Housing Policy

Did California Just Abolish Single-Family Zoning?

The Golden State now allows homeowners to build up to two accessory dwelling units on their property by right.

|

From the passage of statewide rent control to the failure of a bill legalizing more home construction near transit and job centers, it hasn't been a great year for free market solutions to California's housing shortage. That is, at least, until you consider the quiet success of efforts to allow for more accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

In the waning days of the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers passed a series of bills loosening up zoning rules governing ADUs, sometimes known as granny flats or in-law suites. These reforms—which build on legislation passed in 2016—put additional limits on the powers of local governments to regulate ADUs to death, and allow more homeowners to convert their garage or tool shed into affordable rental housing.

"The big news is that we have effectively ended single-family zoning in California," says Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, an advocacy group that sponsored two of the three ADU bills.

The first bill, AB 68, lets homeowners build up to two ADUs on their property by right. That means local governments don't have the discretion to deny these projects or impose additional conditions on their approval outside of what's already spelled out in the city's zoning code.

In addition, the bill restricts the size, setback, and parking requirements local zoning codes can impose on ADUs. It also reduces the time local governments have to approve new units from 120 days to 60 days.

Two other bills, AB 881 (also sponsored by California YIMBY) and SB 13, prohibit local governments from requiring that an owner occupy the new units, and reduce the fees homeowners can be charged to build them.

These provisions helped build political support for the bill among homeowners, says Lewis, who tells Reason that they "see some self-interest in being able to create some rental income for themselves."

If the state's past experience with ADU liberalization is any guide, this year's changes will also lead to a surge in new housing supply.

In 2016, state lawmakers passed legislation that allowed homeowners to build one ADU by right and limited the types of impact and utility fees they could be charged for constructing them.

In response, ADU permit applications in Los Angeles jumped 30-fold after these news laws went into effect, increasing from just 257 in 2016 to 3,818 in 2017. In 2018, a full 20 percent of the permits granted for new housing units in Los Angeles were for ADUs, according to a report from the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based urban policy think tank.

More cities could be taking advantage of ADUs, but traditional zoning rules often get in the way, says Margaret Morales, a policy analyst at the Sightline Institute. "The biggest ones are often parking requirements. Requiring extra off-street parking can be difficult if you have a small lot and it's very expensive," Morales says. The same is true of other standard policies like minimum lot coverage standards and setback requirements which limit the amount of land that can be devoted to backyard cottages or other types of ADUs.

"If cities set those outrageously high," says Morales, homeowners aren't able to squeeze new units onto their property.

Following California's lead, Seattle recently passed new ADU legislation which allows up to two such units per single-family lot, eliminates minimum parking requirements for ADUs, and abolishes the city's owner-occupancy rules for these granny flats.

On the downside, that same law imposed maximum size limits on new homes.

Morales says that more granny flats are a great way to add new supply in cities with a lot of single, detached family homes. She also cautions that they "are not the silver bullet to solve our housing shortage alone. I think they are part of the multi-prong package we need to consider."

Nevertheless, the past successes of ADU legislation in places like Los Angeles demonstrate how much new housing can be built when government gets out of the way.

NEXT: Compelling Testimony Against Michigan's Ban on Flavored E-Cigarettes Highlights the Deadly Folly of the Vaping Crackdown

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. One continual amazement for me is how governments work so hard to destroy free markets on the one hand, then turn around and do all sorts of things to try to simulate markets on the other. I realize it’s all power control politics, but it’s such a bizarre mishmash of “kill reality, burn it with fire” and “here let me help you with my new reality”.

    1. Ah, the old Harry Browne quote: “Government is good at only one thing. It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, ‘See if it weren’t for the government, you couldn’t walk.'”

      1. Always upvote Harry Browne.

        Oh, wait, we can’t upvote, because we are working with 20th century commenting technology.

          1. Oh man, I see what you mean! I typed a emoji and got back lots of “?” ;-P

    2. I just got paid $6784 working off my workstation this month. Also, on the off chance that you surmise that is cool, my separated from companion has twin little children and made over $9k her first month. It feels so great profiting RE when other individuals need to work for such a great deal less.
      This is my main thing….. http://earny.xyz/MADcKp1e2t

  2. That’s something. Now let’s roll back some building code requirements. That shit is getting insane.
    Building codes should be enforced voluntarily by insurance companies. Governments have a conflict of interest (and too many busy-bodies who can’t mind their own business). Particularly local governments who collect property taxes have an interest in the value of a property, not just safety.

    1. Additionally, its always good optics for governments to virtue signal climate supremacy, while cronying up on new mandates for the *green* lobby. Funning in the sun on mega yachts at the climate conference, government… its a good deal if you can get it.

      1. Yeah, now there is that too.

        If I want to waste money by not insulating my house properly, that’s my problem.

  3. California had a bunch of set back housing before the 1980s or whenever it was zoned out.

    Look at all those old houses from the 1950s/60s/70s with setoff garages and a living area above them.

  4. Will the state eliminate the roof solar mandate for the granny flats?

    1. You’ve probably just given them a win-win idea for how to regulate them out of existence.

  5. The first bill, AB 68, lets homeowners build up to two ADUs on their property by right.

    You know have our permission to exercise your right.

      1. The phrasing means that the local governments aren’t allowed to prevent them from doing so. Though I agree the wording definitely reminds you what a house of mirrors the government can be.

  6. Additionally, its always good optics for governments to virtue signal climate supremacy, while cronying up on new mandates for the *green* lobby. Funning in the sun on mega yachts at the climate conference, government… its a good deal if you can get it.
    https://www.escortsadservice.com/

  7. California: The paradigm of a nanny state all proggies covet so much.

  8. “The biggest ones are often parking requirements. Requiring extra off-street parking can be difficult if you have a small lot and it’s very expensive,”

    I still think I could support this sort of thing. There’s a limit to how much space is available for on-street parking. If you’ve got room to build an ADU then there should be room to fit at least on car in a short little driveway.

    1. I still think I could support this sort of thing.

      Yeah – if there’s any legitimate purpose to city plan review, this sort of thing would be it – i.e. reviewing for additional burdens on public infrastructure.

    2. I can’t, though. If you feel it’d be a burden on the public infrastructure, then you can limit the on-street parking by ordinance. When property owners are considering building an ADU, they can judge for themselves whether the market will reward them for providing additional parking space, and weigh that against their available space and funds.

  9. Do you still need a primary dwelling unit in order to build these accessory dwelling units? My biggest bitch about the minimum size requirements is that it’s so transparently a matter of telling poor people to go be poor somewhere else. If you can live just fine in a 650-sf apartment you can live just fine in a 650-sf house, so why is the size requirement somehow some sort of public health and safety issue? If you’re living in a subdivision with an HOA, sure, they can impose standards, but if you’re living in unrestricted space, what the hell makes you think you have the right to tell your neighbor what he can or can’t do with his house and his property? If you’re worried about your property values, you should have moved into an HOA-administered neighborhood where nosy fucks just like you can tell you what you can do with your home and property.

    1. Do you still need a primary dwelling unit in order to build these accessory dwelling units?

      My understanding is yes, you do.

      In CA you can be in a variety of situations. You can be in a neighborhood with an HOA in an incorporated city, or on the opposite end you can have land in unincorporated areas where you only answer to the county. I live in the latter such area, and we have a fair amount of leeway compared to incorporated areas and especially compared to areas with HOAs.

      However, since my county is a mix of rural and urban areas, we have a lot of county-level regulations that are more urban-oriented (one big fight going on in my area is over livestock, since technically we’re not supposed to be raising livestock, but the area has a lot of old farms that are tacitly grandfathered, but which can be upended in a moment if someone complains).

      As you get into fully rural counties, the codes get a lot less onerous.

      If you’re worried about your property values, you should have moved into an HOA-administered neighborhood where nosy fucks just like you can tell you what you can do with your home and property.

      Arguably, that’s what an incorporated city is.

      1. Except your area can be incorporated after you buy your property without your consent. So, considerably less freedom-friendly than an HOA, and that’s a shockingly low bar.

    2. As a life-long resident in overpriced and (ironically?) overcrowded Orange County, I was thinking the same thing. Another, sort-of connected question I have is what about the role of counties under the new state de/regulations? What changes when looking at the relationship of Sacramento to any one city or county in California? City councils can have as many power-hungry tyrants as any other level of government.

  10. I am surprised at the naivety displayed by many commentators here. To the extent that CA eliminated single family zoning, this has zero to do with increasing housing options and the free market and everything to do with Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. HUD’s is constrained from forcibly resettling people where they cannot afford market rate housing by local zoning laws. Elimination of such laws will allow HUD to place subsidized housing in any area it chooses without regard to any local concerns. Local developers and buyers will still be constrained by a myriad of existing rules and regulations. How this will increase human freedom eludes me.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.