Senator Wiener Takes Aim at Single-Family Zoning


After SB 50 failed to pass earlier this year, Senator Scott Wiener introduced a new housing bill that aims to increase density across the state and provide cities a streamlined process for upzoning certain areas of their communities. Although more modest than the sweeping overhaul that was proposed under SB 50, this bill would effectively eliminate single-family zoning statewide by allowing two to four units per lot depending on the size of the city. In response to concerns that SB 50 interfered with local decision-making, this bill takes a more tempered approach by reducing obstacles to upzoning transit-oriented and job-rich infill areas to allow up to 10 units without prescriptively requiring cities do so.

This is consistent with a larger movement to eliminate single-family zoning across the country. In 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city to vote to eliminate single-family zoning policies citywide. Last year, Oregon approved a bill allowing duplexes in all cities with at least 10,000 people and up to four units in larger cities. Austin has eased restrictions that would allow greater density in single-family zoning districts. Seattle was able to ban single-family zoning, but only in about 6% of the city. Most recently, a bill was introduced in Washington state that would eliminate single-family zoning in most cities. Even the United Nations has warned of the social and environmental impacts of single-family zoning. It’s clearly becoming more and more recognized that there are significant drawbacks to single-family zoning districts that outweigh their justification as “preserving neighborhood character.”

SB 902 would extend this movement to California by authorizing multifamily housing “by right” on all properties zoned for residential use, with few exceptions. Ministerial approval under the legislation would exempt such projects from CEQA. The number of units permitted per lot depends on the city’s population, as follows:

  • Two units in unincorporated areas and cities with up to 10,000 people;
  • Three units in cities with between 10,000 and 50,000 people; and
  • Four units in cities with more than 50,000 people.

Although the bill would allow for increased density, projects would still need to meet local height and setback limits, which would ensure compatibility with the existing scale of development. Projects would also need to meet local demolition standards. The legislation would not apply in very high fire hazard severity zones or where the project would involve the demolition of affordable housing, rent controlled units, housing that has been rented out in the past seven years, or buildings listed in a national or state historic register.

Aside from eliminating single-family zoning statewide, the legislation would also ease some of the difficulties associated with rezoning parcels to allow greater density. The legislation would allow cities to rezone parcels for up to 10 units in transit-rich and jobs-rich areas, as well as on urban infill sites. Such rezoning ordinances would not be subject to CEQA, which would significantly streamline the legislative process. This provides cities with a flexible tool they can use to allow higher density projects where appropriate.

SB 902 was originally scheduled for the Senate Housing Committee hearing on March 31st, but it was postponed when the legislative session was suspended due to COVID-19. The Senate is currently set to reconvene on May 4th, although that date is subject to change. The path ahead for SB 902 and other housing bills is unclear, as the legislature will undoubtedly be focused on COVID-19 related legislation once they are back in session. Stay tuned.

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  • DBI Bluebeam Applicant Training – Tuesday, April 21, 1-3pm – A two-hour virtual training of the electronic plan review process using Bluebeam Studio Projects and Sessions
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Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorney Sabrina Eshaghi

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient.  Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.