Meandering through the impossibly steep streets in the Berkeley or Oakland hills, passing by three-story single-family homes and rows of polished Teslas, it’s difficult to believe that the Bay Area — and California as a whole — currently suffers from an unparalleled housing shortage. This past spring, Berkeley City Council voted to end single-family zoning, a move that may remedy the city’s severe housing shortage. SB 9 would effectively end single-family zoning across the entire state by providing a path for homeowners to build multiple units on their properties.
The bill has faced criticism from lawmakers who are concerned with potential environmental consequences and the bill’s one-size-fits-all approach. But creating solutions for the housing crisis in California is a precarious balancing act, and SB 9 could tip the scale in the right direction.
Some have expressed fear that SB 9 could damage coastal ecosystems by bypassing the California Coastal Act of 1976. However, SB 9 applies only in urban areas — historical areas and environmentally sensitive regions such as farmlands, wetlands and protected species habitats are not included in SB 9. This discrepancy begs the question: Is hesitancy around SB 9 for coastal cities rooted in genuine cause for concern? Or, is such hesitation simply a manifestation of a desire to preserve elite, wealthy and largely inaccessible single-family zones?
SB 9’s one-size-fits-all approach gives lawmakers another reason for pause. Given the size and diversity of California, it is hard to imagine that a single bill could address the needs of every city in the state. However, the bill stipulates that local jurisdictions determine the design and zoning of new housing developments.
SB 9 would allow for modest units for aging or disabled family members to be built on existing lots. There’s no doubt that SB 9 will improve opportunities for intergenerational households, working-class communities and communities of color looking for affordable housing in the state.
SB 9 is also an opportunity for California to take a step forward in rectifying its long history of discriminatory housing policies and redlining, which denied homeownership to Black Californians and other marginalized communities. By creating upward of 800,000 new units, SB 9 might open the doors of homeownership for communities who have previously seen that door shut in their face.
Steps should be taken to ensure that SB 9 is not used to displace current residents or circumvent environmental regulations, but local officials have the ability to ensure that the additional housing will serve existing residents of the city instead of serving as a pipeline for increased gentrification.
A statewide end to single-family zoning might be exactly the bold change that will keep California afloat. By 2025, California will need 1.8 million new homes to meet demand. SB 9 could be another crucial step toward reaching this goal.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2021 opinion editor, Sarah Siegel.