Sen. Wiener Wants to Abolish Single-Family-Only Neighborhoods in California

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State Sen. Scott Wiener's new bill, SB 902, would allow multifamily homes in areas that currently only allow single-family homes. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Scott Wiener is back with a new housing bill aimed at alleviating the state's housing shortage. The measure would eliminate building rules across California that limit neighborhoods to single-family homes in an effort to boost new housing construction.

The Democratic San Francisco state senator introduced the bill, SB 902, on Monday. It’s a follow-up to SB 50, a controversial proposal that would have allowed for taller apartment buildings in urban areas near transit and job centers, along with fourplexes throughout the state. That bill died earlier this year.

Wiener’s new bill would allow duplexes in cities with fewer than 10,000 residents, triplexes in cities with between 10,000 to 50,000 residents and fourplexes in cities with more than 50,000. Current building heights imposed by cities would stay the same under the bill, along with other local building rules, such as design guidelines.

“The beauty” of this new approach," said Wiener, “is that you can add a significant amount of new housing in a way that still fits into the neighborhood, in terms of the size of buildings.”

SB 50 had faced opposition from municipal leaders fearful of the state imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Advocates for renters and low-income residents were also opposed to the bill because they said it wouldn’t result in enough affordable housing. Wiener called his new approach “a lighter touch.”

“It’s a lighter touch in terms of what is required,” Wiener said, adding that opponents of SB 50 should be less concerned because the buildings allowed under the bill would be much smaller.

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Under SB 902, it would be illegal to demolish an existing single-family home to convert it into a duplex, triplex or fourplex if the home has been occupied by renters any time in the past seven years or if the owner had evicted its tenants within the past 15 years to live there.

The League of California Cities, which had opposed SB 50, declined to comment on the new bill because they had not yet had a chance to review it. But, in a letter sent to the governor and the Legislature last week, the league expressed its support for allowing fourplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes.

Several advocacy organizations for low-income residents and tenants said they were concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the bill. They also said the bill could lead to more speculation on the part of landlords, especially corporate owners of single-family homes, that might hold a property vacant until the demolition protections expire.

Single-family homes make up 58% of California’s housing stock, according to 2017 American Community Survey data. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes make up 8%. According to a survey by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, renters occupied one in five single-family homes in 2015, and it is the fastest-growing segment of the housing market.

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Wiener also added a provision in his new bill allowing 10-unit apartment buildings along transit or job-rich areas that would not need to undergo environmental reviews. This provision – if cities choose to adopt it – would help municipalities meet new statewide housing construction targets, he said, which are now double and triple the requirements from past years.

“SB 902, I hope, will signal to cities that we are serious about giving cities more and more tools to make their lives easier in terms of zoning for and approving more housing,” Wiener said.

Oregon approved a similar bill last year allowing duplexes in cities with more than 10,000 people in areas zoned for only single-family homes. In the Portland metro area, the law goes even further, requiring cities and counties to allow fourplexes.

Last week, Wiener introduced another bill, SB 899, that allows churches, synagogues, mosques and nonprofit hospitals to build four- and five-story apartment buildings on their properties so long as the housing is restricted to low-income renters.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins have both said they want to see more legislation that boosts housing construction throughout the state. Both of Wiener’s bills, SB 899 and SB 902, are part of a package of bills expected to be introduced this year aimed at increasing the production of new housing, Wiener said.

“You don’t have to do it as one flagship bill,” Wiener said. “You can have a bunch of bills that collectively make dramatic change, and this bill will make significant change.”