New housing built in Millbrae under a recent state law allowing duplexes in traditionally single-family home neighborhoods may soon need to adhere to strict guidelines capping size and imposing various design standards.
The potential rules, aimed at controversial state Senate Bill 9 that took effect this year, were discussed by the City Council this week. They will likely also include affordability provisions, part of an emergency ordinance the council passed last year that requires at least one of the new units go to a low-income resident.
“We tried to take what was in state law and make it local, make it reflect Millbrae culture and values and quality of our residential neighborhoods,” Community Development Director Darcy Smith said.
SB 9 allows for single-family zoned lots, which make up the majority of Millbrae’s residential land, to be redeveloped with up to four housing units by permitting owners to split their property and build duplexes on both halves. The law, designed to allow for more housing in urban areas to address rising housing costs, has been a point of concern for some who fear multifamily housing will alter the character of low-density neighborhoods.
Councilmembers expressed hope that a city ordinance would ensure potential new construction would mesh with existing homes. Agreed on provisions were a limit on the maximum unit size to 800 square feet, capping building heights at 16 feet and requiring front yards of at least 20 feet in depth. The affordability rule to be carried over requires that if the maximum of four units are developed, at least one be made affordable to residents who earn 80% or less of the county’s median income.
The council agreed also to prohibit roof decks, require at least 60% of front yards be landscaped, and require at least one covered parking space be added per unit where state law permits (SB 9 bars cities from mandating parking on projects within a half mile of public transit).
As possible additions to the ordinance, Councilmember Ann Schneider requested that new units be constructed with material saved during deconstruction if existing buildings are removed. She said neighbors should also be notified if an SB 9 project is planned near their homes.
The city’s rules will sit aside SB 9’s own requirements, among them that parcels not already in urban areas do not qualify, neither do those within historic and environmentally sensitive districts. Those who redevelop a lot must also live in one of the new units for at least three years from the time of submitting an application.
Millbrae is not alone in its efforts to restrict SB 9 housing. Numerous cities have drafted similar legislation with varying requirements. But some ordinances that go too far — such that they preclude the law — could face legal consequences.
The Housing and Community Development Department said it’s received complaints about 29 cities with restrictions, and plans to investigate, according to CalMatters. It’s unclear which cities are on the list, but some may be asked to alter their laws and could face legal action.
Attorney General Rob Bonta has already warned two cities, Woodside and Pasadena. Woodside attempted to shield itself from the law by claiming the city was a protected mountain lion habitat. Pasadena maintains the rule does not apply to large swaths of the city considered to be landmark districts.
While design and size standards are common, Millbrae’s affordability requirement has been criticized as limiting the financial feasibility of using SB 9. The stipulation would effectively require property owners to subsidize the rent or sale price of a unit.
Homestead, a development startup looking to help homeowners take advantage of SB 9, ranks how restrictive local ordinances are. The group gave Millbrae a C grade based on the existing emergency rule.
Smith said the city has not received any SB 9 applications or serious inquiries since the law was implemented at the beginning of the year. A consultant aiding the city with the ordinance pointed out that because of minimum lot size requirements, much of the city would likely not be feasible for SB 9 projects regardless of a local rule.
“It won’t be very easy for property owners to develop SB 9 projects in most cases because lots would be rather small to subdivide and still access it,” Bruce Brubaker with planning firm PlaceWorks said. “It’s not anticipated that very many lots will develop with SB 9, but the ordinance will be there to govern what will happen.”
SB 9 requires lots resulting in a split be at least 1,200 square feet each. Brubaker indicated most lots in Millbrae are 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, but because of odd shapes, slopes, or for other reasons, many would not be feasible. The city’s ordinance will likely include limits both on how narrow a lot can be, in addition to barring “flag” lots, where a thin portion of a lot connects the street to a larger portion where the residence would be built.
Smith pointed out that most residents have opted to use a similar state law that allows homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their property instead of SB 9. She said the city issued 18 permits last year for such structures.
“Most of our residents typically see the ADU option as an easier, more sound option,” she said. “The ADUs are booming in our city.”
She said the SB 9 ordinance will next go to the city’s Planning Commission for a public hearing. It will then go back to the City Council for introduction and later adoption, likely this summer.
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