California has reached a boiling point when it comes to its long-simmering housing crisis. The lack of available homes throughout the state has led to rising homelessness and decreased household formations.

On February 19, 2020, lawmakers working to address the housing shortage introduced the latest legislative push toward more affordable housing in the low- and mid-price tiers.

Breaking down SB 1120

Senate Bill 1120 (SB 1120), which was introduced as a solution to help combat California’s housing shortage, ultimately failed at the end of the legislative season in August 2020. And while SB 1120 is dead for now, its call for more affordable housing keeps coming back to life.

The bill stemmed from the defeat of controversial Senate Bill (SB 50) in January, which would have allowed fourplexes on most single-family lots and low and mid-rise apartment buildings in places near transit and job centers.

SB 1120 was introduced in February as a stronger alternative to SB 50 by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. She argued the bill would respect neighborhood character by forgoing towering apartment buildings, while adding much-needed density. Property owners would have been permitted to convert their single-family homes into duplexes or demolish their house and build two new single-family homes or a duplex.

Further, property owners would also have been able to split their property in two and build three additional units, thus creating four homes where there was originally just one.

Support and opposition for SB 1120

Supporters saw the bill as a way to ease housing affordability in the state by creating small-scale duplexes and single-family homes, making them cheaper than traditional units on the market.

Community and neighborhood groups voiced fierce opposition against SB 1120. NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) activists claimed the bill would ruin single-family neighborhoods and create more gentrification, leading to high-end housing instead of affordable housing.

However, YIMBY groups claimed the bill had the potential to achieve what previous legislation could not. SB 1120 sought to bridge the gap between these warring housing factions. The bill did not call for high or even mid-rise housing in residential neighborhoods, which was why many community and neighborhood groups opposed SB 50. Instead, it would have created duplexes and additional single-family homes in residential neighborhoods. The focus would have been on making the housing units as affordable as possible.

So why did it fail? Lawmakers ran out of time and failed to pass the bill on the very last day of the 2020 legislative session: August 31.

While the bill fell short by three votes earlier that day, the Assembly passed SB 1120 the same evening with a margin of 42 to 17. But it was a Pyrrhic victory as the 11:57 P.M. vote left only three minutes to clear both houses.

Needless to say, the state Senate didn’t even get to vote on the bill before the midnight deadline.

The bill’s tragic and very public bungling has led to embittered finger pointing on the Capitol. Senator Atkins blamed the pandemic for slowing down the legislative process, but also faulted the Assembly for failing to bring up the bill in time. She more notably laid blame at her Republican colleagues for continuously obstructing SB 1120’s progress.

Atkins and other lawmakers plan to take up SB 1120 when they readjourn in Sacramento for the new legislative season in January. Will it be enough to reach Californians this time?

Impact on housing

SB 1120 legislation may have been scratched for now, but its failure continues to highlight the need for more housing in the state.

An analysis by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkley shows 5,977,061 single-family parcels in the state would have been eligible for a lot split under SB 1120.

For example, if just five percent of all the parcels in the analysis created two-unit structures, it would result in nearly 600,000 new homes in California.

With legislation like SB 1120, the state would be able to pull itself out of the housing crisis and have enough housing units for our ever-growing population. The affordable units would also help pull the state out of its worsening homeless crisis.

Only time will tell how serious lawmakers are about passing meaningful legislation which will help turn the housing crisis around.

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Legislative steps towards more affordable housing