California’s SB 9: A Slow Reversion to the Historic Mean

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Several different friends have asked me about a new land use law here in California. Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) creates a state level administrative mechanism for single-family homes to be restructured into two distinct legal homes as of right. It also allows existing single-family lots to be subdivided into two separate legal parcels. The end result is that an existing property occupied by a plain vanilla suburban home could be reorganized into two unassociated properties, each with two units, for a total of four homes on the same bit of land. As you might expect, the law is controversial.

Supporters of SB 9 expect these rules to facilitate the construction of many new homes, particularly in areas that are already built out and in the most desirable locations close to jobs, culture, and amenities. This increased supply would eventually rebalance the decades-long, pent-up demand and result in more reasonable prices for both owner-occupied homes, as well as rental units. There are some who suggest this would also have beneficial effects on the environment and society as outward development pressure into farmland and nature will be diminished along with corresponding long commutes with the associated pollution, et cetera.

Opponents are up in arms and see this as yet another example of the kind of social engineering that’s destroying America. So-called “stack ‘em, pack ‘em, and track ’em” policies are interpreted as attempts to strip the population of freedom and impose either top-down government control or rentier corporate capitalism—or both. And there’s the old argument that plenty of cheap little homes and crappy apartments will attract the wrong element into otherwise respectable neighborhoods, where such people don’t belong. In terms of the environment, densely populated cities are devoid of nature, polluted, crime ridden, and prone to disease. Only a dispersed suburban or rural living arrangement is considered a tolerable human habitat suitable for democracy, freedom, prosperity, and health. The division between opponents of SB 9 and supporters of it tends to fall, respectively, between the people who already own and inhabit single-family homes and those who don’t. Okay. Hold that thought.

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