California Today: What to Know About California’s New Housing Laws

It’s Monday. Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed two bills aimed at easing the state’s housing crisis. Plus, firefighters are scrambling to protect some of the world’s oldest trees from flames.

No matter where you live, you’re probably familiar with the exorbitant cost of housing in California.

The state’s median home price has crept above $800,000, more than double what it is nationwide. Among the 50 biggest cities in the country, we’re home to the top four most difficult places to afford a mortgage. And half of all Americans experiencing homelessness live in California.

Our housing crisis has a seemingly simple solution, according to the laws of supply and demand: Build more housing.

But for decades, resistance from suburban homeowners has stalled development as the problem has only gotten worse.

On Thursday, the state took a step toward creating higher-density neighborhoods as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two high-profile housing bills.

Though the bills, Senate Bills 9 and 10, endured intense opposition in recent months, neither is all that revolutionary, said Conor Dougherty, a reporter for The New York Times who writes about economics in California.

But the package of housing reforms passed in California over the past four years, including these two latest measures, “is probably the biggest change in housing in 50 years or more,” Conor told me.

What the new laws will do

S.B. 9 allows duplexes to be built in most neighborhoods across the state, including places where apartments have long been banned. S.B. 10 reduces environmental rules on multifamily housing and makes it easier for cities to add high-density development.

The former has been the more controversial proposal, spurring angry opposition from homeowners and local government groups who have called it “the beginning of the end of homeownership in California.”

The classic California suburb — rows of houses, each with their own yard and fence — is largely a product of something called single-family zoning, a regulation that dictates that there can be only one house per parcel of land. These laws prohibit, say, building a high-rise in a residential cul-de-sac.

S.B. 9 essentially ends single-family zoning, but with a modest shift: Under the bill, property owners can build up to three additional units on their land, allowing single-family homes to be transformed into as many as four units.

A recent analysis by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at University of California, Berkeley, found that S.B. 9 would most likely lead to 714,000 new homes across the state over the next several years.

What previous housing laws did

Though symbolically significant, S.B. 9 may not actually be as impactful as changes to housing policy that have already been enacted, Conor told me.

State lawmakers have been passing numerous housing reforms over the past four years in an effort to boost housing production. (Gov. Jerry Brown signed 15 housing bills in 2017, and Newsom signed 18 in 2019.)

Perhaps most significantly, California in 2017 relaxed laws to make it easier for homeowners to convert and rent out accessory dwelling units, the technical term for backyard homes — think “granny flats” or “in-law apartments.” Those rules have been further loosened since.

So even before S.B. 9 appeared on the scene, homeowners in California were allowed to have two units on a single-family lot — a main house and a separate guesthouse.

As these backyard dwellings continue to pop up, “people are going to complain that S.B. 9 is ruining their neighborhoods, when in fact they are actually unhappy about laws that passed semi-quietly several years ago,” Conor told me.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

7 Responses to California Today: What to Know About California’s New Housing Laws

  1. If only these laws would provide more affordable housing. I wonder when the vacation rental market is going to finally get super saturated and people will finally be able to afford long term housing rentals again.
    It will be sad to see all of the postage stamp sized yards completely disappear. Even a few plants per lot can help the environment. I grew up in California and I loved my postage stamp sized yard growing up. It had a full sized plum tree and lemon tree and room for a good sized garden. With all of the wonderful California weather, the yard provided such a great quiet place to enjoy the sunshine.

  2. I’m all for it. More backyard builders the better in my opinion. Just read the entire law itself and a few articles about it. Well, two laws actually. One will be able to subdivide their lots and build additional units only in “urbanized areas”. Meaning in towns or unincorporated areas near towns. We’ve been trying for years to do this on my mom’s property and have always been turned down. Now it looks like it may be possible.

  3. I like my little house, my small front and back yards, and peace and quiet. So we’re leaving this state for somewhere north where there are fewer people, less fire and more water. Fewer homeless encampments, less crime and less filth. Been here all my life, my parents were born here, too, in the 30’s. I’m glad my folks didn’t live to see how awful it’s gotten in LA. Unlivable.

    The little ADU’s going in around me are all “boutique,” $2K and up for one bedroom. Not affordable housing.

  4. I hate it, so we’re finally leaving California. Goodbye to the filth and crime that is LA. Glad my folks didn’t live to see how awful it is here now.

    All the ADUs going in on the small lots around me are “boutique,” $2500 and up for 1 bedroom. Not affordable housing. Just more people, noise, and cars with nowhere to park. Enjoy.

  5. Yes California Dreaming isn’t a reality anymore. All Pie n The Sky promises made by politicos and bought by their believers drove the prices up on living and priced our next generation out of the state. Hey wait, I’m still waiting for them Politician types to deliver. Not sure I can live that long even though my people usually make it close to a 100 or slight beyond.
    The sales pitch by the local politico is- “we need affordable housing” and yes we do! A relative who’s a planning commissioner asked one of the developers what a unit in a now defunct R-1 area cost. The dude fell silent so the commissioner demanded he answer the question and he did. ” 1.4 million.”
    So there you have it. High density no yard no deal no quality of life and some rich Politicos making back room handshakes.
    Land O Goshen folks WAKE UP! Please?!
    Hey Lloyd, been laying on the floor reading Shelter since it was born. Bless your tireless spirit and endless curiosity.

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