Cities ‘scrambling’ to address new housing bill SB9

Urgency ordinance covering new lot-splitting law will go to City Council on Dec. 15.|

The Sonoma Planning Department made haste this week to complete an urgency ordinance to ensure the city is in compliance when a new state law goes into effect that will allow residential property owners to split their lots and build a second home or duplex on the parcel.

Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) was approved by the state legislature in September, leaving cities and counties with little time to adjust before the law takes hold Jan. 1.

“Cities all over the state now are scrambling to adopt urgency ordinances to address SB 9,” Sonoma City Attorney Jeff Walter said last week in a meeting with the city’s Planning Commission to discuss the ordinance. “Each city is trying to craft something (within) the strictures of SB9 in a way that does not cause serious or adverse impact to communities.”

SB 9, aka the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act, is intended to increase residential housing stock and incentivize the building of affordable housing units – with some legal experts predicting the law could have a big impact on the amount of infill development coming to residential neighborhoods across the state.

Under the law, qualifying property owners can split their lots and either build a second home or duplex on the new lot, or tear down their home and build a pair of duplexes on the lots. Through SB 9, property owners can potentially turn what was formerly a single-family home into four separate residences.

SB 9 was signed into law by Gov. Newsom on Sept. 16 and almost immediately sounded alarm bells in municipalities across the state. Under the bill, cities and counties are required to approve such split-lot proposals as long as they meet size and design standards – effectively removing oversight by city and county planning commissions.

About 5.4% of single-family parcels in California could feasibly allow for development under SB 9, according to a study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

The Sonoma Planning Commission met Dec. 2 to provide feedback and direction on an urgency ordinance expected to come to the Sonoma City Council on Dec. 15.

Among the provisions in SB 9 are that the parcel must be a minimum of 2,400 square feet – and therefore each parcel is a minimum of 1,200 square feet once the lot is split — and zoned for single-family residential development. The parcel can’t be in a historic district (or be historic itself), nor can it be in a rural or high-fire zone or within wetlands or a 100-year-flood zone.

The law is intended to encourage affordable housing and, therefore, prohibits the demolition or alteration of current affordable housing, nor can it displace established renters or rent-controlled units.

While SB 9 prohibits the elimination of affordable housing, it provides no direction on whether cities can require its newly created units be affordable – a question raised at the meeting by multiple members of the Planning Commission.

Walter said that very question is being hotly debated among cities and counties throughout the state.

“SB 9 favors affordability,” Walter said, citing its protection of rental units and as an example. “So there’s already a leaning in favor of affordable housing for sure — and that argument would lend one to believe that more affordable housing also is something SB 9 proponents and its authors would support.”

Added Walter: “But making every unit affordable? Not clear about that.”

While it’s unclear whether cities can mandate that SB 9-created units be affordable, the city’s draft ordinance limits a unit’s floor area to 800 square feet – a limit Associate Planner Kristina Tierney described as an attempt to render the units “affordable by design.”

Planning Commissioner Larry Barnett said the 800-square-foot size limit would reinforce the affordability intentions of SB 9, even if an affordability mandate isn’t in the legislation itself.

“This was the City of Sonoma’s attempt to do what it can to make sure we don’t end up with 2,400-square-foot units that sell at market rate or rent out for $3,500 a month,” Barnett said.

While Commissioners James Bohar and Mathew Wirick expressed interest in adding a clause mandating the units be affordable, Commissioner Steve Barbose was skeptical of the idea.

“If you require on a single-family lot in town that people build an affordable housing unit, with building costs what they are, effectively what you’re going to do is keep that house from being built,” Barbose said. “Because the person who’s thinking about building is not going to be able to afford it.”

Barnett, meanwhile, was concerned that SB 9 would encourage a “buy-flip-and-split mentality.”

“Corporate America would come in and basically develop these properties where you can all of a sudden through the existing unit and the lot split, end up with as many as four units on a single parcel,” Barnett said.

Planning Commissioner Sheila O’Neill had reservations about the ordinance’s restrictions on renting the units for fewer than 30 days – a provision to prohibit property owners from using SB 9 to create short-term vacation rentals. She said a property owner could skirt the rule by renting the units for a week at a time once a month.

“I would like to see (the minimum number of days) raised to at least six months,” said O’Neill. “So that people are not even trying to figure out how they can manipulate the system. Because people will.”

Speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, Cal Weeks, a representative of housing advocacy group Generation Housing, lamented the “lack of diversity in voices” participating in the urgency ordinance process – he was one of two public commenters at the meeting — but applauded SB 9 as a positive step forward in mitigating the housing crisis.

“There have already been polls generated throughout the state that SB 9 is not as unpopular as you might think,” he told the commission. “There’s actually a pretty broad swath of communities in the state that are actually interested in moving forward with this legislation.”

Overall, the planning commissioners expressed general approval of the draft urgency ordinance. Staff will incorporate suggestions from the commission in the draft it sends to the City Council on Dec. 15.

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