California

California's YIMBYs Forgo Big State Upzoning Bill In Favor of Wonkier, More Modest Reforms

New bills in the legislature would make it easier for cities to allow more housing on their own, and crack down on places that try to cheat their way out of permitting development.

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It's housing legislation season in California, where state lawmakers have introduced a flurry of red-tape-slashing bills aimed at kickstarting new development.

"California's severe housing shortage—in the millions—is severely harming our state, and we must take firm actions to help create more housing," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco). "We need multiple strategies to help end our housing shortage, including empowering cities to build more housing, funding affordable housing, and ensuring that cities are taking necessary steps to meet their housing goals."

The headline-grabbing housing fights of the past three years have been over ambitious, ultimately failed bills co-authored by Wiener, first S.B. 827 and then S.B. 50, that would have preempted local restrictions to allow mid-rise apartments near transit and fourplexes almost everywhere else.

This time, "yes in my backyard" (YIMBY) lawmakers and activists are instead focusing on more modest, wonkier bills that would collect data on the effect of past reforms, pare back more obscure regulations, and make it easier for local governments to ditch their own restrictions on new housing.

One of these bills, S.B. 10, would let cities skip time-consuming, resource-intensive environmental reviews normally mandated by state law when zoning for "missing middle" housing of up to 10 units in areas with lots of jobs or frequent public transit service.

Those environmental reviews can take years and cost millions of dollars. Worse still, the process allows third parties—whether they're neighborhood groups, labor unions, or individual gadflies—to sue if they think a proposed rezoning's environmental impacts weren't studied thoroughly enough, which can hold things up for even longer.

"We're talking about more light-touch density. You can make a real argument that that kind of housing does not need the same kind of environmental scrutiny," Wiener told Reason in January. "It allows cities to do what they want to do, or need to do, quickly and not have to spend ten years doing [environmental impact reports] and getting sued."

Last month, the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved a draft plan to allow up to four-unit homes in all residential areas currently zoned for single-family housing. Local officials in San Francisco and Berkeley have proposed similar ideas.

Should S.B. 10 pass, it could make it easier for these cities to finalize rezonings without having to spend years conducting environmental reviews and fending off lawsuits.

The bill passed rapidly through the state Senate last year, but failed in the state Assembly over what Wiener says were bad inter-chamber dynamics that had little to do with policy. He's optimistic about S.B. 10's changes this year, noting that even some legislators who were skeptical of the state preemptions in bills like S.B. 50 supported it because it gave cities more flexibility.

While that bill would make it easier for cities to allow housing, another of Wiener's proposals would make it harder for them to get away with preventing new housing development.

That bill, S.B. 478, would require localities to allow a floor area ratio (FAR), the ratio of developed floor space to the plot it's built on, of a least 1.5 on residential land zoned for housing developments of two to ten units. This is to combat a devious tactic used by cities whereby they upzone land on paper, but effectively prevent denser development by imposing tight FAR regulations.

The bill would also cap localities' minimum lot size requirements, which often require developers to use more land than they otherwise would, limiting density and driving up prices.

The importance of both pieces of legislation is highlighted by California's ongoing Regional Housing Needs Adjustment (RHNA) process, whereby the state requires regions and localities to plan for enough housing to meet projected future needs.

In 2020, the California Department of Housing and Community Development came out with planning quotas that will require cities and counties across the state to allow a lot more housing than they currently do.

A bill like S.B. 10 will make life easier for local governments by streamlining the rezonings they'll have to do to comply with new, higher RHNA quotas. S.B. 478 will make it harder for local governments to cheat on those quotas by upzoning in theory but still leaving in place development-killing regulations.

"A lot of cities are already saying we have enough capacity. We don't have to change our zoning. If you look carefully at the rules and regulations it's really not true," says Sonja Trauss, the executive director of YIMBY Law. "When you look at the setback requirements and the open space requirements, by the time you go through every regulation, you can't really build ten units there, you can only build two."

The other two bills in Wiener's housing package include one that would spend $100 million on housing for at-risk youth, and another that would have the state collect more data on the effects of past housing laws.

California regulated its way into having the highest rents and home prices in the country. Undoing that bureaucratic detritus requires reformers to propose some regulatory minutiae of their own.

 

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  1. There is an Association of Bay Area Governments in Northern California (ABAG) composed of those counties around the San Francisco Bay. They have votes based on population, with Alameda, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara leading the pack. Napa County is dead last.
    Over twenty years ago they were faced with a federal and a state requirement for low-income housing and separately, waste disposal sites. After careful consideration and a well-attended vote, both were assigned to Napa County. What followed was an attempt to ceed bay front land from Napa to Solano County, removing Napa from ABAG – it is only about one half of a mile of bay frontage. No bay, no ABAG membership.
    YIMBY can mean YIYBY.
    It is clear that everyone is willing to make room for perceived needs somewhere else if possible.

    1. This example illustrates so many things.

      YIYBY

      The importance of a Senate.

      It’s just awesome.

    2. Dallas did something similar to a neighboring town. There was a lake that falls owned, but a neighboring town owned the land around it. When Dallas was told they had to provide more low income housing, they filed in the lake and built it there. The neighbors were pissed, but as they weren’t Dallas residents they had no say.

      1. Dallas not falls owned the lake.

    3. What followed was an attempt to ceed bay front land from Napa to Solano County, removing Napa from ABAG – it is only about one half of a mile of bay frontage.

      Seems wise – the Bay shore of Napa is just a bunch of marsh, anyway. By the time you get to the part of Napa where people actually live, you’re not really that close to the Bay anymore.

      1. And if you could get out from under the boot of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, even better still. It feels like an agency staffed entirely by ex-East German state officials.

    4. Any building done to “alleviate” housing shortages should only be done in areas that are over populated only and not built 40 miles away from those areas. And when completed and ready for occupancy be required to be rent controlled for 18 years. Further all sun side walls and roofs must be using solar generating siding and roofing.

      1. Further all sun side walls and roofs must be using solar generating siding and roofing. This must be incorporated in all new construction regardless of private or business

  2. “We need multiple strategies to help end our housing shortage, including empowering cities to build more housing, funding affordable housing, and ensuring that cities are taking necessary steps to meet their housing goals.”

    Or you could just get out of the way and let markets work.

    1. Sadly, this is their idea of getting out of the way. You have to have a plan for getting out of the way, which means a planning commission, and you can’t have a planning commission without a study of the issue, which means a study group and a panel to appoint the study group and a commission to study the planning commission to examine the appointment of a study group to appoint the panel to look into the issue of appointing a study group for the issue of forming a panel…..

    2. I think, to be fair, no they can’t. Human cognition isn’t often wired that way and Libertarians need to come to terms with that.

      1. ^subhuman cognition^

  3. I have been led to believe everyone is leaving California for Texas won’t the house/people thing even itself out?

  4. Any of these areas have rent control? I vaguely recall my SJW agri econ professor having orgasms about some city in CA with those.

    1. Any of these areas have rent control?

      San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond, yes, everywhere else, no.

      1. If they still apply to new rentals, is anyone going to build new rentals in those cities regardless of how streamlined the permitting process becomes?

  5. “California’s severe housing shortage—in the millions—is severely harming our state, and we must take firm actions to help create more housing,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco).

    When D-San Francisco is rushing to cut a specific area of red tape, I can’t help but wonder how this will become massively corrupt and counterproductive.

    1. “We need multiple strategies to help end our housing shortage, including empowering cities to build more housing, funding affordable housing, and ensuring that cities are taking necessary steps to meet their housing goals.”

      I found it.

      I should have read the next sentence I guess.

      1. There’s also the recent legislation allowing BART (our Bay Area subway system) to become a landlord to both “address the housing crisis” and to “address the BART funding crisis.”

        While local city governments debate allowable density, BART has been exempted from local building authorities and granted rights to build housing towers on land that they own (i.e. existing BART parking lots), without regard to local zoning restrictions.

        So you can’t upsize your two-story duplex, but the BART station down the street can remove their parking lot and replace it with a 14-story government-run residential tower.

        Because you may not build enough “affordable” housing.

        1. Exactly, thank you! Reason’s band of spliff-puffing societal shepherds haven’t met a public-private cronyship that they didn’t love.

  6. Scense California and certain counties and cities have a housing crisis let these political subdivisions band together and build the housing that they need. That way they could allow the people that need this housing move in while charging each person, family or group of persons that move into this housing to pay what they can afford. This would solve their housing crisis while not interfering with private ownership of property and what can be done with property.

  7. A good start would be to stop attracting illegal aliens and have those here leave. That would free up housing in some of the areas impacted the most like SF and LA.

    The other would be to create incentives for businesses to locate to less developed areas.

    More people is a curse not a blessing,

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