Say you’re my neighbor in West Los Angeles. But, instead of living in a two-bedroom apartment in my building, you live in a four-bedroom house a few blocks away. And say you live on a street surrounded by other such houses, some with three bedrooms, some with five. You get the idea. 

Say you have a spouse, and some kids, maybe one kid per extra bedroom. Depending on the kids’ ages and age spread, you might have three or four cars. Two in the garage, one in the driveway, and another fending for itself. You might have a live-in housekeeper or nanny, also with a car. Maybe you have heaps of friends who have open invitations to spend weekends in your guest house, and they take you up on those invitations. That’s a well-used house! 

You are living the American dream. Add a pool, and you’re living the California dream.

Now imagine that, instead of one house with four bedrooms, you own one building with four bedrooms — but the building consists of — wait for it — two houses. And imagine that, instead of one family with 5-6 members, there are two families, each with 2-3 members. And imagine if some of those family members have their own cars. 

This is, for some people, the nightmare. The California nightmare. 

What I have just described is not dystopian fiction but rather the main provision of Senate Bill 9, which is currently making its way through the early stages of the legislative process. It would essentially abolish single-unit zoning statewide and instead require every lot in the state to accommodate up to two units. That’s a 100% increase in units! 

SB 9 is Sacramento’s latest attempt to coax California’s cities into developing more housing. It will not, of course, single-handedly create the estimated 2 or 3 million units that the state needs. But, as compared to previous (failed) bills — most notably SB 50 and its predecessor SB 827 — that attempted to increase the state’s housing capacity though relatively high-density urban infill, SB 9 attempts to add housing more… gently. 

The idea is, a duplex need not look any different from a one-plex. Single-unit homes can be reconfigured, or two-unit buildings can be developed from the ground up, with roughly the same dimensions and footprints as their single-unit counterparts. Duplexes need not loom over their neighbors the way apartment buildings might and they don’t encourage their occupants to adopt siege mentalities as if their homes are their fortresses. Duplexes are friendly, efficient, and unobtrusive. 

Tell it to the neighbors. 

Inevitably, every time someone in California proposes a new pro-housing policy, someone comes along to explain why, even though the other policies weren’t right, this one isn’t right either. Last year’s Senate Bill 50 wasn’t right because it allowed buildings that were too big and might have ruined residential neighborhoods. Senate Bill 35 isn’t right because it undermines local control. Etc, etc….

SB 9 is meant to be the anti-SB 50. But, like clockwork, opposition has arisen. It has arisen, of course, because no matter how sensible duplexes may seem, SB 9 inherently affects the most powerful, most anti-development people in the state: homeowners.

I saw the opposition for the first time at a (online) community meeting a few days ago. Duplexes got roughly the reception you’d expect for nuclear waste or TikTok houses. Too many people. Too many cars. Not enough open space. Put that housing someplace else and don’t destroy our neighborhood! Never mind that “someplace else” has been attempted and rejected, plenty of times by plenty of communities already. 

Many duplex skeptics are empty-nesters. Two people might occupy houses of thousands of square feet, with spare bedrooms that haven’t been slept in and backyards that haven’t been frolicked in since the Clinton administration.

And yet, let’s compare the impacts of a duplex built under SB 9 to the impacts of actually using a single-family house for its intended purpose. While a duplex requires a change of law, there is no governmental prohibition against families with multiple children, live-in help, guest quarters, and cars galore. The marginal impact of duplexes on the population capacity of a neighborhood would be negligible. (As for concerns for open space — that’s exactly what a backyard is; single-family homes come with their own amenities.) 

The only difference, then, between a duplex and a blissfuly detached single-unit home is the age-old anxiety about new residents who might not be quite as wealthy as the incumbent residents.

One aspect of that anxiety is the assumption that if something like SB 9 passes, Bel Air will instantly turn into Duplex City (meaning it would look exactly the same as it does now). But the point of passing a statewide bill — and this is a point that opponents of these bills rarely acknowledge — is that development, or, in this case, conversion, gets distributed around the entire state, from Crescent City to National City.

California currently has 6.8 million single-unit detached homes. Even if half of California’s 3 million needed units took the form of duplexes — surely an insane over-estimate — we’re talking about conversion of roughly one out of every five existing units. The other four neighbors will barely even notice. 

The trouble, of course, is that living in pleasant single-unit neighborhoods insulates residents from the far more real and serious anxieties faced by people who are homeless, who can barely afford rent, who live in improvised or over-crowded units, or who feel constrained by high prices and lack of housing choices, or who feel unwelcome because of their skin color, language, or national background. I thought maybe SB 9 could be palatable enough to compel privileged Californians to finally make incremental sacrifices on behalf of the less privileged. I fear I may be overly optimistic.

I don’t have an opinion about SB 9 per se. Like all laws, it surely needs revision and will surely be subject to negotiation. Regardless, if it survives January, this will be one of the big housing debates of 2021. 

There is, of course, a huge irony here: For my neighbors who had 3-4 kids a few decades ago and raised them under one roof, those kids now probably can’t afford live in the type of neighborhood in which they grew up. If they can, it’s probably because their parents are helping them out.

Unless California’s longstanding homeowners are expecting a baby boom, or expect their adult kids to move back in, it might just be time to consider the duplex.

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