State housing law fizzles in San Jose
The city of San Jose is pictured in this aerial file photo.

    One year after a state law aimed at increasing housing supply went into effect, the destruction of single-family neighborhood character that many of the bill’s opponents raised alarms about has not yet come to pass.

    Senate Bill 9 effectively ended exclusionary single-family zoning statewide, allowing homeowners in some long unchanged neighborhoods to subdivide their lots and build a total of up to four homes, 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 are still concerned about the potential impact to neighborhoods as the law gains traction, including noise and pollution from construction work, possible traffic congestion increases and tree loss.

    Supporters of the law say it’s early days, and it will take time to see its full potential, as cities and homeowners become more familiar with the law and as possible changes are made to streamline it.

    “We want to see cities taking advantage of SB 9 as a way to increase housing and reduce lot sizes,” Leora Tanjuatco Ross, national organizing director for YIMBY Action, told San José Spotlight. “It’s ridiculous to make people buy 5,000 square feet of land just so they can have a place to live for one family.”

    Researchers say there are several reasons why the numbers for SB 9 applications might be so low, including higher impact fees and longer timelines to build duplexes, inflated materials and labor costs, owner occupancy requirements and lack of awareness.

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

    San Jose isn’t alone. Researchers from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley surveyed 13 cities across California and found that most are seeing few applications for lot splits and building new homes.

    Los Angeles saw 28 requests for lot splits, none of which were approved as of November, and 211 applications to build new homes on existing lots, of which 38 were approved by that same month.

    Another building option

    In San Jose, the city’s streamlined and more cost-efficient program to build an accessory dwelling unit, also known as a backyard home or granny unit, could be much more attractive to homeowners, experts say. The city also offers sets of “preapproved” plans for those units, something not available for SB 9.

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

    Alameldin said when laws legalizing backyard homes statewide first came about in 2017, the uptake was slow. But gradual improvements made by state lawmakers every year since, and actions by some cities like San Jose to cut red tape further, have resulted in a wave of backyard homes being built.

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

    Without incentives like limited fees, faster processing timelines 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 might be a small uptick from these numbers, but it might remain low unless there are improvements brought upon by state legislators,” he said.

    Concerns about quality of life

    But some of the problems that have arisen in neighborhoods with backyard homes are informing the concerns of opponents of SB 9.

    San Jose District 6 Councilmember Dev Davis said she’s heard from residents about privacy concerns when additions are built above garages, noise from construction, lack of notice when projects are started and the potential for homes to be rented through platforms like Airbnb against short-term rental restrictions.

    She said if SB 9 picks up steam, it will only intensify those kinds of quality-of-life impacts across neighborhoods where people didn’t expect changes.

    “To what extent can you pull the rug out from under people who have made their largest investment in their home?” Davis told San José Spotlight.

    Davis has long opposed SB 9 and said it won’t make a dent in the affordable housing crisis.

    “I think the overall number of potential units added is small. Unfortunately, they have an outsized impact in the places where they are added, that’s why SB 9 is so undesirable,” she said. “Our job is to ensure a reasonable quality of life for all of our residents and to ensure that the rights of some don’t trample on 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 perspective, SB 9 is already a tremendous compromise,” she said. “Cities have no excuse for not embracing it, except full naked desire to make it impossibly expensive to live in certain neighborhoods.”

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

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