June 3, 2020
FROM: Sustainable TamAlmonte
TO: CA State Senate
Re: OPPOSE Assembly Bill 1279 (Bloom) Planning and zoning: housing development: high-opportunity areas
We strongly urge you to oppose Assembly Bill 1279 “Planning and zoning: housing development: high-opportunity areas”. AB-1279 is fundamentally flawed. The bill is an unprecedented taking of local planning powers that hands city and community decision-making directly to market-rate housing developers. Moreover, the bill destroys treasured single-family neighborhoods.
I. ABOUT ASSEMBLY BILL 1279
Assembly Bill 1279 targets localities determined by the Dept. of Housing and Community Development to have not met their share of the regional housing needs for the reporting period.
According to the Assembly Floor Analysis:
AB-1279 requires certain development sites in “high-opportunity areas”, which are designated by the Dept. of Housing & Community Development, to allow for more density and height and makes these sites subject to "use by-right" approval.
In “high-opportunity areas” zoned for single-family residential development, a housing project would be allowed to consist of up to four residential units with a height of up to 20 feet, provided the units are affordable to households making 100% the area median income. The units can be affordable to higher income households if the developer pays a modest “in lieu fee”.
In “high-opportunity areas” zoned for residential use that are at least one-quarter acre in size and located on a major street and/or the central business district, the development project would be allowed to consist of up to 40 residential units with a height of up to 30 feet, provided the units meet certain affordability targets.
If the parcel exceeded one-half acre in these prime locations, a project that had at least 50% low-income and very-low income households would be allowed to have up to 100 residential units with a height of up to 55 feet.
II. REASONS TO OPPOSE AB-1279
A. Assembly Bill 1279 wrongfully punishes cities and counties:
AB-1279 would punish certain cities and counties by dramatically up-zoning “high-opportunity areas” against the will of those local governments and local residents. The punishment includes usurping local governments’ authority, overriding local land use plans and regulations, and eviscerating decades of careful planning.
It is unclear whether or not AB-1279 targets localities that have not identified and up-zoned enough sites in their Housing Elements to meet the required Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) OR if the bill targets localities that have identified and up-zoned enough sites but new housing has not yet been built on those sites.
If AB-1279 targets localities that have not identified enough sites with appropriate densities in their Housing Elements, then the bill is unnecessary because there are few jurisdictions that have not done so.
If AB-1279 targets localities that have identified and up-zoned enough sites in their Housing Elements, but new construction of housing units on those sites has not yet occurred, then the bill is unjust. Local governments are not developers and cannot force private property owners to build housing units. Since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, cities and counties are especially strained financially and have little funds, if any, to build housing. Besides which, SB-35, signed into law in 2017, already unjustly punishes cities and counties, by allowing streamlined processes for development in jurisdictions where new housing has not been constructed on sites identified in Housing Elements.
B.-Increasing housing density is the wrong solution to meet our affordable housing needs:
Assembly Bill 1279 is based on the unrealistic premise that increasing density and allowable buildout of housing would result in affordable housing being built. However, there is already plenty of density and allowable buildout for housing and this has not led to enough affordable housing being provided.
We know from experience and observation that high-density housing does not equate to affordable housing. San Francisco’s Nob and Telegraph Hills, Los Angeles’ Wilshire Corridor, and high-rises in downtown San Diego are all examples of upper-income areas where housing densities are quite high. Indeed, San Francisco is the second densest city in the United States with a density of 6,266 people per square mile and yet its median home price is $1.4 million and its median 1-bedroom rent is $3360 per month.
When discussing the need for housing, it is important to recognize that California’s population growth rate is at a record low and predicted to remain low. Estimates released on Dec. 20, 2019 by the California Department of Finance show that between July 1, 2018 and July 1, 2019, the growth rate was just .35%, the lowest recorded growth rate since 1900. During the same time period, the Department reported that there was substantial negative domestic net migration, which resulted in a loss of 39,500 residents – “the first time since the 2010 census that California has had more people leaving the state than moving in from abroad or other states”.
Therefore, California, as a whole, only needs a modest increase in housing every year. We do not need to significantly up-zone vast areas of the state to accomplish this. There is plenty of potential housing buildout already allowed by the General Plans and zoning of jurisdictions throughout the state. And this potential housing buildout will grow each time jurisdictions update their Housing Elements to meet new Regional Housing Need Allocations. Moreover, AB-68, which was enacted into law in 2019, has already dramatically increased potential housing buildout beyond what communities can sustainably contend with.
So, vast up-zoning by the State for mostly market rate housing is not the answer. This strategy primarily benefits real estate investors, developers, and large corporations rather than those in need of affordable housing.
Instead, we need to provide the correct amount of affordable housing where it is already allowed and prevent the loss of existing affordable housing. Funding and subsidies are needed for local solutions to affordable housing. (Scroll down to Section III “Solutions” of this letter.)
C. AB-1279 would eliminate single-family zoning and destroy single-family neighborhoods, which are greatly treasured and should be protected:
AB-1279 would eliminate single-family zoning in “high-opportunity areas”, even though most residents prefer single-family homes. A 2019 Redfin survey found that regardless of where people live within the US, more than 85% of home buyers and sellers (including millennials) prefer single-family homes with more space, privacy, and gardens over a unit in a triplex that has a shorter commute.
In addition, since the outbreak of COVID-19, realtors report a trend of city dwellers wanting to move to single-family neighborhoods in the suburbs to escape dense living conditions, which contribute to the spread of the disease.
Over time, the bill would cause the supply of single-family homes to diminish due to conversions to multifamily housing complexes and the price for the remaining single-family dwellings would become even more expensive. This would make it more difficult for residents to attain their preferred lifestyle.
D. Reducing local control of land use is the wrong solution to meet our affordable housing needs:
AB-1279 would usurp local governments’ authority and override local land use plans and regulations and eviscerate decades of careful planning. Local planning efforts (general plans and zoning ordinances) encourage public engagement and are much better than the State at determining where and how much housing growth should occur. Local planning efforts are also better at anticipating necessary government services such as water, sewer, utilities, schools and traffic flow.
E. Streamlining the permit review process for housing development threatens democracy, public engagement, and high-quality development:
AB-1279 makes certain sites in “high resource areas” subject to “use by right” approval and ministerial approval. Streamlining the permit review process poses a significant threat to democracy, public engagement and high-quality development. Public comments by local residents often bring to light a proposed development’s negative characteristics and potential adverse impacts that otherwise would never be known. Consideration of such public input during the permit review process leads to higher quality development. In contrast, reducing and eliminating public input could lead to dire consequences.
F. AB-1279 would increase traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and hazardous driving conditions:
AB-1279 would dramatically increase the number of residents in “high-opportunity areas” that have inconvenient public transportation or none at all. The new residents would need to drive vehicles to reach their destinations. Moreover, home maintenance workers, care-givers, etc. would need to drive to the new residences and park on the streets. Yet, many “high resource areas”, with poor or non-existent public transportation, have narrow and windy roads that can’t handle any more on-street parking or more traffic. Together, this is a recipe for an increase in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and hazardous driving conditions.
G. AB-1279 would jeopardize high fire hazard areas:
AB-1279 exempts “very-high fire hazard severity zones but does not exempt “high fire hazard zones”. Many “high-opportunity areas” are in “high fire hazard zones” that have narrow windy streets and few roads out to safety. The bill allows a dramatic increase in population in these hazardous communities, which will lead to streets being overcrowded. Dire consequences could result during an emergency when residents are unable to evacuate and fire trucks are unable to reach their destinations.
H. AB-1279 would increase the risk of significant adverse impacts:
The bill’s subsequent housing densification and population growth would increase the risk of adverse impacts on the environment, public health and safety, traffic congestion, infrastructure, utilities (water supply), public services (schools), views, sunlight, privacy, neighborhood character, and quality of life.
I. AB-1279 would create unfunded mandates:
There is no funding for dealing with the above listed impacts and SB-1120 provides an official sidestep of addressing this issue. The bill states; “SEC. 2. No reimbursement is required by this act pursuant to Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution because a local agency or school district has the authority to levy service charges, fees, or assessments sufficient to pay for the program or level of service mandated by this act, within the meaning of Section 17556 of the Government Code."
J. Weakening the California Environmental Quality Act is misguided:
New and denser housing development encouraged by AB-1279 would likely increase potential significant adverse environmental impacts. Yet, the bill would prevent any environmental review of those potential impacts. This bill, by requiring approval of certain residential development projects as a use by right, would expand the exemption for ministerial approval of projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
A CEQA exemption for the approval of a duplex or urban lot split ordinance removes the ability of local governments to be fully informed of the ordinance’s potential environmental consequences. Without that review, a local government would not be properly informed of traffic impacts, air impacts, or compatible use issues. It is unacceptable for the public to live with the consequences of a zoning ordinance that would not be fully vetted and whose impacts were not mitigated and alternatives not considered.
The California Environmental Quality Act, which became law in 1970, is our state’s landmark environmental law. Its purpose is to foster transparency and integrity in public decision-making while ensuring land use decisions take the full impacts of development on our natural and human environments into account. It is one of the most powerful environmental protection laws in the nation.
CEQA gives the community a voice in land use decisions. It requires decision-makers to adopt alternatives or mitigation measures to reduce significant adverse environmental impacts. As such, it plays a critical role in preserving and enhancing California’s public health, safety, and the environment.
The Act was designed to ensure that a project applicant—not the public—bears the costs of providing the necessary infrastructure to support a project. It also provides the public and decision-makers with “the big picture” and helps ensure that many small projects are not considered separately, only to overwhelm a community when taken as a whole.
CEQA protections should be strengthened rather than further weakened.
III. SOLUTIONS TO OUR AFFORDABLE HOUSING NEEDS
Instead of AB-1279, we need to provide the correct amount of affordable housing and prevent the loss of existing affordable housing.
To accomplish this, funding and subsidies are needed for local solutions to affordable housing, which could include building new affordable housing where it is already allowed and providing other affordable housing programs (housing vouchers, converting market-rate housing to affordable housing, encouraging living wages, maintaining existing affordable housing, preventing developers from being able to pay a penalty instead of actually build affordable units, etc.). In addition, funding/subsidies are required to mitigate the adverse impacts that the increased housing would create.
In regard to the jobs/housing imbalance created by large corporations, the State should provide incentives to Corporations for them to open offices in the less populated areas of the State that are jobs poor and housing rich, where the cost of land and housing are much less expensive. In addition, require “Full Mitigation”, which makes commercial development approval contingent on adequate housing. (See Palo Alto Mayor Filseth’s article - https://padailypost.com/2020/01/03/guest-opinion-who-should-pay-for-tech-expansion/ )
Once again, we strongly urge you to oppose Assembly Bill 1279, which is fundamentally flawed. Instead, support locally-grown sustainable strategies that enable our communities to meet all housing needs. In addition, provide incentives to Corporations to open offices in areas of the State that are jobs poor and housing rich; and require “Full Mitigation”, which makes commercial development approval contingent on adequate housing.
Thank you in advance for your conscientious consideration.
Very truly yours,
Sharon Rushton, Chairperson