California Lawmakers Approve Series of Upzoning Bills

A key committee cleared multiple bills that would allow cities to greenlight apartment and affordable housing projects in single-family neighborhoods and abandoned shopping centers.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In the latest push against single-family zoning, California lawmakers on Thursday approved a series of housing bills that would allow cities to bypass old zoning laws and greenlight new apartment projects.

Saddled with the nation’s highest real estate prices and largest homeless population, state senators argued zoning reform could be key to stemming the state’s housing crisis.  

“This has the potential to empower local governments to pursue more equitable upzoning for these missing middle kinds of housing,” said state Senator Scott Wiener.

Under the headlining and most contentious piece of the housing package introduced by state Democrats several months ago, Senate Bill 10 would allow local governments to override zoning laws to allow multi-family projects of up to 10 units on parcels within a half-mile of transit stops, major bus routes and areas deemed “job-rich” by state regulators. Cities could also use SB 10 to speed up housing projects planned for urban infill sites but not those in extreme fire hazard zones.   

Chair of the Senate Housing Committee, Wiener cast his bill as a “powerful” yet voluntary new tool that will enable local governments to overcome outdated and often discriminatory zoning laws that can impede badly needed housing proposals in the state’s most exclusive communities. He wants California to capitalize on the growing nationwide upzoning trend sparked by cities like Minneapolis and Portland which are moving away from traditional single-family zoning policies.   

“While there are certainly plenty of cities that do not want to, there are also plenty of cities that do want to zone for more housing,” said Wiener, D-San Francisco.  “But we make it incredibly hard for them to do so…we make them go through a very, very lengthy process.”

In previous years, Wiener’s proposals have faltered in the face of opposition from Republicans and Democrats who worried a state mandate would remove control over housing decisions from local officials.

But Wiener’s chances of success appear stronger this year as Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins is making SB 10 and a chorus of other housing-related bills a focus of her legislative agenda. The San Diego Democrat is sponsoring three bills, including one that would make it easier for homeowners to create duplexes and fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods. 

The housing proponents will have to overcome stern opposition from trade unions and a collection of ritzy cities like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Palo Alto and Lafayette.

Dozens of labor unions complained Thursday about being left out of the bill, while the cities are worried upzoning could threaten the character of some of California’s most historic neighborhoods and coastal communities.

The State Building and Construction Trade Council, which represents 450,000 workers across 14 trades, said SB 10 lacks union provisions and called it a “gift” to developers that won’t guarantee new affordable housing.

“It creates a streamlined process saving developers millions of dollars without providing a corresponding public benefit,” said council lobbyist Erin Lehane. “SB 10 will be a gift to profiteering housing developers.”

After more than an hour of debate and public testimony, the committee passed the zoning reform by a 7-1 margin. The next hurdle for SB 10 is the Senate Governance and Finance committee.

The lone no vote was cast by Republican Patricia Bates, who said she was concerned the “densification” of her district could lead to a lack of street parking and pedestrian injuries. Bates’ district encompasses parts of Orange and San Diego counties including beachside cities like San Clemente, Oceanside and Carlsbad.

“You would be eliminating the requirement for parking and I’d like you to travel to some of these areas to see what that’s done,” Bates explained to Wiener. “The parking is all over the streets.”

If the measure ultimately clears the Legislature and is signed into law, cities and counties could vote to exempt qualifying housing projects from the California Environmental Quality Act. Backers include California Yimby, CalChamber and a collection of housing advocacy groups.

Hoping to ignite a boom of new affordable housing, the committee additionally advanced legislation that would incentivize cities to swap abandoned shopping centers and other commercial properties for affordable housing.

Senate Bill 15 creates state grants and bonuses for cities that rezone idle commercial sites and allow developers to build low and moderate-income housing. Qualifying projects would need to be built by developers using a “skilled and trained workforce” paid prevailing wages.

The bill’s author, state Senator Anthony Portantino, said the flood of commercial and retail vacancies caused by the pandemic are presenting a new opportunity for cities looking to quickly boost their housing supply.

“They’re abandoning retail sites at a pace greater than the Great Recession,” said Portantino, D-Pasadena. “Now is the opportunity to construct affordable housing on land formerly used by commercial retailers and give local governments fiscal incentive to encourage rezoning.”

Portantino says the grants will help cities recover lost sales taxes and allow workers to live closer to job areas. A similar proposal stalled last year in the state Assembly.

The committee also advanced another measure by Wiener that requires cities and counties to report more comprehensive data regarding the various types of project proposals and building permits issued and denied.

Wiener says the goal of Senate Bill 477 is to give the public a clearer picture of what kind of housing projects are being approved and whether the state’s recent efforts to streamline the approval process for low-income housing and homeless projects are actually working. The proposal would mandate local governments add various housing data subsets to the yearly progress reports they are already required to submit to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.  

Proponents include California Yimby, California Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity California. Meanwhile a variety of homeowners associations wrote the committee in opposition of SB 477, warning it will “increase the burden” on local planning departments.

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