.

Supporters of single-family zoning say they are concerned about how increased density could alter the character of quiet neighborhoods and affect the value of their properties. In a state facing both drought and stress on the electricity grid, some wonder where the additional utility resources for more housing would come from. And some fear that the market will be dominated by developers looking to raise money by building flashy new homes as cheaply as possible and renting them out at the best price, speeding up gentrification and failing to do so. not at all addressing the underlying issue of housing affordability.

For an in-depth dive into single-family zoning, check out Times writer Liam Dillon’s “Gimme Shelter” podcast: He and CalMatters co-host Manuela Tobias discuss the history of single-family zoning in California and its benefits and drawbacks on a recent episode.

What are the new laws? What problems are they trying to solve?

Of the housing measures Newsom signed this week, only one – SB 9 – would have an immediate and direct effect on local zoning. Simply put, SB 9 would give many homeowners in single-family areas the right to split their lots in half and build up to three additional houses there, essentially turning a single-unit lot into a four-unit lot.

This is a notable change from the current law, which allows up to two large units – a house and a secondary suite – per single-family lot.

SB 9, however, has many exceptions and limitations, designed to preserve rental housing and low-rental housing, deter speculators, guard against displacement, and retain local government control over design standards while preventing authorities local authorities to adopt rules that undermine the law. These include:

  • Zoning changes apply only to urban areas or urban clusters. Farms, wetlands, land at high risk of fire or flooding and sites in historic districts are among those that are specifically exempt.

  • Housing reserved for HLMs or rented for less than three years cannot be modified or demolished. This is to avoid reducing the supply of rental and affordable housing.

  • Local governments can still impose safety standards and regulate the appearance of units and, to some extent, their placement on land. However, they cannot require more than one off-street parking space per unit, nor any off-street parking if the units are within half a mile of public transit.

  • Units built under the terms of this law cannot be offered for short-term rental.

  • Anyone applying for a subdivision must commit to living in one of the dwellings for at least three years.

  • Subdivided lots must be at least 1,200 square feet each and approximately the same size. Cities would have to allow units of at least 800 square feet and could not prevent them from being adjacent or connected.

SB 10 does not impose any changes in local land use. Instead, it allows local governments to change their zoning rules much faster to allow housing developments of up to 10 units if they are located in areas well served by public transport or in areas urban areas already largely zoned for residential use.

Local governments already have the power to make this type of change in their zoning, but since the process is covered by the California Environmental Quality Act, it is expensive and takes years. SB 10 allows such changes to be made without triggering a CEQA review, although multi-unit projects proposed in new areas are still subject to environmental law.

What does this mean for a neighborhood made up mostly of single-family homes?

In the short term, not much. Although landowners have new rights under SB 9, local governments still need to approve plans and building permits. As anyone who has been through this process can attest, it can take months to get through that gauntlet.

Beyond that, a recent analysis from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing predicts that only a small percentage of residential lots would see additional units due to the bill, simply because the additional construction wouldn’t make sense. financial in most places. According to the center, the projects would only concern 5.4% of the 7.5 million single-family lots in the state.

Nevertheless, a small percentage of 7.5 million lots could still yield a lot of additional housing. The center’s analysis predicted that the law would result in the construction of 714,000 new units statewide over the next several years, with an above-average concentration in Los Angeles. What owners ultimately decide to subdivide and build duplexes will depend on a number of factors, including local bureaucratic hurdles and construction costs.

A more important factor may be the pressure that the legislature has already put on local governments to build more housing. Under SB 35 of 2017, cities and counties whose land use rules do not meet the requirements of their regional housing needs assessment – a state-mandated projection of what it will take to house growing local population – have less power to resist collective housing projects. that bring more affordable housing to urban areas.

Matthew Lewis, communications director for housing advocacy group California YIMBY, said cities and counties can take five years to update their land use plans to match their housing needs assessments . SB 10 gives them a “relief valve” for rezoning pressure, giving them a much faster way to create zoned areas for buildings up to 10 units, with height limits set by the local government. This could help them push back the much larger developments made possible by SB 35.

Again, local governments will decide for themselves whether to adopt the denser areas SB 10 allows for “transit rich” or “infill” urban areas. And even if they adopt new zoning rules, every proposed development will have to go through the usual approval process.

Times editors Liam Dillon and Jessica Roy contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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