California Senator Introduces Legislation to Help State’s Housing Crisis

California cities with laws on the books which undermine the ability to build multifamily housing complexes in compliance with their own zoning rules were brought to task Thursday by a state senator whose proposed legislation seeks to plug the Golden State’s housing gap.

California Senator Scott Wiener, bottom right, announces a duo of bills Thursday which are a part of his larger housing legislative package aimed at boosting the Golden State’s multifamily unit housing stock.

(CN) — California state Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced two new pieces of housing legislation Thursday aimed at giving teeth to local zoning rules to help boost the critically missing supply of multifamily housing units in the Golden State and ensure laws already on the books are being implemented effectively.

Wiener’s previously introduced Senate Bills 10 and 234 which would allow cities to upzone in urban areas and would allocate $100 million to create housing for transition-age youth. Senate Bills 478 and 477, introduced Thursday, round out the state senator’s 2021 legislative housing package.

SB 478, the Housing Opportunity Act, aims to ensure locally zoned density and state housing laws are not undermined by restrictive lot requirements which make building multifamily units impractical in areas zoned to allow them. The proposed legislation sets minimum standards on floor area ratios (FAR) — or how large a building can be on a parcel of land — and minimum lot sizes for land zoned for duplexes to 10-unit buildings.

Wiener said on a Zoom conference call announcing the legislative package Thursday the rules represent the “wonky” type of “housing nerd concepts” which “are actually profoundly important because these are two issues and two strategies that sadly, far too many cities use to make it impossible to build multiunit housing.”

“We want to make sure cities are not using floor area ratio or minimum lot size requirements to effectively back door put a poison pill in and make it impossible to actually build to that zoning,” Wiener said.

He noted the proposed legislation would not raise the height limit or otherwise change the way a parcel is already zoned for housing but would ensure housing could actually be built to the allowable density.

Wiener said the zoning rules are frequently used as a loophole by cities to undermine their own zoned density and are referred to as “zombie zoning” or “ghost zoning.”

For example, a 2,000 square foot lot with an FAR of 1.0 would allow a developer to build a one-story building over the entire lot, a two-story building over half the lot or a three-story building over one-third of the lot.

In a city with a FAR of 0.4 for fourplexes and a minimum lot size of 4,000 square feet, a building would only be allowed to be 1,600 square feet. Each unit in the fourplex would only be 400 square feet, rendering the units less likely to be built than a single-family home, according to Wiener’s office.

Current state laws already preempt local FAR regulations for accessory dwelling units. SB 478 would require an FAR of 1.5 on multifamily zoned lots.

Likewise, large minimum lot sizes are also restrictive to the production of multifamily units, especially in areas of the state where land costs are higher.

“Both excessively low FAR and excessively large minimum lot sizes incentivize large single-family homes and make missing middle small multiunit projects financially impossible. Large single-family homes can be sold to wealthy people willing to pay a premium. By contrast, people looking for homes in small multiunit buildings are typically not wealthy and can’t pay as much. Abusive FAR and minimum lot size requirements are designed to prevent multi-unit construction and absolutely have that effect,” according to a news release by Wiener’s office.

Also introduced Thursday, Senate Bill 477, the Housing Data Act, strengthens California’s housing data collection so the state and local governments can better understand the impact of housing laws already on the books and take stock of what’s working and what isn’t.

Wiener said the data would be collected as part of a new accountability unit implemented by Governor Gavin Newsom in the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“We’ve had a pretty successful five years in the California Legislature in terms of passing a number of strong and effective housing laws … but I’m frustrated we don’t have the comprehensive data,” Wiener said.

He noted a former housing staffer in his office when attempting to collect housing data would “literally have to call around to different planning departments and ask them if they would send us – pretty please – the spreadsheet … It’s about time to make this really methodical and comprehensive,” Wiener said.

Local governments will be required to submit additional data to HUD as part of their annual progress reports. Additional information will be collected from the stated regarding the location and number of development permits approved, building permits issued and number of units constructed.

Information related to building applications submitted under accessory dwelling unit statutes would also be collected under the law.

The legislative package is sponsored by housing advocates California YIMBY.

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