Amid recent legislative defeats and pandemic restraints, housing advocates have lowered expectations for state lawmakers to enact sweeping reforms to boost development and knock back California’s housing shortage.
Instead, advocates expect small legislative fixes: streamlined conversions of empty strip malls and abandoned big box stores turned into affordable homes and apartments. Easy approval of homeowners’ plans to cut big suburban lots cut in half and develop new homes on their properties. Allowing small multiplexes to pop up in Bay Area neighborhoods now populated by single family homes.
But housing experts say the new legislative session, with lawmakers due to reconvene Jan. 11, will lack big plans for a grand overhaul of development rules that were defeated last session.
New proposals, including an initial slate of six bills submitted by Senate leaders this month, would make it easier to build homes and smaller apartments, and to subdivide large residential lots into two parcels. Many of the bills are reintroductions of measures that won support during the last session, but got stalled in a legislative calendar shortened by the pandemic and intra-party political disputes
“The theme headed into 2021 is, ‘Let’s try this one more time’,” said David Garcia, policy director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation.
Democratic leaders in the senate and assembly say addressing the state’s high housing costs and its shortage of homes and apartments, estimated to be at least 1.8 million units, remains a priority. Finding shelter for the growing homeless population is also high on the agenda.
The threat of widespread evictions early next year due to pandemic-related job losses has pushed Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, to quickly introduce a bill to extend the state’s eviction moratorium through the end of 2021.
The new slate of senate bills includes proposals that failed to advance this year: allowing taller apartment buildings around transit, quicker redevelopment of vacant big box stores, and easing of environmental reviews on certain projects.
Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, expects lawmakers to be able to address the housing shortage while managing the legislative logistics and demands imposed by the pandemic. “I don’t think it changes anything about our profound housing needs,” said Wiener, author of several pro-housing bills and chair of the housing committee.
Wiener is bringing back a proposal that would make it easier for cities to re-zone for small apartment complexes near job centers and transit lines, or in existing urban centers.
Lawmakers will also have to acknowledge that soaring housing costs have played a role in companies like Oracle and HPE moving their headquarters out of Silicon Valley. “This is a deeply resilient region,” Wiener said. “But we have to get our housing act together.”
Another key measure for the Bay Area is SB 7, an extension of a streamlined process for environmental review of large projects. Michael Lane, San Jose director of the regional think tank SPUR, said the measure could speed the construction of complex developments like Google’s proposed Downtown West in San Jose. City leaders pleaded in September for lawmakers to convene a special session to pass the measure to keep the massive project on track.
Last year, housing advocates’ expectations soared with a slate of ambitious bills and the backing of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom and top lawmakers billed 2020 as the year of housing production. It turned out to be a year of near-misses and an emergency pivot to manage the spiraling health crisis. Wiener’s unsuccessful effort, SB 50, would have overhauled local zoning, encouraged dense housing around rail and bus lines, diminished local control over development and cut red tape.
Lawmakers ended up passing an 11th hour eviction moratorium to keep roofs over the heads of millions of struggling Californians.
The new proposals for 2021 could have a longer-lasting impact on the state’s housing crisis.
Keith Gurnee, board member of the slow growth Livable California, sees the new measures as a mix of good, bad and ugly. The group favors efforts to redevelop fading commercial sites with new homes and apartments. It also wants more funding for low income housing and shelter for the homeless population, he said.
But Livable California plans to fight efforts to allow apartment buildings in established residential neighborhoods. “It’s a bait and switch to those who bought in a single family home neighborhood,” said Gurnee, a retired city planner.
Brian Hanlon, CEO of the pro-housing California YIMBY, said the increase in wildfires will also influence housing policy debates next year. Lawmakers should encourage more development in urban areas, creating a smaller environmental impact and less fire risk.
The package of bills presented is solid, he said, though not on the scale of previous years. “The housing crisis is still here,” Hanlon said, “regardless of the pandemic.”