Working to make housing more affordable

February 6, 2018

Increased density near transit hubs just makes sense – helps people spend less time and money commuting and reduces carbon emissions. It will also help us create more housing in SF, which needs it so desperately. Thanks Scott Wiener for bringing focus on the big picture!

  – Jennifer

California is in the midst of a housing shortage that is strangling our state – its economy, environment, health, and quality of life. I went to the State Senate to fight for more housing and to ensure every resident has access to such a basic human need. Last year, I authored successful legislation to streamline the approval process for new homes, and this year I’m continuing the fight by, among other things, authoring legislation to increase housing density in areas around public transportation.

The good news is that after 50 years of bad housing policy, the Legislature, this past year, started to make change to seriously address how we approve and create new homes. We began this shift by passing 15 significant housing bills, including Senate Bill 35, which I authored to streamline the production of housingin cities that aren’t meeting their state-mandated housing goals. We also passed several bills to fund affordable housing and to reduce obstruction of new housing.

IMG_1190.JPGScott speaking at the signing ceremony for SB 35 and other housing bills last September

Last week, pursuant to my housing streamlining bill (SB 35), the state released the official list of cities that haven’t met their state housing goals (referred to as RHNA or Regional Housing Needs Assessment) and thus will have their housing approvals streamlined under my bill. The list showed that over 97% of California cities fell short of their state housing goals and thus will be streamlined for either market-rate housing or low income housing or both. While it is troubling that so many cities are missing their housing goals, SB 35 will help by speeding up housing approvals, especially for the affordable homes that are so badly needed. Check out the full list of cities that met or didn’t meet their housing goals here.

Even with all our 2017 success, our job is not even close to done. That’s why I started the 2018 legislative session by announcing my Housing First legislative package. My three housing bills this year (1) allow denser and taller zoning near public transportation, (2) create a more data-driven and less politicized process for coming up with local communities’ housing goals, and (3) expand farmworker housing opportunities while maintaining strong worker protections.

SB 827 – More Housing Near Public Transportation

My transit density bill allows people to build more housing around public transportation, particularly small and mid-size apartment buildings of 4 to 8 stories. Perhaps the very best location for new housing is near public transportation. If more people live near transit, more people can use it, meaning less driving, lower carbon emissions, less freeway congestion, and fewer crushing commutes. Yet, despite the clear benefit of locating housing near transit, all too often the areas around transit are zoned for extreme low density, even single family homes. Surrounding transit hubs – like BART, Caltrain, Muni, and LA Metro Stations – with single family homes or other low density buildings means fewer people can rely on transit, forces a huge number of people to drive, and increases carbon emissions dramatically.

Building more housing – i.e., greater density – around public transportation has various benefits. First, building dense and tall housing near transit is one ofour most promising sources of new housing. Second, housing near transit reduces carbon emissions. Third, allowing small to mid-size apartment buildings increases housing affordability by getting us back to the so-called “missing middle” – housing larger than single family homes but smaller than extremely expensive steel construction high-rises. Fourth, by linking dense housing with transit, we boost our economy. When people are pushed far away from where they work, our economy suffers.

1_VDy3OcQjs3UT-G2aIIGSqQ_2x.jpegThis example of the “missing middle” at 9th and Judah in San Francisco would be illegal under current zoning if proposed today, even though it is on a Muni Metro line, as well as at the intersection of several bus routes.

Finally – and it’s an uncomfortable conversation – low-density zoning laws are rooted in past exclusionary housing policies designed to keep low income people and people of color out of neighborhoods. Continuing to mandate low density housing near these major transit investments simply hinders lower income people from accessing that transit.

Under SB 827, parcels within a half-mile of high-connectivity transit hubs – like BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations – and within a quarter mile of high-frequency bus stops will be allowed to build more housing, meaning: no density maximums (such as single family home mandates), no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger commercial corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. I want to thank my co-authors, Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley and Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco, for their early support of this important bill.

SB 827 has generated a lot of discussion and support from across the country, as well as here at home in California. We are actively taking feedback to address questions we have received. One early concern has been around displacement. To be clear, SB 827 does not touch local demolition and anti-displacement controls, so communities that have protections for existing housing will continue to do so. We will also be making amendments to add in anti-displacement protections to protect existing residents.

SB 828 – RHNA Reform: Data, Not Politics, in Projecting Housing Needs

As described above, the state sets housing goals for every city in the state every 8 years. These goals are highly politicized, and whiter and wealthier communities tend to get lower allotments, particularly around low income housing, thus pushing more development into lower income communities. For example, in the last cycle, Beverly Hills received a housing goal of a whopping 3 units – yes, 3 units of housing over 8 years. Similarly, the cities of Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach – all similarly sized adjacent cities – received housing goals, respectively, of 1,397 units, 38 units, and 2 units in the latest RHNA cycle.

To address this inequity, I introduced SB 828, which creates a clearer, fairer, more data-driven, approach to how the state assigns housing goals to local communities. SB 828 also requires communities to begin making up for past housing deficits.

All communities need to do their part to build more housing, and our state policies need to better reflect that balance. We cannot let some cities game the system to push housing production off on other communities, particularly low-income communities.

1_RyC2OzjeicVJn06PFap7Bg.jpegAn affordable housing project in Sacramento — only 3% of California cities met their affordable housing RHNA goals

SB 829 – Expanding Farmworker Housing While Maintaining Strong Worker Protections

Talk about California’s housing shortage often focuses on urban and suburban areas where the cost of housing has skyrocketed. But our rural areas have also been impacted, which includes a huge shortage of farmworker housing. Many farms have surplus land that could be used to build safe and secure housing for farmworkers, but the land needs to be rezoned. Unfortunately, this rezoning is often blocked by local communities that don’t want housing for workers. This situation leads farmworkers to be housed in unsafe and crowded conditions, for example, in distant motels or in their cars, and hurts our ability to draw workers to California’s farms.

SB 829 enhances a streamlined process where farm owners and operators can dedicate agricultural land for employee housing. The owner of the housing will finance and develop it, provided it meets certain objective standards. The housing will then have to be operated and managed by an independent non-profit to ensure the worker-tenants have protections from employer intimidation. Workers will receive strict tenant, labor, and immigration protections. This bipartisan bill is co-authored by my colleague from Fresno, Senator Andy Vidak.

I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to make positive change around our housing challenges. It’s a daunting task, but we will work hard to get the job done.

As always, it is an honor and privilege to serve you in the Senate, and I thank you for your support.

Scott Wiener