New Laws Amount to Single-Family Zoning Ban in California

For years, the California legislators have been passing bills to allow accessory dwelling units on single-family residential lots. These laws haven't attracted the same attention as other failed laws, but their effect is significant.

October 14, 2019, 9:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Granny Flat

Nicolás Boullosa / Flickr

Liam Dillon explains the below-the-radar approach to achieving new density statewide in California—instead of the measures proposed by failed legislation that would force dense zoning around transit lines, like SB 827 in 2018 and SB 50 in 2019.

Over the past four years, according to Dillon, "a suite of smaller proposals has quietly chipped away at zoning only for single-family homes, attracting comparably little blowback."

The most recent of these (comparably) consequential but (relatively) clandestine laws were signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom on October 9, 2019. The new laws include "legislation that will allow property owners to build a backyard home of at least 800-square-feet as well as convert a garage, office or spare room into a third living space."

So it might now be as direct as the new comprehensive plan that will allow for three-plexes in all of Minneapolis, but the effect is the same. "The result is a patchwork of legislation that achieves much of what those pushing for more growth in the state have long wanted, allowing as many as three homes on parcels in most single-family neighborhoods across California," writes Dillon.

Ben Metcalf, former director of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, is quoted in the article saying the effect of this patchwork has brought the state to the "precipice of single-family zoning functionally not existing."

Dillon also cites Los Angeles as an example of the power that legislation to legalize the construction of accessory dwelling units can have on the building industry: "In Los Angeles, annual permit applications for backyard homes have increased more than 2,000% since the initial state laws took effect. Since 2017, the city has received almost 13,300 requests to build the units."

More specific details of one of the bills signed by Governor Newsom, AB 881, can be found in a separate article by Madeleine Pauker.

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