Will State Senator Scott Wiener & Developers Change California’s Single Family Neighborhoods to High Density by State Fiat
Unbeknownst to most Californians, changes to state housing laws are being proposed that substantially shift the balance away from development of single family homes and low density residential (duplex, triplex, etc.) to large scale high density development and they make it almost impossible for residents, councils or mayors to ensure quality development mitigating impacts on existing or new residents’ quality of life
California’s Housing Accountability Act law, enacted in 1982, compels cities to take action on proposed developments. However legislation enacted by Governor Brown in September 2017 shifted the burden of proof that a development conforms to legal and zoning requirements to the local government. Now the judgment of elected city officials is replaced with that of any "reasonable person", which can include the project developer who has a fundamental economic interest in the project.
Should the city reject an undesirable proposal, until recently only the developer could file suit to appeal and overturn the decision. However in September 2016 this was also changed so that instead trade or industry groups, or housing advocacy groups could file suit with cities paying their legal fees.
Developers are reluctant to sue cities when development proposals are blocked, because they are constantly negotiating with city officials over their projects. The new legislation allows developers’ surrogates to do the dirty work. There have been two suits filed in Berkeley and Sausalito by the housing advocacy group San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SF BARF, which is now known as SF YIMBY), both for market rate, not affordable housing. In both cases the advocacy groups prevailed with the city paying the advocacy group’s costs.
Effectively, if a new apartment complex is proposed that complies with local zoning and your city rejects the proposal for being poorly designed or creating adverse impact (for instance on traffic or parking), advocacy groups would be able to overturn the decision, with the city paying their legal costs. Effectively the new legislation strips the ability of cities to block inappropriate development.
By themselves these recently enacted state laws start to transform California, but together with two bills proposed on January 3rd this year, Senate Bill 827 and 828, it creates a formidable cocktail likely to accelerate the transformation many of California’s single family neighborhoods into 5 or in many cases 8 story apartments with no FAR (floor area ratio) limits to density (the number of units packed into the apartments).
What Do these Newly Proposed Senate Bills 827 and 828 Do?
Senate Bill 827, if passed, automatically upzones all neighborhoods within a ½ mile radius of a major transit stop or a ¼ mile radius of a "high-quality transit corridor" to unlimited density and floor area ratio with height limits of:
- 55 feet high (5 storys) minimum;
- 85 feet high (7 or possibly 8 storys) if the development is next to a road over 45 feet wide curb to curb AND within ¼ mile radius of a high-quality transit corridor or within one block of a major transit stop (a bus running every 15 minutes during rush hour).
This would impose dramatic upzoning of multifamily and single family zoned neighborhoods to 5 or 8 story apartment buildings. It would affect most major San Francisco peninsula Silicon Valley arterials, such as El Camino Real and all the wide, east west arterials such as Mary, Lawrence Expressway and San Tomas. In Marin, 8 story apartments could appear throughout quaint, low rise Mill Valley along Blithedale Boulevard at highway 101 and Miller Avenue at Tam High and even downtown.
Senate Bill 828 takes existing housing quotas assigned to cities by regional governments - such as the Association of Bay Area Governments - and increases these housing quotas.
The Bill hits high growth areas such as Silicon Valley especially hard, stating:
Communities with high rates of income growth must also have a high rate of new housing production for households of all income levels to ensure equity and stabilize home prices and communities.
Even though the there is no demonstrable evidence that income growth and housing growth are positively correlated, or housing development and housing prices (in the SF Bay Area market), even low growth areas such as Marin, with zero jobs growth but high housing prices are hit especially hard by the bill, which states:
Median rent or home prices that exceed median income will be alleviated by rapidly increasing housing supply, particularly housing supply for moderate and above-moderate income households.
Seemingly, one might presume the bill advocates for more low income housing, but remarkably it pushes market rate housing.
Informed reviewers of SB827 note that the bill would upzone low income neighborhoods with large numbers of ethnic minorities. Damien Goodmon, founder and Executive Director of Los Angeles’ nonprofit Crenshaw Subway Coalition, says:
Scott Wiener's SB 827 is a declaration of war on every urban community in California - and especially our urban communities of color.
What Does this Mean for the Average California Homeowner?
The unintended consequences (or maybe they are intended) of these new laws are likely to have dramatic effects on towns across California:
Human nature being what it is, many may hesitate to buy a single family home within a 1/2 mile of any transit lines for fear of having a 5 or 8 story apartment building sprout right next to their property line.
In turn, this could drive people further away, seeking to flee from rapidly growing urban centers where there is an imminent threat of an apartment building next door, to more suburban or rural locations, thereby increasing the pressure on sprawl considerably.
At the same time, the cost of land within 1/2 mile of transit will soar dramatically as property owners realize they can generate far greater returns from a given land area. Rents will soar along with land prices.
Cities and public service agencies will face enormous pressure to increase development fees, entitlement fees, special assessments and taxes to pay for the cost of public services and infrastructure, and bond measures to support local schools. Likewise, public transit agencies will be forced to seek sales taxes and seek approval for bond measures that will face greater challenges passing for fear of creating new transit routes that open up financially unsustainable development.
Since parking requirements and traffic concerns are removed from consideration by this legislation, local parking and traffic will become even more of a nightmare, further hurting local serving small businesses, which depend heavily on easy parking and access to their stores. But, what developer will put in adequate parking, encroaching on their profit margin, unless required to, if the ability for cities to set parking requirements is removed?
What Does This All Mean?
Elected officials and city planners in my own town, are furious about this stripping away of local control. Where previously they had been elected precisely to maintain community standards, Wiener’s housing bills removes most of their authority they had in that review and decision making.
Where will this end up? Cities such as Palo Alto, Orinda, Piedmont, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, Larkspur, Greenbrae, Novato and even Fairfax and San Anselmo are set to have single family homes replaced with extensive walls of apartment blocks. The same will happen in Malibu, San Louis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Napa, Petaluma,Santa Barbara and La Jolla.
What Can You Do to Stop This?
If you are a property owner and you’re concerned (and you should be) that this new legislation, SB 827, may pass and 5 or 8 story apartment blocks may spring up after your neighbors sell up, here’s what you can do:
Contact Your State Assembly Representative And State Senator
Ideally ask to speak to their senior staffer in Sacramento responsible for housing policy. Tell them to vote no on Senate Bills 827 and 828.
Use this Find Your Representative tool to obtain the phone number and email address of your senator and assembly representative.
Major transit stop means a site containing an existing rail transit station, a ferry terminal served by either a bus or rail transit service, or the intersection of two or more major bus routes with a frequency of service interval of 15 minutes or less during the morning and afternoon peak commute periods. Source: California Public Code 21064.3
“High-quality transit corridor” means a corridor with fixed route bus service that has service intervals of no more than 15 minutes during peak commute hours.