The Curious Case of Housing Legislation

California is littered with billionaires, mansions, 2 million-dollar shacks, and the highest number of souls who call the state’s grimy streets their home. Meanwhile, state legislators are on a mission to pass legislation that result in the tearing down of older more affordable buildings, destruction of traditional neighborhoods, out-migration of the middle class, and in-migration of both the well off and the destitute.

A Background Worth Reiterating

Sacramento has been generating buckets full of high-profile real estate bills (which legislators call housing bills) for the last half a dozen years or so. At first, the reason behind the earlier bills was the “climate crisis,” a “matter of state-wide concern” that required the state to implement drastic mandates whether such mandates overruled local land-use laws or not.

The seminal piece of legislation behind these bills was California Assembly Bill 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act, signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on September 27, 2006. AB 32 mandated a reduction of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

California Senate Bill 375, The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008, zeroed in on cars as the primary culprits in the imminent demise of Mother Earth. SB 375 mandated 1) the California Air Resources Board set regional emissions-reduction targets from passenger vehicles, and 2) the Metropolitan Planning Organization for each region develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy that integrated transportation, land-use and housing policies.

Bingo! SB 375 earned its spurs by 1) pulling in land use and housing policies into the climate change crisis, and 2) shifting responsibility for land-use policies from cities and counties to state-enabled regional agencies. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the San Francisco Bay Area region Metropolitan Planning Organization) enshrined SB 375 in recognition of the bill’s stature:

375 Beale St

Headquarters of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. From the MTC’s website:   “The building’s address — 375 Beale Street — is a nod to Senate Bill 375, the landmark state law passed to foster a more sustainable future for California’s metro areas.”

After SB 375, transit-oriented development bills, created in the name of reducing green-house gas emissions produced by commuters, encouraged housing clusters within permissible areas and discouraged sprawl.  Housing prices within narrow transit corridors skyrocketed.  Speculators poured in, developers came seeking customers for luxury housing, and construction unions clamored for their piece of the already high-cost pie.

The Enabling Legislation

Recently, three pieces of real estate legislation garnered nation-wide attention:
Senate Bill 827, introduced by Senator Scott Wiener, focused on inserting dense housing in any and all transit corridors, regardless of local zoning. The bill was so ferociously opposed by counties, cities and neighborhoods that it was mercifully killed in the legislation’s Transportation Committee in April of 2018. SB 827 was brazen, but it was also bizarre. The transit mentioned in the bill included bus routes, which could conceivably disappear overnight before SB 827 glommed on to the route.

The demise of SB 827 spawned Senate Bill 50, also introduced by Senator Wiener. SB 50 was even more brazen than SB 827, since it not only mandated density in any and all transit corridors regardless of local zoning, but mandated the same in “job-rich” areas. Job rich meant any neighborhood in any corridor leading to any business cluster that provided jobs. So, a neighborhood of single-family homes adjacent to transit that takes residents to jobs is job-rich and open by mandate to developers that want to build multi-unit housing. Opposition again mounted. SB 50 was tabled by the legislation’s Appropriations Committee on May 16, 2019.

Now Californians have been presented with Senate Bill 330, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner on February 2019. The bill is currently active and pending referral.

SB 330 consists of 24 pages of minutia that purportedly aims to “temporarily,” until 2025, enhance the ability of developers to obtain building permits regardless of local rules. In the process, SB 330 obliterates county and city land-use and zoning rules enacted since January 1, 2018 that the bill’s authors view as impediments to nearly unfettered housing development.

Like SB 827 and SB 50, SB 330 transfers by edict land-use decisions from cities, counties and neighborhoods to the state, even curbing the ability of cities’ and counties’ electorates from placing initiatives or referendums on ballots.

And, of course, SB 330 contains the obligatory clause featured in legislation that nullifies local rules, including rules enacted by charter cities. Charter cities are protected from outside meddling by the California State Constitution, unless the meddling is a matter of “statewide concern rather than a municipal affair.”

Here are some clauses of SB 330

* Prohibits retroactively from January 1, 2018 any city or county from imposing or increasing any requirement that a proposed housing development include parking in excess of specified amounts, and prohibits any city or county from charging approval fees in excess of specified amounts.

* Prohibits retroactively from January 1, 2018, any city or county from disallowing a proposed housing development project that has been given a conditional use permit if that project would have been eligible under a city’s or county’s general land-use plan and zoning ordinances in effect on January 1, 2018.

* Prohibits retroactively from January 1, 2018, any city or county, or any voter initiative or referendum, from a) changing the land use designation or zoning of a parcel of property to a less dense use or reducing the parcel’s density; b) imposing or enforcing a moratorium on housing development; c) imposing or enforcing new design standards that are not objective design standards; d) establishing or implementing certain limits on the number of permits issued.

* Requires enforcing agencies to grant to owners of substandard housing delays up to 7 years for correction of violations or nuisances if owners submit an application for such delay and if the enforcing agency determines that correction or abatement of the violation or nuisance is not necessary to protect health and safety.

Check out the California Political Review for a more passionate post on the perils of SB 330.

Rules for Radicals

One could almost think that Saul Alinsky’s Rule #10 could be found somewhere in California’s State Constitution, judging by the relentless tsunami of housing-related legislation generated by state legislators purportedly in their effort to fix a crisis they themselves help create. Rule #10 says,

The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.