Although major cities across the country face a shortage of affordable housing, California is traditionally viewed the ground zero of land-use and zoning reform. It is home to some particularly restrictive zoning codes (for example, it’s illegal to build apartment buildings on almost 75% of the land in San Francisco) and high-paying jobs and environmental amenities make it an attractive place to live (for those who can afford it).
Recognizing the need for reform, a number of entrepreneurial policy makers at the state and local level are taking action to reduce the ability of NIMBYs in the Golden State to restrict development. Writing at Streetsblog California, Melanie Curry has a roundup of pending legislation to open the most populous state in the nation’s housing market. Below are a few of the greatest hits.
Holding Local Governments Accountable: SB 828
SB 828, championed by Scott Wiener, was presented to Governor Jerry Brown yesterday. The bill, though scaled back from previous drafts, requires local governments to revise their Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) to improve their projections by fixing the “healthy” vacancy rate to 5% and disallowing lower-than-expected population growth to be included in housing projections.
By preventing local governments from gaming the numbers used to determine if they are on track to meet affordable housing goals and improving reporting requirements to give officials a better picture of affordability in their districts, SB 828 would make it more difficult for local governments to “sidestep and sometimes just ignore their RHNA” as they have done in the past.
Streamlining Development Outside Cities: AB 1804
A common refrain among anti-development NIMBYs (particularly in more left-leaning parts of the country), is that development is harmful to the environment. In fact, there is, in the words of Ed Glaeser, “nothing greener than blacktop.”
AB 1804, sponsored by Marc Berman, would provide a limited exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act, streamlining “CEQA requirements for infill housing in unincorporated areas, giving them the same incentives that are available to cities…Done correctly, infill housing can further environmental goals by creating dense housing where it’s most needed, close to places people need to get to so they can reduce their travel.”
Instead of broadly allowing development in this area, the bill restricts the CEQA exemption to developments with at least six units per acre, preventing suburban sprawl.
Fairer Housing Laws: AB 1771 and AB 2162
AB 1771, sponsored by Richard Bloom, revises the goals for RHNAs stated in law. Similar to the changes in the goals of RHNA included in SB 828, AB 1771 adds “avoiding displacement, increasing access of ‘high opportunity’ for lower-income residents, and ‘affirmatively furthering fair housing’ to those objectives.” Adding these provisions would codify the objectives of robust housing policy.
Another piece of legislation dedicated to expanding local housing goals to the benefit of the least well-off is Miguel Santiago’s AB 686. The bill further updates the way local governments determine housing goals by expanding the definition of “affirmatively furthering fair housing” to include “taking meaningful actions that together address segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws.”
Taken together, this bundle of pro-housing laws is an excellent example of using markets to achieve progressive ends. The relatively narrow scope of the bills (especially after SB 828 and AB 1804 were whittled down during the lawmaking process) shows what a slog comprehensive reform will be, but by shifting the venue from the local to state level, they limit the ability of local NIMBYs to hijack or derail pro-growth reforms.