In the past decades, California experienced a rapid population growth that initiated a shortage of affordable housing crisis. Housing affordability has been at its lowest in the past for about 15 years affecting many. The American dream of owning a home became simply too expensive in the market, driven primarily by the economic gain intertwined with social injustice and segregation patterns for decades. The State decided to take action and suggested introducing the Home Act bill, commonly called SB9, that aspires to promote strategic infill growth by adding more units to the already built-up suburban landscape. The main goal is to simplify the process for homeowners to subdivide an existing lot and create duplexes or ADUs. In this way, the legislation enables homeowners to create intergenerational wealth and simultaneously ease the rental market by providing more accommodations for potential tenants.
In this article, I would like to discuss the origin of the American dream and how this concept of owning home projects on the issues of today related to the lack of affordable homes in California. Through interviews with locals, people who want to buy their first home, or tenants who cannot find affordable rent, I attempted to understand how people feel about the SB9, wondering if it may actually change somebody’s everyday life. Furthermore, with my architectural background in mind, I aspired to investigate the legislation’s impacts on the environment, social justice, sustainable urban planning methods (the Planners Triangle), and the need for smart growth in our cities.
The American dream of owning a home
The American dream is about owning a home with a yard. Before World War II, living standards in the United States were poor. Most people lived in farmhouses in rural areas or tightly packed in city apartments where comfort life was not for everybody. About half of Americans had access to running hot water or a toilet. During the 1920s, new progressive reforms were transplanted from Germany, providing new zoning for working-class families. It opened up possibilities to build low-density housing on the city outskirts. In the United States, it became a tool to exclude and segregate people by race or ethnicity and allowed land use building types to be classified. Single-family zones were endorsed “on the grounds that they excluded “parasite” apartment buildings that blighted neighborhoods and lowered property values.”
Things started to change after the war when about 15 million soldiers returned home from long and drastic battles. In their imagination, all it mattered was with family at home, which represented safety, comfort, and love. In the psychological sense, after seeing some much death, disruption, and sacrifice, it is natural to seek stability in a place that one can proudly say is “my home.” However, the problem is providing enough housing for such a great demand. At that time, about 10,000 houses were built for million dreamers that wanted one. Years later, baby-boomer contributed to even higher demand on the market, all during the Great Depression.
The need for change was evident; therefore, developers, urban planners, and architects desired to find a solution to keep up with production by exploring how to produce components that make up a house efficiently. The inspiration came from the auto industry, where several parts make a car; thus, houses can be prefabricated. From now on, the suburbs we know today were born. In 1944, developers built 114,000 new homes; in 1950, they built 1.7 million, supplying the market needs with a home that cost just $9000. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided generous loans to mainly white middle-class citizens and the Veterans Administration (VA), supported war veterans, thus dramatically increasing the number of people who could actually afford a new home.
Suburbs started to expand on “greenfields,” which usually meant old farms. The size of lots was carefully adjusted to the taste of different income groups. Processes and decision-making performed by developers, real estate agents, and banks marked a trend of redlining that facilitated patterns of injustice and segregation in urban planning. Its results can be experienced even today in most American cities. The 1968 federal Fair Housing Act strived to end such practices. In general, things started to change for the better, although town officials managed to find ways to control racial segregation by proposing new zoning codes that intended to preserve suburban communities as they were.
Eventually, the housing boom started to wear off. The following decades were defined by the environmental movement that became the fundament of the “sustainable” politics of today. In California, urban sprawl started to show its negative impact on the surrounding landscape and revealed the vulnerability of communities built on floodplains or hazardous areas that are not resilient to natural disasters. An endless carpet of single-family housing also changed the character of the stunning Californian landscape – the motive why many wanted to settle here in the first place.
In the 1960s, extensive areas of redwood were cut to accommodate all new housing, and trees as materials were used for building structures. It is estimated that there were 1,000 trees cut a day.
Environmental groups started to be more present in public areas and fought to protect land and wildlife that became fragile and vulnerable due to human expansion in areas where people never used to live earlier. The main argument was that modern society is disattached from the laws of nature and climatic conditions. Symbolically, the first Earth Day took place in the 1970s across the United States.
Isabell is my colleague, a student in the Berkeley Environmental Design program whom I interviewed about the environmental impacts of urban sprawl. She was asked if SB9 legislation may be a solution for combating further growth and is a way to preserve the natural resources that are at risk. In her view, our society is in a moment where we can slow down the process of destruction of our ecosystems, or we will become its victims. In recent years, California has introduced numerous new legislation that aims to analyze new development, study their impacts and see what they can bring to public life and the environment. She calls it “slowing down the whole process that can go either way.” In a perfect world, such documentation allows us to carefully design or redesign our neighborhood and create a more resilient and self-sufficient system. They do stop the urban sprawl on several occasions, yet they do impact the real estate market. Often people decide to live in a denser populated area to build their home in a region where housing is still affordable and laws are more relaxed. As a result, urban sprawl takes place elsewhere.
Moreover, NIMBY homeowners get another argument to fight new development. NIMBY stands for the “not in my backyard” movement, where residents want to protect their home value from unwanted investments (LULUs – locally unwanted land use or simply anything that changes the neighborhood’s identity) or people leaving the areas that affect market prices. The fear is usually grounded in their property value, usually being their greatest investment. Isabell argues that the new environmental laws slow down the process in favor of such residents, thus directly obstructing any process of densification or adaptation to the new reality in the context of a lack of housing or climatic adaptations. In addition, city officials, engineers, and other lawmakers put more requirements for the construction of buildings.
Another matter is existing zoning, where SB9 comes into the picture. Zoning intends to control what can be built in the area and where. Across the United States, numerous neighborhoods were zoned just for single-family housing without any exceptions. Isabell points out the paradox of the possibility of expanding your home to a bigger one, but not to a different kind like a duplex or more that can provide accommodation for more families. It is a default standard for Americans who got used to it.
“How to fall in love with suburbs.”
During a chat with Sabrina, who has lived in Southern Berkeley, California, for the past four years, we discussed the qualities and expectations one has when moving into the suburbs. She moved with her husband and their two-year-old boy from San Francisco, where they spent nearly their entire life. The idea of owning a house with a yard away from the city assured them a better quality of life. The concern to provide a safe and healthy green space for the little one is the crucial argument for why they decided to pursue the dream. She admits that they both tried to be very open-minded about staying in the city center since it has always felt like home for them. This was the neighborhood where they had known many people for years, and their commuting to the offices was convenient. They wanted to prove to themselves that when the baby came, they would figure out how to navigate San Francisco’s urban jungle. The first weeks or even months went smoothly, and the dream of owning a home faded a little bit into the background. Staying at home was not a problem, and the central location helped have friends and family visit more often, and access to primary amenities like a doctor’s office for regular checkups was at hand. Things started to change when the process of finding a kindergarten arrived. At this point, both parents wanted to do a good job and find a place where their boy would receive the best quality of education and care. That is how they discovered that most of the places they aimed for were in the suburbs. The idea of finding a neighborhood with a character that suited them became exciting. “It felt almost as asking myself whom I want to be all over again,” she said. They found Southern Berkeley a perfect fit and found a property they fell in love with.
Months later, they appreciate more space and greenery around them and also that they feel they have more control over playmates for their child by engaging their time in kindergarten. It was important for them to do so. However, the most significant change happened in Sabrina’s mindset regarding concerns she had when she used to live in a big city environment. At that time, she completely understood the need to build more housing of different types to advocate for densifying the places she lives in now. “It was more in my face,” she said. “Now, to tell you the truth, I do not 6 want to change much in my new community. We like it as it is, and we paid a lot for it”. She feels conflicted about her feelings about SB9 too. To balance out their loan on the home, they both considered looking into building a unit in their yard that they could rent out to students. “Rent is so high in Berkeley these days, so it is beneficial to figure out a way to get passive income.” They are not interested in letting a stranger into their home due to having a small baby in the house, but a separate unit would work. Sabrina decided to talk about it with the closest neighbors to hear their reaction, and generally, they said, “we do not care, as long as they will not throw parties every weekend.” This leaves her with a green light, although it all feels more complicated than SB9 sounds like on paper.
By projecting this thinking on a larger scale, we can see why the housing market cannot keep up with the demand. The process takes time, and not everyone is convinced about changing the community’s character by adding more housing, and it gets economically more challenging for people to buy their own homes.
Meanwhile, in opposition to the above, a new movement persists to increase density and ease the housing development process. The “Yes, In My Backyard” (YIMBY) group advocates removing barriers in single-family zoning to allow additional dwelling units on already built-up parcels. Andrea, a resident of Berkeley, argues that focusing only on SB9 might not be enough in order to address all obstacles in residential development. In several areas in the United States, cities fail to adjust other laws and regulations that may cancel multifamily houses by restricting building height, size, or particular requirements of the size of a lot to build a multifamily building. “California’s new law allows local jurisdictions to impose owner occupancy restrictions on subdivided lots, leaves local zoning and design requirements in place, and exempts lands that have been deemed prime farmland, wetlands, or part of a conservation plan.” Apart from thinking of volume or size, the essential question remains whether new units like SB9 proposes will be attractive for Americans; the new generation may look differently at the case”, Andrea adds.
Senate Bill 9
“Senate Bill 9” seeks to increase access to affordable Housing in California. It is a statewide issue mentioned in Section 5 of Article XI of the California Constitution. The main objective is to provide ways for homeowners to create duplexes or subdivide their parcels. “The bill includes numerous safeguards to ensure that it responsibly creates duplexes and strategically increases housing opportunities for homeowners, renters, and families alike. This bill will provide more options for families to maintain and build intergenerational wealth “. It is a lawful way to infill residential neighborhoods with new housing and allows ministerial approval “for urban lots splits and the development of duplexes in existing urban residential zones that are predominated by single-family housing.” Ministerial approval represents the process of authorizing development projects (in this case, duplexes, subdivision maps, and increased length of time of validation of existing subdivision maps) that do not involve personal judgment by the public official. In terms of duplexes, the bill states that housing developments with two residential units on single-family zoned parcels should be approved if the required conditions are met without discretionary review or hearing. As a subject to agreement, the proposed development cannot demand demolition or alternation of the building; it is allowed up to 25% of exterior structural walls provided that the building is not part of historical heritage – it is not registered in State historic Resources Inventory or listed as a historic property, or district). The bill also restricts “rent to levels affordable to persons or families of moderate, low, or very low income.”
The legislation allows local agency requires additional objective zoning, subdivision, and design standards “unless those standards would have the effect of physically precluding the construction of up to 2 units or physically precluding either of the two units from being at least 800 square feet in floor area, prohibiting the imposition of setback requirements under certain circumstances, and setting maximum setback requirements under all other circumstances.”
Cities and Counties are required to approve a parcel that fits the “urban lot split” conditions and implement the bill’s provisions that allow two-unit residential housing. The existing parcel cannot be subdivided into more than two new parcels with comparable size given that no single parcel may be less than 40% of the original parcel’s lot area that was envisioned for subdivision. Local authority can approve smaller sizes provided the parcel is a minimum of 1,200 square feet. Another necessary criterion is that the parcel must be situated within a single-family residential area. Additionally, the urban lot area must be located in an urban region or cluster (following the definition of United States Census Bureau). Finally, it allows them “to extend the life of subdivision maps by an additional 12 months.”
It is crucial to point out that the bill is highly debatable. For instance, McKinsey Global Institute claims that the legislation can mean nearly 800,000 units developed across the State but densifying already existing single-family neighborhoods. McKinsey’s analysis projected 600,000 new units in just three counties alone. Building new housing on smaller lots in already developed areas continues a successful (especially in Los Angeles) state housing policy, namely Accessory Dwelling Units, that in two years managed to change the trends of the housing crisis. Finally, McKinsey argues that the “policy leverages valuable but previously untapped resources, such as developed but underutilized land, while building valuable equity for homeowners.”
Regardless of the tremendous potential benefits the bill introduces, some experts claim that the new law will have minimal impact on communities since only 5% of single-family owners find it cost-effective to upgrade their property.The League of California Cities adds that SB9, in its current stage, will not boost housing construction because it fails to recognize public engagement (NIMBY) associated with new development in the neighborhood. A study executed by Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley evaluated that SB9 can result in 700,000 new units, “about 20% of the homes necessary to alleviate the housing shortage of 3.5 million homes.”
Sustainability as an indicator
Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Many well-functioning cities worldwide still face major challenges that require appropriate solutions. Among other things, the challenges are linked to handling demographic changes, structural changes in the business world, and challenges around the consumption of energy for heating and transport. In addition, man-made climate change must be dealt with, and socially segregated urban areas must become more inclusive.
The uncontrolled expansion of our cities for decades directly impacts our environment and has created unsustainable urban development. Natural resources become gradually scarce, and surrounding biotopes are affected by human encroachment. Suburban growth and its negative impacts can be further identified in several categories. To begin with, the consumption of land affects agricultural practices and high-quality land availability. Cheaper land often attracts more extensive developments, thus disrupting habitats and local biotopes. Fragmented landscape ecosystems decline in the number of species and make them less resilient. Extensive neighborhoods lead to spatial disruption in terms of distances as well. Open recreational spaces are often further away, and car-based transportation is preferred. Residents depend on car use in daily commutes; therefore, traffic congestion is the new normal. Such patterns inevitably contribute to air pollution, noise, and emissions, which are the main drivers of climate change.
“Urban design theory” is one of the theories that discuss the compact city that emphasizes the relationship between the physical and the social and conceptualizes urban space as a place for people’s daily activities. The theory focuses on urban space and urban life, where both the physical and social aspects play a major role in people’s use of urban space. Urban design is an interdisciplinary subject area and has gained recognition in the last 50 years as a separate field. The purpose is to design cities and towns based on social, aesthetic, and functional considerations. A solution could be the compact city, a concept launched by the OECD, where the compact city is described as a densified, built-up area with a clear boundary to the surrounding countryside in urban areas. It is linked together utilizing public transport so that residents have a short distance between residence, workplace, and service offers. Compact urban development aims to create sustainable cities where the balance between economic, social, and environmental development is central, as these are closely linked together. 10 SB9 legislation proposes densifying already existing built-up areas. In that sense, the proposal goes hand-in-hand with environmental actions that create specific requirements for increasing the efficiency of urban land use and utilizing existing infrastructure, trying to combat earlier mentioned consequences.
The smart growth concept proposed by G.H. Brundtland advocates for sustainable development by stating “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The postulate is one of the main foundations of the sustainable movement. It suggests that accommodating population growth needs to combat urban sprawl. The author points out three main tools that may do just that: increasing density, implementing infill development, and mixed-use land uses. SB9 conveys the same strategies and suggests sustainable urban development models on an ecological (preservation) economic and social (more affordable housing) level. Benefits from increased use of the space occupied by the city are brought about by urban densification, which is a strategy for improving the efficiency of using natural resources. New spaces help the city to grow and meet people’s needs, enriching city functions. Using existing infrastructure helps to implement energy-efficient technologies that provide a higher quality of services, and these affected areas are economically stimulated for further growth.
However, it is crucial to understand the possible risks of the “infill” process. Smaller spaces can potentially decrease the comfort and quality of life, initiate social conflicts or affect technical infrastructure (media, transportation, or even parking spaces). Social challenges can also arise if important public spaces disappear or are privatized and marginalized groups are excluded. More densely built-up places can also lead to the loss of historic areas and the down-building of undeveloped areas and green lungs, which are vital for stormwater management and natural diversity. The green areas can reduce flood risk, which is particularly relevant today. Dense urban fabric can also contribute to the heat island effect by increasing emissions locally. In order to avoid more significant consequences of urban infill, cities should follow a general plan that guides through adaptation measures. There are also many examples of compact cities that provide poor-quality urban spaces that do not work in practice. Those spaces need to be well-designed for all users, especially in suburban districts, where people may not necessarily want to leave their homes for less desirable places than their own. 11
The HOME Act bill seeks to address California’s apparent housing shortage. Looking back at the history of the American dream, which was centered on property ownership, I can see clear trends in American society that see real estate as an asset and perhaps even a person’s social standing depending on the neighborhood they live in or the size of their house. Although this behavior is not new and is not exclusive to Americans, it has its roots in the capitalistic politics, economy, and culture that contributed to the pressure in the real estate market. California has a lot at risk because it makes significant contributions to strategies for coping with and mitigating climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and establishing a more equitable world for all. This law is a positive move, but the fundamental issue needs to be addressed: who wants to live in ADUs? In a culture where everyone demands the highest standard of living, who is willing to accept the sacrifice of a smaller size home in someone’s garden? Can this impose new negative segregation issues?
Senator Scott Wiener states, “California’s severe housing shortage is badly damaging our state, and we need many approaches to tackle it.” For me, SB9 is an easy and fast way to re-zone areas for more housing. In some cases, we might what to speed up the bureaucratic process that heavily affects the market’s response to the housing crisis; however, it does not really answer all the issues, yet creates new ones. For instance, the issue of finding a balance between heritage preservation and the lifespan of ADUs through an environmental lens are vital problems that follow along with it. How do we ensure that developers will not weaponize this law for economic benefit? Short-term solutions often have side effects that are hard to predict since the changes occur quickly. One should be skeptical and carefully observe the development of communities growth.