Photo: James Bombales

In an effort to curb California’s worsening housing crisis, state lawmakers are debating Senate Bill 1120, a measure that would allow two residential units to be built on parcels currently zoned for single-family homes. 

Under the proposed bill, an existing single-family home could be converted into a duplex or razed to make way for two new single-family homes or a duplex. A property owner could also choose to divide their lot in half for a maximum of four units, further adding to the supply of housing.

This stands in contrast to California’s legislation on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which cannot be sold separately from the main property and come with size restrictions.

SB 1120 was introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), along with Senators Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). It passed through the Senate and is currently in the Assembly.

Proponents of the measure argue that it will add to the housing stock in established neighborhoods, rather than perpetuating the urban sprawl that some experts say has contributed to California’s intensifying wildfires. They also argue that single-family homes and duplexes are cheaper to build than large-scale apartment complexes, resulting in more affordable for-sale or rental units.

In a recent article, The Los Angeles Times cited research by The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley that estimates 600,000 new units could be created if five percent of property owners opt to divide their lots and construct two units each. 

Opponents of SB 1120 generally fall into two camps. There are those who believe it will devalue neighborhoods, contributing to traffic congestion and noise levels (advocacy group Liveable California said it “attacks homeownership”). And then there are those who contend that without affordable housing provisions, the measure seeks to benefit developers, not everyday Californians, and could actually contribute to gentrification and displacement.

The vote on SB 1120 is getting down to the wire. Monday, August 31st is the last day for bills to be passed as it marks the end of the legislative session. If it gains approval from both houses, SB 1120 will then be sent to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for signing. Similar “gentle density” laws have been adopted in the City of Minneapolis and the State of Oregon.

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