AEI Housing Conference on Light Touch Density in California AEI Housing Conference on Light Touch Density in California
At the end of September, the AEI Housing Center hosted six convenings on Increasing Housing Supply with SB -9 and SB -10 in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Riverside, Los Angeles, and San Diego. These discussions were led by the AEI Housing Center’s Ed Pinto, Tobias Peter, and Arthur Gailes and brought together a wide range of policymakers, practitioners, advocates, researchers, and academics. These spirited discussions were fostered by an accomplished group of speakers from California YIMBY, MetroSight, the Terner Center at UC Berkeley, the Bay Area Council, Abodu, YIMBY Law, the Mercatus Center, and the Salvation Army. This effort is part of a multi-year research project to promote supply-expanding solutions for Californians and across the nation. Our work studying SB-9 and SB-10 is generously supported by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
The conversations and connections facilitated throughout the week highlighted the growing consensus across the political spectrum that building more market based housing supply is necessary to address the affordability crisis in California and to halt its spread to other parts of the nation.
But gaining meaningful traction for more supply will not be possible without adding Light-Touch Density (LTD) in areas where the housing supply has been constrained for decades. LTD is adding additional housing supply with a light touch by utilizing detached single-family houses with accessory dwelling units (ADUs), small-lot single-family houses, attached single-family houses, and duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. Our Housing and Economic Analysis Toolkit demonstrates both the need and potential for LTD.
The State of SB-9 and SB-10
In an acknowledgment that the zoning and land use status quo is no longer tenable, California’s legislature passed two LTD bills (SB-9 and SB-10) a year ago with a January 1, 2022 effective date. The goal is to relieve some of the pressure on millions of Californians resulting from skyrocketing home prices and rents. To address the lack of naturally affordable housing in California, SB-9 allows 2-4 units to be built on parcels previously zoned for one unit, while SB-10 allows localities the option to rezone land parcels close to urban infill/transit-rich corridors for up to 10 units. Pro-housing supporters believed these reforms would open up more naturally affordable infill development, especially on expensive lots in high-cost cities.
Why is SB-9 slow in the uptake?
It is still early and few SB-9 applications have found their way through local planning offices thus far. Local opposition has succeeded in making SB-9 conversions infeasible or impossible in too many instances. Lack of financing, lack of resources at the city-level, and issues with the writing of SB-9 itself has also impeded interested homeowners looking from taking advantage of the value of their land. Numerous localities have handcuffed SB-9 with onerous requirements intended to block lot splits or to prevent development through low maximum lot sizes, high environmental impact fees, onerous parking requirements, and a myriad of creative obstructions. But for homeowners open to taking advantage of SB-9 and earlier legislation facilitating Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), a more sophisticated financing ecosystem, especially one that limits risk-layering, is needed for non-traditional home modifications or development projects. Once submitted, city planning departments are ill-equipped to walk through the process of permitting lot splits or SB-9 conversions with homeowners. Clean-up legislation aimed by shoring up some of the shortfalls of SB-9’s language may be needed to make SB-9 more effective for homeowners.
What about SB-10?
No localities have opted in to SB-10 to date, but the mayor of San Diego has committed to move forward with an SB-10 ordinance. As cities need to submit housing elements that need account for a substantially greater number of homes through the California Housing and Community Development Department’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). SB-10 offers an additional path forward for cities looking to meet their RHNA numbers.
How to build more Light Touch Density in California
Speakers consistently reiterated the success of ADUs in California– which have proliferated after additional reforms were passed in 2016 and 2017—as a model for how statewide housing bills can be a catalyst for real change at the local level. As an early adopter of ADU construction, Los Angeles has been a model for ADU adoption by providing a roadmap that could be scaled to other cities and eventually the state. Similar model cities are needed to help ease SB-9 and SB-10 adoption. Stay tuned as the AEI Housing Center continues its multi-year effort to promote supply-expanding solutions for Californians and beyond.
The current zoning and land use regime requires the professionalization of architects, developers, and planners to handle the bulk of development projects since the rules as written are indecipherable to everyone else. But by standardizing and simplifying the rules with Light Touch Permitting and Light Touch Codes, a “swarm” of property owners, small-scale builders, and local contractors would be able to take on more Light Touch Density projects that don’t dramatically alter the look and feel of the neighborhood
For a more comprehensive compilation of our research, check out the Los Angeles version of our booklet: Increasing Housing Supply with California Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10.