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Housing

Current California Housing Bills

By: Judge Glock
By: Judge Glock

The current California legislative session is focused on housing, and it could end up being the most consequential in modern memory. Legislators have proposed over 200 housing bills, many of which could reshape building in the state. The new governor, Gavin Newsom, has argued that the housing crisis is California’s most pressing issue.¹ The time to act on housing is now.

In this post I will review some of the major housing bills under consideration in Sacramento.² I will discuss each bill’s pros and cons, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of their ability to produce new housing. This post is not for the wary, or those who do not want to know about changes to “conditional use permits” or “Floor-Area Ratios.” Many of these bills will morph or mate throughout the course of the session, so it is important to check California Legislative Information for the most up-to-date information.³

Almost all of these bills would encourage density and increase housing production. Almost all of them, however, would also burden developers with regulations on everything from environmental permitting to union wages to the percentage of new units that are “affordable.” None of them tries to do something that would truly lower housing prices, which is to open currently off-limits and agricultural land for development.⁴ Nonetheless, these bills represent an important and even essential step in lowering California’s currently calamitous housing prices.

This bill would prohibit lawsuits from delaying a housing project that has already completed an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Pros

Beautiful and simple. The only lawsuits allowed to delay a project under this bill are, one, those that show the project is “an imminent threat to public health and safety,” or, two, those that show the project has Native American artifacts under it. Few housing projects, of course, meet either of these criteria.

Since CEQA lawsuits can add years to a project, they significantly reduce new development. This would eliminate that burden. The law would also simplify the current CEQA reports, which have grown into multi-million dollar, thousand-page plus monstrosities, out of concern for their ever being challenged in court.

Cons

None.

Analysis

I would back this bill with my whole heart and soul.

The mother of all housing bills. It aims to encourage higher and denser development, especially along transit-corridors and in “jobs-rich areas.”

Pros

The potential impacts are huge. Any “jobs rich area,” or area within a quarter mile of a rail station or bus stop with no more than 15 minute wait, must allow housing up to 55 feet high and a total floorspace to underlying lot size of at least 3.25 (the “Floor-Area-Ratio” I warned about above.) This transit requirement would encompass the vast majority of San Francisco and other urban areas, and lead to substantial new development.

Cons

The bill also makes odd new requirements for planners. A “jobs rich” areas will be determined by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which most likely will face political opposition to any such determination. The region-wide transportation planning boards, and, for some reason, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, are supposed to designate certain “sensitive areas” for a more restrictive “community planning” process. It also does not allow any new development if the space has been occupied by tenants for up to seven years before the application. (This clause was apparently added after protests by tenants’ groups against the similar SB 827 last year.)

Analysis

This is an ambitious bill, and it has the most support and attention of any in the legislature.⁵ It also, however, has more expansive discretionary planning requirements for cities and regional organizations. At least it does not impose any extra wage or union requirements for construction. I see it as a potential positive relative to the current situation, but not as beneficial as it could be. I would support because of the great good it would do to create more housing.

This bill would forbid cities or counties with high enough rents or low enough vacancies from “downzoning” (lowering the allowed density), or imposing moratoria on housing development, or requiring more than three new hearings for any development, all until 2030.

Pros

This is basically a “do no harm” bill. It doesn’t do much to solve the current problem, but at the very least prevents current areas from making it worse.

Cons

Minimal, but also less impact that other bills. The only potential problem is the amount of verbiage for such a seemingly straightforward plan. According to inside scuttlebutt in the legislature, this bill is an amalgm of 16 different bills that were smashed together.

Analysis

Perhaps a little complicated, but an important step, well worth supporting.

This bill would prohibit local governments from imposing impact fees unless the type and amount were specifically identified on local government’s website at time of a developer’s application. It would also make sure that all required information is available to the public.

Pros

Simple and straightforward. It limits local “hold-up” fees but does not impose burdensome, secondary requirements. It is also minimally invasive in terms of local control, and therefore more likely to pass.

Cons

Minimal Impact. More of just a “good government” reform.

Analysis

Why isn’t this already a law? Let’s pass it!

This bill would prohibit an agency from limiting “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs), or “granny flats,” based on the size of the lot or on floor area ratios (the amount of new floor space divided by the size of the lot), as well limit other impositions.

Pros

This is mainly an attempt to seal some loopholes that local governments have exploited. since the last session’s ADU laws (SB 229 and AB 494) passed. Some aspects, such as the requirement to “ministerially” (without special permits or hearings) approve an ADU if it is already in an existing space, or forbidding cities from demanding more off-street parking if a garage is converted, could do great things to bring ADUs to San Francisco and urban areas. It also limits to a small handful the regulations that can be placed on “junior ADUs” or those formed from a bedroom in an existing house.

Cons

I was surprised at the number of restrictions cities can still place on ADUs, even after this bill passed. Cities could limit ADU-acceptable areas based on traffic flow, adequacy of services, maximum size, architectural reviews, most parking requirements, setbacks and so forth.

Analysis

It’s a modest reform but a good one, and should be pushed.

This bill would require a “streamlined, ministerial approval process” for special Transit-Oriented Developments within a half mile of a transit station. A local city would have a maximum of 90 days to review the developer’s proposal.

Pros

Many developers claim automatic or “ministerial” approval of projects meeting existing zoning requirements would be the single best thing for new development. This bill allows that in transit-rich areas. It also has some minor benefits, such as limiting the fees to no more than $3,000 per unit for school districts, and to low levels for water, sewer and electrical services.

Cons
The bill adds a slew of secondary requirements to housing projects. Projects greater than 10 units would be forced to make at least 30% of their units “affordable.” It also mandates “prevailing,” or union, wages on such development, and requires a “skilled and trained workforce,” which explicitly limits the number of workers that could participate in such projects. It also makes it impossible to develop any space that has been occupied by tenants within past 10 years, even if that housing has since been demolished.

Analysis

This bill is loaded with qualifications and requirements for developers that would significantly hamper their ability to create more housing. I would very feebly support.


This bill would require ministerial approval of projects in “high resource areas” and affirm that such projects do not require an environmental impact report.

Pros

Again, ministerial approval is a holy grail of developers, and this could assist that.

Cons

The process of designating certain “high resource” areas is opaque, and apparently includes a state-level task force to designate areas that are “not currently experiencing gentrification and displacement.” It also limits for such automatic approvals in already single-family residential areas.

Analysis
The idea behind this bill is sound, but it seems like more planning folderol. Would not support.


This bill would change how cities decide where to place their future locations for affordable developments, and limit their ability to place them in implausible places so as to de facto prevent such development.

Pros

The bill would change cities’ how cities decide where their “Regional Housing Needs” can met. The cities are mandated by state law to designate certain areas for future building for different housing income classes. In reality, many cities designate areas they know will never develop.

Cons

The bill focuses on divvying up “housing needs” in the cities’ planning documents by income class, when basic economics says that all new housing opens up other housing for lower-income groups. It forces layers of new planning requirements for each city and focuses on making more housing “affordable” instead of making more housing.

Analysis

Stay away from this bill. It layers complexity on top of complexity, and does more to create dense planning documents than it does to create denser development.


[1] Dan Walters, “Drastic Action Governor Newsom Taking on Housing Crisis,” Mercury News, January 30, 2019, https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/01/30/walters-drastic-action-gavin-newsom-already-taking-on-housing-crisis/

[2] See previous analyses of six bills in Alexei Koseff, “California Lawmakers Target Cities’ Ability to Block New Housing,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2019, https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/California-lawmakers-target-cities-ability-to-13662697.php. California YIMBY and some other groups have also done their own analysis of some of these bills, but most groups’ analyses are not publicly available or collected in one place.

[3] California Legislative Information: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billSearchClient.xhtml

[4] More than 90% of the metropolitan area today is undeveloped. Census Reporter: https://censusreporter.org/profiles/40000US78904-san-francisco-oakland-ca-urbanized-area/

[5] See discussions on Vox, Los Angeles Times, and support from AARP, AFL-CIO, California Association or Realtors, NRDC, on CA YIMBY. “Support the More HOMES Act,” California YIMBY https://cayimby.org/morehomes/ <Accessed March 12, 2019>

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