After a series of crushing defeats in the 2020 legislative session, housing advocates are hoping for better luck next month, when state lawmakers return from their summer recess and take up the dozens of housing bills that are now advancing through the Capitol's labyrinthine process.
According to Palo Alto's lobbying firm in Sacramento, Townsend Public Affairs, there were 39 housing bills going through the Legislature this year, of which 34 made it past the first Appropriation Committee in its respective house of the Legislature. These include two bills — Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10 — that have garnered the lion's share of scorn and limelight among slow-growth groups and housing advocates, respectively. The list also includes dozens of other bills that aim to encourage housing by removing zoning barriers and adding development concessions.
SB 290, which is authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, falls into the latter camp. It grants density bonuses to developments that serve low-income students and moderate-income households. Housing developments that designate units for at least "moderate-income" residents and are within a half-mile of major traffic stops, for example, would be eligible for parking reductions, while student housing developments in which at least 20% of the units are for lower-income students would also become eligible for a zoning incentive or a concession.
Another bill, SB 6, would pave the way for housing developments to be permitted in areas that are zoned for office and retail use, provided these areas are not adjacent to industrial sites.
Authored by Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, SB 6 requires the housing developments to comply with "all local zoning, parking, design, public notice or hearing requirements, local code requirements, ordinances, and permitting procedures that apply in a zone that allows housing at the density required by this bill."
Both SB 290 and SB 6 have already cleared the Senate and are now going through the typical procession of Assembly committees, in route to an Assembly vote. Same holds true for SB 478, which is authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and which bans cities from imposing minimum lot size requirements so large that they effectively prohibit housing creation. The bill received a boost earlier this month when the Assembly's Local Committee voted to advance it.
The bills have won plaudits from pro-housing groups like California YIMBY and its various local chapters, including Mountain View YIMBY. A letter of support from California YIMBY for SB 478 notes that the bill does not change design standards such as height setbacks, but merely "puts important guardrails on design standards so that already-planned homes are not undermined by hyper-restrictive design rules."
Others are less sanguine about the bills' impacts. Community groups such as United Neighbors and Livable California have been taking out ads and holding forums to express their opposition to SB 478, SB 6 and other housing bills, with Livable California branding SB 6 as the "kill the mom and pops" bill because of potential harm to small businesses.
Several cities have joined opposition. In early June, Cupertino submitted a letter opposing SB 478, which argued that the bill "extends well beyond the reach of land use issues for the state."
"What is appropriate for one community may not be appropriate for all communities, which is why land‐use decisions, such as minimum lot sizes and FARs (floor-area ratios) are best decided at the local level. In some communities, the FARs suggested by this bill may be appropriate; however, they will not be appropriate in all communities," states the letter, which is signed by Cupertino Mayor Darcy Paul.
Few housing bills, however, remain as contentious as SB 9 and SB 10. The former, authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, would allow duplexes on any single-family lot. The latter, authored by Wiener, would give the cities the power to rezone parcels to allow up to 10 units of residential density, notwithstanding existing zoning restrictions adopted by the voters.
Palo Alto has come out against both bills. Its letter opposing SB 10 argues that the bill will do nothing for housing affordability and that "any housing that does emerge ends up housing only the highest wage earners, not those who need it most."
"In any case, SB 10's upzoning provisions are powers that we as local government already have; so, SB 10 provides no value," the letter signed by Mayor Tom DuBois states.
Palo Alto is hardly the only opponent of SB 10. At the June 30 meeting of the Assembly Local Government Committee, which voted to advance the bill, Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand suggested that the bill would circumvent the state's initiative process, which allows voters to make their laws directly.
"We may not like it, being legislators ourselves, but this form of direct democracy has been reserved in our state Constitution for over 100 years," Brand said.
Other opponents of SB 10 have pointed to voter initiatives that ensured maintenance of open space preserves and protection of wildlife. In a concession to these critics, Wiener has narrowed the parameters of the bill to explicitly exclude open spaces and greenbelt areas.
Wiener argued at the June 30 meeting that those cities that oppose SB 10 are free to simply ignore its provisions.
"It gives cities a powerful new tool that they can use or not use so that if a city decides to rezone for small multiunit housing in one part of its city, on one block of its city, on one parcel, in its entire city, whatever they want," Wiener told the Assembly Local Government Committee shortly before the vote.
He noted that as long as development is proceeding in an "nonsprawl" manner — namely, as an infill development or near transit — the city can proceed with rezoning in an "expedited, streamlined way" under the proposed bill.
"We have cities in California right now that are literally incapacitated from adopting even a Housing Element, or doing any zoning work whatsoever," he said.
SB 9 also continues to polarize local residents and officials. A successor to SB 1120, which narrowly failed to advance in the frantic final hours of last year's legislative session, SB 9 cleared a major hurdle on June 22, when the Assembly's Housing and Community Development Committee voted to support it.
The bill's opponents, including Palo Alto, are preparing to increase their lobbying efforts in the coming month, as legislators return from their summer recess. In early June, the Cities Association of Santa Clara County became the latest group to publicly come out against SB 9. Its letter opposing the bill stated that cities "lay the groundwork for housing production by planning and zoning new projects in their communities based on extensive public input and engagement, state housing laws, and the needs of the building industry."
"While The Cities Association appreciates President pro Tempore Atkins' desire to pursue a housing production proposal, unfortunately, SB 9 as currently drafted will not spur much needed housing construction in a manner that supports local flexibility, decision making, and community input," the letter states.