Senator Wiener Introduces Legislation to Address Homelessness Crisis by Expanding Shelter Access

SB 1138 will help relieve California’s homelessness crisis by ensuring cities zone for and build adequate shelters connected to services and permanent housing
February 20, 2020

Sacramento – Yesterday, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 1138, legislation to address gaps in the shelter zoning process under existing California housing law. Currently, cities and counties must identify in their housing elements (a term for a state-mandated housing plan) at least one zone where emergency shelters can receive streamlined approval. Right now, some cities and counties avoid having to actually build shelters in a few different ways: by zoning for shelters in areas where there is no space to actually build a shelter, by zoning for shelters in areas that are disconnected from services (e.g., remote industrial areas), and by creating “draft” housing element plans that are not legally compliant and end up in purgatory. SB 1138 aims to eliminate these loopholes in state housing law to ensure cities and counties are zoning for and building shelters that help individuals experiencing homelessness access the services and permanent housing they need to get back on their feet.

This legislation comes on the heels of Governor Newsom’s State of the State address, which focused on solutions to the homelessness epidemic. California accounts for more than half of all unsheltered homeless individuals in the nation, despite its general population comprising 15% of the nation’s population. Of the 151,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in California, 72% are unsheltered. These are unacceptable rates, and every city and county must do its part to address this crisis by zoning for and building shelters in a timely manner in residential or mixed-use areas connected to appropriate services.

SB 1138 provides enforceable standards to ensure that cities are zoning for and allowing shelters to be built, in a streamlined process. The bill also ensures that shelter zones will be established in areas that have physical space in which to build a shelter and that are near or connected by transit to services such as job training, addiction recovery, and healthcare. Homeless shelters should be temporary, emergency housing; shelters need to be close to effective services so those experiencing homelessness can find permanent housing, health care, and jobs, and thus get their lives on track.

Additionally, under existing state law, municipalities must adopt a housing element within 120 days of the statutory deadline. Failure to do so means the municipality must revise their housing element every four years (instead of eight). But cities and counties can exploit a loophole that lets them draft a noncompliant housing plan to avoid having to update their housing element every four years, which leads to poor planning for housing and shelters. SB 1138 would mandate that cities and counties submit legally compliant housing plans to ensure that shelters are zoned for and actually get built quickly, as state law intends.

“California has a spiraling homelessness crisis, and while permanent housing is the ultimate solution to homelessness, in the short term we need many more shelters to help people transition off the streets,” said Senator Wiener. “Current law allows cities to get around their shelter requirements, and it’s time to close those loopholes.”