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Unlocking the Potential of Zoning Reform: Building Better Residential Blocks


In a landmark move in 2021, California ushered in a new era of housing development with the passage of Senate Bill 9 (SB9). This statewide legislation allows for the division of single-family lots into two, with each resulting lot hosting two housing units. With over 300,000 single-family lots in Los Angeles alone, the transformative impact of SB9 on housing accessibility cannot be overstated.

Despite its promise, the uptake of SB9 has been slower than anticipated. In its inaugural year, the City of Los Angeles only permitted a meager 38 SB9 housing units, albeit the highest among California cities. Challenges abound, ranging from legal and financial complexities for homeowners and builders to resistance from affluent homeowners and their neighbors.

However, amidst these challenges lies immense potential. SB9, also known as the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act, aims to diversify housing options and foster inclusivity and affordability in neighborhoods across the state. By enabling the subdivision of existing single-family lots and incentivizing multi-unit construction, SB9 represents a shift away from the sprawl-inducing minimum lot size requirements.

To fully realize the benefits of SB9, it is essential to address the barriers to its implementation. Homeowners and builders need support in navigating the intricacies of the law, while local jurisdictions must streamline regulations and remove unnecessary obstacles. Additionally, fostering community engagement and showcasing the diverse housing possibilities under SB9 can help overcome resistance and build momentum for its adoption.

Drawing parallels to the successful implementation of Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legalization since 2016, architects and planners can play a pivotal role in advocating for SB9 and exploring its design potential. Just as ADUs have revolutionized housing creation in California, SB9 has the power to reshape residential blocks and catalyze innovative design solutions.

One such solution is the concept of the Courtyard Block, proposed by the research and design practice Rebuild Collective. By reimagining the traditional R1-zoned residential block in Los Angeles, the Courtyard Block transforms individual backyards into shared courtyards, fostering a sense of community and maximizing open space within densely populated areas.

Through a combination of top-down regulations and bottom-up collaboration between neighbors, the Courtyard Block offers a flexible and adaptable framework for housing development. By embracing shared spaces and challenging conventional notions of property boundaries, it exemplifies the potential of SB9 to promote collective living and address pressing urban challenges.

As we look to the future, it is clear that zoning reform, coupled with innovative design solutions, holds the key to building better residential blocks. By harnessing the power of SB9 and embracing a collaborative approach to development, we can create vibrant, inclusive communities that thrive in the face of change. It’s time to reimagine our neighborhoods and unlock the full potential of zoning reform.

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