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  • Alexei Koseff - SF Chronicle

California lawmakers target cities’ ability to block new housing

SACRAMENTO — Build, build, build.

The spirit of housing construction has imbued the state Capitol with renewed fervor this year as Gov. Gavin Newsom and coastal lawmakers push for policies to spur what they say is badly needed development to get soaring rents and home prices under control.

Advocates who work on housing issues in California say the topic is taking center stage like never before, with more than 200 bills introduced this session. The most provocative ideas — and those likely to cause the fiercest legislative fights — challenge the extent to which cities can control what gets built within their boundaries. Several measures would override zoning ordinances and remove other obstacles to make it easier to build housing.

Marina Wiant, vice president of government affairs for the California Housing Consortium, which promotes affordable housing development, said the lawmakers behind these bills are trying to take advantage of Newsom’s commitment to build 3.5 million homes by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal that will require the state to nearly quintuple its current rate of housing production.

“We’ll see what happens to them and how hard they keep sticking their necks out,” Wiant said.

The conversation has changed dramatically since state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation last year to limit cities’ ability to block large apartment and condominium complexes near public transit. That bill, which aimed to get more people out of their cars and closer to their jobs, faced such stiff opposition that it died in its first committee.

But it’s back this year with lower height limits and provisions to prevent the displacement of low-income residents, changes designed to reduce opposition among progressives. SB50 would prohibit cities from restricting housing developments up to 45 feet tall within a half-mile of major job centers and transit stops, such as a BART or Caltrain station. Within a quarter-mile, projects could be 55 feet tall.

Louis Mirante, legislative director for California YIMBY, a group that lobbies to build more housing, said a “pure local control model” may have worked in the 20th century, but that the state cannot allow rules written decades ago to regulate an economy of the future. His organization is sponsoring SB50, which takes an approach to housing production that he said will be crucial for keeping up with population growth.

“We probably won’t be able to meet that goal without some form of preemption of local zoning rules,” Mirante said.

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, appointed Wiener chair of a new Senate Housing Committee in December, which advocates said indicated that legislative leaders are interested in his mind-set on development. He has emboldened other lawmakers who share his belief that building densely around public transit is one path out of California’s housing crunch.

“We are hearing and feeling and seeing it every day in our districts,” said first-term Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. She is carrying AB725, which would force cities to plan more multifamily buildings rather than single-family homes for the wealthiest households.

Other bills would guarantee approval for apartment and condominium projects for low- and middle-income earners in certain communities that have resisted dense development, and remove local lot-size requirements for cottages and other secondary units that homeowners build on their properties.

Later this year, lawmakers are expected to consider changes to the fees that local governments can charge housing developers to offset the impact their projects have on public services. The issue is a priority for home builders, who say exorbitant fees and other mandates that delay approval for projects make construction prohibitively expensive in California.

“We work with local control in the other 49 states,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association. “To build in any other state is so much faster.”

Among the boldest measures is SB330 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would declare that California is experiencing a “housing supply crisis.” It would prohibit cities with high rents and low vacancy rates from changing zoning laws to reduce the size of potential housing projects, imposing new parking requirements or costly design standards, or capping the number of housing units that could be built for the next decade. It would also force local governments to approve or reject a project within one year after it’s proposed.

“The normal way we respond to a crisis is to give a green light to things we are already doing that speed them up,” Skinner said. “When we’re in a fire crisis, no one is saying, ‘State, don’t act to prevent damage.’”

Housing bills to limit local control


Some of the bills introduced in the Legislature to restrict cities’ ability to block or limit housing development.

SB50 (State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco): Would make it easier to build apartment buildings and condominiums in cities by eliminating minimum parking requirements and raising height restrictions within a half-mile of job centers and public transit stops.

SB330 (State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley): Would prohibit cities with high rents and low vacancy rates from placing moratoriums or other restrictions on housing construction until 2030. Would limit the approval process for projects to three public hearings and require that cities make a decision within one year.

AB725 (Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland): Would impose new restrictions on housing for high-income residents that cities and counties must plan for under their state-mandated regional housing goals, so that no more than one-fifth can be single-family homes.

AB1279 (Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica): Would designate certain communities with low-housing density where developers could more easily build apartment and condominium complexes for low- and middle-income earners. Would charge a fee on more expensive projects in those areas to fund affordable housing.

AB68 (Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco): Would override city ordinances that require a minimum lot size for secondary units, such as cottages and basement apartments, or restrict those units to less than 800 square feet.

SB4 (State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg): Would streamline the approval process for small multifamily housing projects in cities and counties with unmet housing needs, excluding coastal zones, historic districts and areas with high fire risks. Would also ease the development of apartment buildings and condominiums up to one story taller than existing height limits within a half-mile of transit stations.

Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities, acknowledged that local governments have a responsibility to plan for new housing and approve projects that fit within their zoning. But she said there are market forces beyond their control.

“Once we have done our job, it’s not fair to blame us or to penalize us for the house that didn’t get built,” Coleman said.

She said cities are receptive to the state setting goals for housing production and providing funding to help communities reach those goals. But Coleman says she doubts Sacramento can come up with policies that provide a “panacea” for different regions of the state.

“Decisions around land use and planning and accounting for the quality of life in a community, I think those decisions rightfully belong at the local level,” Coleman said. “And frankly, I think the voters feel the same way.”

Even some housing advocates worry that nuance might be lost in the onslaught of legislation.

Anya Lawler, who lobbies for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, said the Legislature has already passed bills in recent years to make housing construction easier and that the state has increased pressure on cities to allow building, such as the lawsuit Newsom authorized in January against Huntington Beach (Orange County). She said the state needs to give those policies a chance to work.

“Now the pendulum has swung very far in the other direction where we’re blaming local governments for everything and using them as a scapegoat,” Lawler said.

Her organization supports efforts to limit rent increases and build more low-income housing. But she warned that overloading cities with aggressive state mandates could frustrate those that are trying to do the right thing without targeting those that have been truly obstinate on development.

“At some point we have to say, ‘OK, here are the rules. Follow them,’” Lawler said. “We’ve reached a point where the number of bills out there is insane.”

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