Seven months after a prior attempt died in committee, California State Senator Scott Wiener has introduced new legislation which revives an effort to boost housing construction near transit lines across the state.
Senate Bill 50, dubbed the "More Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity and Stability Act" - or "More HOMES" Act - is co-sponsored by State Senators Ben Hueso, Anna Bacallero, Nancy Skinner, and John Moorlach as well as Assemblymembers Autumn Burke, Buffy Wicks, Phil Ting, Ash Kalra, Evan Low, Kevin Riley, and Robert Rivas. Informed by the fate of its predecessor SB 827, which was criticized as a "one size fits all" approach to zoning, SB 50 is less heavy-handed, creating an "equitable communities incentive" that can supersede local restrictions on a project-by-project basis, much in the vein of the California's existing density bonus law and Los Angeles' Transit Oriented Communities program. The revived effort also takes more care to address the concerns of communities fearing displacement and gentrification, the initial lack of which contributed to SB 827's early demise.
“We must take bold steps now to address our severe housing crisis and reduce our carbon footprint,” said Senator Scott Wiener in a release. “California’s housing shortage hurts our most vulnerable communities, working families, young people, our environment, and our economy. It also increases homelessness. For too long we have created sprawl by artificially limiting the number of homes that are built near transit and job centers. As a result of this restrictive zoning in urbanized areas, people are forced into crushing commutes, which undermines our climate goals, and more and more Californians are living in wildfire zones. As educational and economic opportunities become increasingly concentrated in and near urban areas, we must ensure all of our residents are able to access these opportunities. I am excited work with a diverse coalition to spur the development of more housing for all income levels while protecting vulnerable communities and ensuring we do more to address climate change.”
If signed into law, SB 50 would waive allow for the construction of apartments near "high-quality transit" - meaning within a half-mile of a rail station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop with frequent service - and also in job-rich areas - which are identified by the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Office of Planning and Research. Developments located within a half-mile radius of a transit stop, but outside of a quarter-mile radius, would be eligible for waivers from height limits less than 45 feet and FAR limits of 2.5-to-1. Developments located within a quarter-mile radius of a transit stop would be eligible for waivers for height requirements under 55 feet and FAR limits of 3.25-to-1. According to a release from the advocacy organization California YIMBY, this effectively amounts to four- and five-story buildings.
These projects would be achieved by requiring the local land use authority - be it a city or a county - to grant an equitable communities incentive to projects that meet the above criteria. This includes a waiver of maximum controls on density and automobile parking requirements greater than .5 spaces per residential unit, and up to three additional incentives or concessions from the existing density bonus law. Local jurisdictions would be free to modify their implementation of the program, as long as they remain consistent with the intentions of the SB 50
Unlike SB 827, which only saw the addition of tenant protections and affordable housing requirements after introduction, SB 50 is starting out with a similar list of provisions.
Sites occupied by tenants within seven years preceding the date of application - including housing that has been demolished or vacated prior to the application - would be ineligible for the incentives, as would properties in which tenants have been evicted through the Ellis Act within the past 15 years.
Additionally, any applicant seeking equitable community incentives for a development would be required to provide affordable housing at either the low-, very low-, or extremely low-income levels at the same levels set under the State density bonus law.
The inclusion of job-rich communities in the revised bill is a response to critics of SB 827, many of whom argued that most transit-rich areas are working-class neighborhoods vulnerable to displacement. Under SB 50, the equitable communities incentives would be available to properties in these job-rich areas - with access to high-quality amenities and schools - even without the presence of rail or high-frequency bus lines.
A more nebulous aspect of the proposed legislation is delayed implementation in sensitive communities, which are defined as those vulnerable to displacement pressure based on indicators such as the percentage of tenant households living at or under the regional poverty line. These communities would see a delayed implementation of SB 50, allowing for a neighborhood-level planning process to develop zoning rules and other policies to encourage multifamily housing development. However, it is unclear what form these rules or policies would take.
Also in response to proponents of local control, SB 50 would not alter any jurisdiction's current community engagement and design review processes, nor would it change any labor or employment standards for new construction. Any existing ban on housing demolition - consistent with the state's Housing Accountability Act - would remain in place, and local governments would retain the right to set height limits for new housing outside of areas with access to rail transit.
Likewise, any local requirements for on-site affordable housing that exceed those proposed in SB 50 would be honored.
Similarly, eligibility for any local programs to encourage housing construction near transit - such as the Transit Oriented Communities guidelines in Los Angeles - would make a project ineligible for the equitable communities incentives.
The new legislation comes as California finds itself with an estimated shortage of 3.5 million homes, and calls from incoming Governor Gavin Newsom to close that gap. Bill proponents note that the recent wildfires have only exacerbated the problem, and argue that the solution is to encourage more development in urban cores, rather than on the suburban fringer.
SB 50 is also billed as an opportunity to reduce the state's carbon footprint by shortening commutes and encouraging transit use and active transportation by placing people in close proximity to major job centers. A recent report from the California Air Resources Board found that the state will fall short of its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030 unless its residents dramatically reduce vehicle travel.