California Lawmakers Propose Housing Package

This May 21, 2020, file photo shows a homeless encampment on Beaudry Avenue as traffic moves along Interstate 110 in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Undeterred by recent legislative defeats, California lawmakers are once again looking to slash the state’s multi-million home shortage by cutting red tape, building near shopping malls and greenlighting loans for affordable housing.

Led by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a group of influential Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a multi-faceted legislative package they claim can finally lead to real progress in the fight to plug the Golden State’s housing gap.

The “Building Opportunities for All” plan calls for small apartments near transit centers, the creation of a new affordable housing bond, residential projects in existing retail and commercial zones and a wave of new duplexes.

With limited supply and skyrocketing real estate prices making it harder for families to rent or buy, Atkins says the need to overcome development hurdles is more urgent than ever due to the pandemic.

“Each one of these bills is targeted at an element of the housing crisis, and together, they give us a unified approach that would create pathways to home ownership, stable housing for vulnerable families, and a pathway to economic stability for Californians across the Golden State,” Atkins said in a statement.

The approach consists largely of measures that failed in recent years, including last year’s unusual legislative session which was bottlenecked and truncated by the pandemic.

Highlighting the six-bill package is a measure that would allow cities to upzone areas near transit and job centers and allow developments of up to 10 housing units per parcel. Senate Bill 10 would streamline the process by allowing cities or counties to skip the step of clearing the change via the California Environmental Quality Act. 

The bill’s author claims the proposal will fight homelessness by allowing municipalities to quickly take advantage of unused and undeveloped urban lots.

“SB 10 provides cities with a powerful, fast, and effective tool to allow light-touch density exactly where it should be: near jobs, near public transportation, and in existing urbanized areas,” said state Senator Scott Wiener in a statement. “SB 10 will help move California away from a sprawl-based housing policy and toward a more sustainable, equitable and effective housing policy.”

A similar attempt by the Harvard-trained lawyer and former San Francisco supervisor failed last year in the Assembly.

Wiener’s proposal is his latest bid to spur new high-density projects in his home district of San Francisco and other cities.

In previous years, Wiener’s proposals have faltered in the face of opposition from Republicans and Democrats who were worried a state mandate would remove control over housing decisions from local officials. For example, critics cast a previous bill that would have lifted zoning restrictions to allow multistory affordable housing units near transit centers as an “attack” on single-family neighborhoods.

But Wiener and supporters like California YIMBY, say relaxing low-density laws that have been in place for decades is the fastest way to making a real dent in the state’s housing shortage. They argue it would also have the added benefit of slowing urban sprawl and that building near transit would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Following last year’s defeat of Wiener’s bill, Atkins directed lawmakers to continue brainstorming while Governor Gavin Newsom urged the Legislature to send him a “historic housing production bill.” Newsom said on the campaign trail he wanted to see the state create 3.5 million new units by 2025 and improve on California’s ranking of 49th out of 50 in housing units per capita.

This time around, Atkins is promising to make housing reform a staple of the Senate’s overarching agenda once it resumes in January. She’s sponsoring three bills, including one that would make it easier for homeowners to create duplexes and fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods. 

Senate Bill 9 streamlines the process owners must go through to gain approval for duplex projects and is modeled after similar efforts the state and municipalities have taken to boost development of accessory guest houses or so-called casitas.  

Another piece of the package would allow residential projects on certain commercial lots, including strip malls.

Citing an ongoing spike in commercial vacancies, state Senator Anna Caballero says her bill will give cities creativity in meeting their housing production goals. She predicts Senate Bill 6 will particularly benefit farmworker communities by leading to walkable new neighborhoods near retail centers. 

“With SB 6, I imagine neighborhoods where you can live, shop, take care of your banking or insurance needs all within walking distance. Creating a walkable community that is affordable.” said Caballero.

Michael Manville, professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, says Los Angeles has had success with a similar approach, noting developments have sprung up in recent years on some of the city’s main streets and boulevards, including Santa Monica and Wilshire.

“It’s definitely much more palatable [for officials] to approve boulevard projects than having to go back to one of their neighborhoods and saying some changes are coming,” Manville said.

The Democrats are also proposing new bonds intended to spur affordable housing for low-income families and the homeless. The proposal is being sponsored by six senators but doesn’t cite a potential dollar amount at this introductory stage.

Manville called the proposal an important step but warned zoning reforms would still be needed or the bond money could go to waste.

“If we raised a lot of money through a bond for affordable housing and weren’t able to get more sites in the most expensive parts of California rezoned to accommodate multi-family housing, that bond would be less effective,” Manville said. 

Atkins says the bills will be heard in committees starting next month.

The Senate housing package contains real solutions to spur housing production by unlocking underutilized land, streamlining the planning process, and increasing funding for affordable housing programs,” said state Senator Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park. 

“These bills are the result of years of conversations with diverse stakeholders and I’m proud of the balanced approach that we have crafted.”

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