State housing law collapses in San Jose

Joseph Geha, Spotlight on San Jose

January 27, 2023

A year after a state law to increase housing supply took effect, the destruction of single-family neighborhood character that many opponents of the bill have alarmed has yet to materialize.

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Senate Bill 9 effectively ended exclusionary single-family zoning statewide, allowing homeowners in certain long-unchanged neighborhoods to subdivide their lots and build up to four homes in total, so long as each lot is 1,200 square feet. So far, the law has produced no homes in San Jose and a limited number statewide.

Critics of the law said they were still concerned about the potential impact on neighborhoods as the law gains traction, including noise and pollution from construction work, possible increased traffic congestion and the loss of trees.

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Proponents of the law say it’s just the beginning and it will take time to see its full potential as cities and landlords become more familiar with the law and possible changes are made for the streamline.

“We want to see cities take advantage of SB 9 as a way to increase housing stock and reduce lot sizes,” Leora Tanjuatco Ross, National Organizing Director of YIMBY Action, told San Jose Spotlight. “It’s ridiculous for people to buy 5,000 square feet of land just to have a place for a family to live.”

Researchers say there are several reasons why SB 9 application numbers could be so low, including higher impact fees and longer times to build duplexes, materials and labor costs. – bloated workforce, owner occupancy requirements and lack of awareness.

To date, San Jose has seen only 13 single-family subdivision applications under SB 9, two of which have been approved so far, according to a city spokesperson. No one has yet asked to build an additional house on these lots.

San José is not alone. Researchers from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley surveyed 13 cities in California and found that most see few requests to split lots and build new homes.

Los Angeles received 28 applications to split lots, none of which were approved in November, and 211 applications to build new homes on existing lots, 38 of which were approved in the same month.

Another build option

In San Jose, the city’s streamlined and more cost-effective program to build a accessory housing, also known as a backyard home or granny unit, could be much more appealing to homeowners, experts say. The city also offers “pre-approved” blueprint sets for these units, which is not available for the SB 9.

“Maybe their ADU programs are so effective, so well done, why would anyone pursue an SB 9 development,” Muhammad Alameldin, co-author of the Terner Center report, told San Jose Spotlight.

Alameldin said when laws legalizing barnyard homes statewide went into effect in 2017, adoption was slow. But incremental improvements by state lawmakers every year since, and actions by some cities like San Jose to further reduce bureaucracy, have led to a wave of backyard houses in construction.

San Jose received nearly 2,500 backyard home permit applications from 2017 to 2022, with more than 1,200 built and the number of applications on an upward trend, according to city data.

Without incentives such as limited fees, faster processing times and other improvements that cities or the state can put in place, the promise of SB 9 likely won’t be realized, Alameldin said.

“There could be a slight increase from these numbers, but it could remain low unless improvements are made by state lawmakers,” he said.

Concerns about quality of life

But some of the issues that have arisen in neighborhoods with backyard homes inform the concerns of opponents of SB 9.

San Jose District 6 council member Dev Davis said she’s heard from residents about privacy issues when additions are built over garages, construction noise, lack of notice when projects are launched and the possibility of houses being rented through platforms like Airbnb against short-term rental restrictions.

She said if SB 9 gains momentum, it will only intensify these kinds of quality of life impacts in neighborhoods where people weren’t expecting change.

“How far can you pull the rug out from under people who have made their biggest investment in their homes? Davis told San Jose Spotlight.

Davis has long opposed SB 9 and said he would not make a dent in the affordable housing crisis.

“I think the total number of potential units added is low. Unfortunately, they have an outsized impact where they are added, which is why SB 9 is so undesirable,” she said. “Our Our job is to ensure a reasonable quality of life for all our residents and to ensure that the rights of some do not override the rights of others.

Tanjuatco Ross sees things differently.

“Construction is a nuisance, we can all agree. But housing and having a safe place to sleep is a basic human right. So from our point of view, the SB 9 is already a great compromise,” she said. “Cities have no excuse not to embrace it except the absolute desire to make living incredibly expensive in certain neighborhoods.”

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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