Per current California law, apartment buildings that are above three stories require two stairway exit routes. But this requirement has been shown to impact the size, cost, and design of new housing while also putting limits on the work of architects. Costs go up and buildings cannot fit comfortably in smaller lots.
Enter Assemblymember Alex Lee, with AB 835. The bill directs the State Fire Marshal to begin researching the prospect of constructing apartment buildings over three stories tall with a single stairway and a single exit while still adhering to fire safety standards. Governor Gavin Newsom has already signed it.
Notably, AB 835 does not propose changing current building standards. It exists to spur a report from the Fire Marshal, presenting the new research while also addressing fire and life safety or emergency issues. The report is due on January 1, 2026.
Lee wrote in an email to The Beat, “I see AB 835 as a first step to revising California’s building code on apartment staircases. If California were to permit single-staircase apartments above three stories, we could unlock previously undevelopable properties, and create more high density housing. Single-stair apartments also allow for more efficient use of building spaces, along with a greater variety of housing units.”
Lee went on to share, “Single-staircase buildings are common worldwide, and for good reason. Take Norway for example. It allows single-staircase apartments up to eight stories. To ensure fire safety, the country also requires each unit to have a window or balcony, and a maximum travel distance to the stairwell.”
He cited how New York City and Seattle both allow single-staircase buildings up to six stories high, and how Switzerland puts no maximum height limit on single-exit apartments. Yet safety standards are upheld in all those locations, with people in Switzerland being about five times less likely to die in fires than those in the U.S.
“I’m proud that the Governor has signed AB 835,” wrote Lee, “and the bill has received broad support from housing advocates and local government. This is just the beginning of our work to bring single-stair apartments above three stories to California.”