The Silicon Valley Voice

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California SB 9: No Cause for Panic

If Henny-Pennys have convinced you that SB 9 is going to “destroy your neighborhood,” relax. That’s the key message from Santa Clara Community Development Director Andrew Crabtree at the City Council’s Jan. 25 study session on SB 9, the 2021 Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency Act.

Although there are 18,000 single-family (R-1 zoned) lots in Santa Clara that meet the law’s qualifications, according to Crabtree, a study in Berkeley found that only a small percentage of the lots that could be developed under the law made economic sense. Crabtree estimated that the number of “market feasible” units would be less than 4 percent of those lots — about 700.

One comparison is the number of properties that have built Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) — “in-law units.” Since the state passed the law in 2020, only 380 permits have been issued to build these, Crabtree said. There have been no requests so far for SB 9 permits in Santa Clara. Even in San José, a city about five times Santa Clara’s size, there have been no permit applications.

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The law, passed in 2021, requires “ministerial” approval of two units on single-family lots (R-1 zoning). “Ministerial­­­­­ approval” means that a project must be permitted, without further deliberation or review by public officials if it conforms to certain objective standards and doesn’t violate public health and safety standards.

The law mandates that lot splits must be roughly equal and no smaller than 1,200 sq. ft. following the split. The applicant must occupy a unit for three years. The law applies to all R-1 lots except rental units, historic properties and wetlands, prime farmland and conservation easements. The law limits property owners to one subdivision under SB 9. Subsequent lot splits would have to go through the standard process.

Cities have some discretion about implementation. They can limit short-term rentals, require new parcels be connected to a public right-of-way and require easements for public services. Cities can also impose “objective” standards. This means no personal or subjective judgment is involved, standards are uniformly verifiable, and clearly knowable by applicants and public officials.

What cities can’t do is require the same footprint as the previous structure — or retain the previous structure — mandate more than four-foot side and rear setbacks, or correct previous out-of-code conditions.

In addition, cities can only require parking for homes more than a half-mile from transit, and then only one space per unit. Further, cities can’t require right-of-way or offsite improvements.

It’s unclear how the ADU law and SB 9 coexist, as the law doesn’t address this, potentially allowing six houses on a split lot. However, “This is a loophole that’s likely to change,” said Crabtree.

There’s plenty of confusion right now about how the law will be implemented and uncertainty about what changes might be coming down the road.

As Mayor Lisa Gillmor observed, “It’s mind boggling.”

For more information about SB 9 and its possible impacts, look at Post Meeting Material for the Jan. 25, 2022, Council meeting.

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