First term California State Senator Scott Wiener has quickly become a state leader on housing policy. Last year the San Francisco-based senator sponsored Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlined approval process, in cities that do not meet their state-mandated housing goals, for certain multi-family residential projects that include affordable housing. SB 35 was a signature part of 15 housing bills Governor Jerry Brown signed last fall. Fresh on the heels of that success, Senator Wiener introduced a trio of bills, on January 3, 2018, that are part of what he describes as a “housing-first policy.”

According to Senator Wiener, the proposed bills would:

  • Mandate denser and taller housing near transit (Senate Bill 827, co-authored by Senators Nancy Skinner of Berkeley and Phil Ting of San Francisco).
  • Reform the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process by creating a clearer, more data-driven, and equitable process for assigning RHNA numbers to local communities, and require local communities to make up for past RHNA deficits (Senate Bill 828).
  • Create a “by right” process that allows farm owners and operators to develop agricultural land for employee housing (Senate Bill 829, co-authored by Senator Andy Vidak of Hanford).

The bills are an ambitious effort to address California’s chronic housing shortage and are precisely the type of aggressive approach required to fix an elusive problem that will persist without significant state action.

SB 827, the most noteworthy of the new bills, would authorize a “transit-rich housing project”—defined as a “residential development project the parcels of which are all within a one-half mile radius of a major transit stop or a one-quarter mile radius of a high-quality transit corridor”—to receive a “transit-rich housing bonus.” In short, SB 827 would create density and height minimums, and prohibit parking maximums, for parcels near transit. Thus, parcels within a half-mile of a high-connectivity transit hub — such as BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations — will be required to have no density maximums, no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors specified in the bill. Local ordinances would be allowed to increase the legislatively-mandated height but they could not decrease it.

According to a 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, a private think tank, increasing density around transit could create up to 3 million new transit-proximate homes.

As Senator Wiener explains:

“Mandating low-density housing around transit makes no sense. It pushes more people to drive by leading to sprawl, thus undermining our economy and environment. It also leads to significant inequities, as limited density around transit spikes the prices of transit-accessible housing, meaning lower income and working class people struggle to live there and are pushed out into non-transit areas.”

While SB 827 would likely be a game-changer if adopted as proposed, it may ultimately be too aggressive to pass. The bill is certain to generate opposition from cities and entities that believe in unfettered local control over land use, not to mention NIMBYs and BANANAs, who rarely see good policy they won’t oppose and are already sharpening their knives. Even if it does not pass, however, the bill reflects an important shift in California politics regarding local control versus state control over housing. Pro-housing advocates such as California YIMBY have become a crucial counterweight to the naysayers and, thankfully, the advocates are not going away.