Senator Wiener Introduces 2021 Housing Legislation to Address California’s Housing Crisis

February 18, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 478 and Senate Bill 477, which join previously introduced Senate Bill 10 and Senate Bill 234 to complete the Senator’s 2021 housing package.

SB 478, the Housing Opportunity Act, ensures that local zoned density and state housing laws are not undermined by hyper-restrictive lot requirements that make it practically impossible to build multifamily apartment buildings in areas zoned to allow them. Specifically, SB 478 sets minimum standards on floor area ratios (FAR) and minimum lot sizes, for land zoned for missing middle housing (from duplexes to ten unit buildings). Excessively low FAR and excessively large minimum lot sizes are tools that numerous cities use to undermine their own zoned density — in other words, a city can zone for multi-unit housing (or state law authorizes multi-unit housing) but extreme FAR or lot size requirements make that zoned density effectively impossible. As a result, cities are able to use this loophole to prohibit multi-unit housing otherwise authorized by local or state zoning law.

Current state law already preempts local FAR regulations from hindering the production of ADUs; when building an ADU, local FAR standards are void. SB 478 would simply require an FAR of 1.5 on multi-family zoned lots, rather than completely nullify them, as is the case with ADUs.

SB 477, the Housing Data Act, strengthens California’s housing data collection so the state and public can better understand the impact of state housing laws and determine the progress made by various cities and counties in meeting regional housing goals. Currently, the state’s data collection on state housing laws is sporadic and not comprehensive.

SB 478 and SB 477 are sponsored by California YIMBY, and SB 477 is also sponsored by SPUR.

Senator Wiener previously introduced SB 10, which creates a streamlined process for cities to zone for missing middle multi-unit housing, and SB 234, which allocates $100 million to build housing for our most at-risk youth, specifically, youth exiting homelessness, the foster care system, or the criminal justice system.

California is in the midst of a deep housing crisis, which is leading to mass migration out of the state, skyrocketing eviction rates, record levels of homelessness and poverty, and a growing class of low income and middle class super commuters unable to afford housing within several hours of their jobs. Many local governments in California are motivated independently to increase density in their  neighborhoods, and others are required by state law to do so. However, due to the lack of adequate statewide standards, burdensome and outdated regulations, and a dearth of data about state law and its impacts on housing, some California cities are able to avoid accountability and find loopholes to prevent denser housing from becoming a reality.

“California’s severe housing shortage — in the millions — is severely harming our state, and we must take firm actions to help create more housing,” said Senator Wiener. “We need multiple strategies to help end our housing shortage, including empowering cities to build more housing, funding affordable housing, and ensuring that cities are taking necessary steps to meet their housing goals. Our 2021 housing bills help accomplish each of these important goals.”

"To meet the challenges of environmental sustainability, racial and economic justice, and to create vibrant communities of opportunity for everyone, California must reform many of its housing policies. This smart, targeted legislative package from Sen. Wiener addresses these challenges," said Brian Hanlon, CEO of California YIMBY, a co-sponsor of SB 10, SB 478, and SB 477. "We applaud Sen. Wiener for sweating the details of housing policy and proposing reforms that will help all communities build more naturally-affordable 'missing middle' housing, and for collecting data to determine the efficacy of state housing laws, which will advance evidence-based policymaking."

"This bill package offered by Senator Wiener represents the best of our collective efforts,” said Claremont Mayor Pro Tem Jed Leano. “It demands we provide for our most vulnerable, collect accurate data to make informed decisions going forward, and enlist creativity in diversifying housing stock.”

"Several major bills have been passed in recent years by the State Legislature — including Senator Wiener's landmark SB 35 of 2017 — to increase housing availability and affordability in California,” said Michael Lane, State Policy Director with San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “It is critical that we track the implementation and use of these tools at the local level to determine their impact on increased housing production and the potential need for adjustments. Senator Wiener's new SB 477 is a critical step to allow our state housing policy to be grounded in and informed by better and more complete information gathered from across the state and to measure results.”

“Senator Wiener has been an incredible champion for reforming California’s broken housing policies to help Californians paying unaffordable rents, almost 70 percent of whom are people of color," said Ricardo Flores, Executive Director of LISC San Diego. "These are the people who are often working and living one missed paycheck away from losing their homes. We urge the California legislature to support Sen. Wiener's common-sense bills to legalize more multi-family homes, and make it easier for all Californians to find secure, affordable, equitable housing.”

"We're excited to work with Senator Wiener on these important reforms that will serve to strengthen our growing efforts in Los Angeles to build more affordable homes," said Leonora Camner, Executive Director, Abundant Housing LA. "Many of the barriers that exist for housing are rooted in racism, exclusion, and segregation. There's no silver bullet that can end the housing shortage and affordability crisis, which is why we believe this package takes the right approach and addresses several of the most critical factors -- making it legal to build more middle-income homes; reducing the barriers to affordable housing in neighborhoods where it's already legal; and keeping track of our progress. We look forward to working with our partners in LA, and across California, to bring housing abundance to everyone."

"It is far past time we stop letting arcane housing requirements like FARs and minimum lot sizes serve as loopholes that allow cities and counties to avoid building housing," said Laura Foote, Executive Director of YIMBY Action. "If we want a California that is truly welcoming, that provides enough housing so people across the state can afford to live here, we need to change these outdated and easily-abused regulations that just serve to make it harder to build housing – even in areas where it is technically legal."

"Solving California's housing affordability and displacement crisis requires bold action and forward-thinking leadership, which is why the Housing Action Coalition strongly supports Senator Wiener's comprehensive and compassionate housing legislation package,” said Todd David, Housing Action Coalition Executive Director. “We look forward to working with the Senator and other like-minded legislators who understand that key to solving our state's housing crisis is building more homes at all levels of affordability and ensuring that these new homes actually get built." 

SB 478 - Housing Opportunity Act

SB 478 ensures that areas already zoned to allow multifamily housing up to ten units are able to legally accommodate this type of housing, doing away with abusive requirements that make it effectively impossible to build anything other than a large single-family home despite the multi-family zoning. FAR and minimum lot sizes, when abused, can be used as backdoor way to invalidate multi-family zoning that allows duplexes and small apartment buildings.

SB 478 does not in any way change the zoned housing density for any given parcel. Instead, it ensures that whatever the underlying zoned density already is — per local and state housing laws — can actually be built.

While these size regulations may seem complicated, the concept is quite simple. FAR restrictions control how large a building can be, based on how large the parcel of land is. An exceptionally low FAR can make it impossible to build multi-unit even if the land is zoned for multi-unit. The FAR is the size of the building divided by the size of the lot. For example, if a 2,000 square foot lot has a floor area ratio of 1.0, this means that a developer can build a one-story building over the entire lot, a two story building over half the lot, or a three story building over a third of the lot. A 5.0 FAR means that the floor area may be up to five times as large as the lot area; and a 0.5 FAR means that the building cannot occupy more than 50% the lot area. SB 478 will establish a 1.5 state floor area ratio standard for parcels zoned between 2 and 10 units, which will allow areas zoned for multifamily housing to actually build the 2-10 allotted units.

For example, if a city has an FAR of 0.4 for fourplexes, and it requires a minimum lot size of 4,000 square feet, a building could only be 1,600 square feet – or 400 square feet per home. That unit size likely would not pencil out, and the fourplex would not be built. A single-family home, by contrast, would pencil out. Even in cities or counties where zoning code allows for 2-10 unit buildings, restrictive FARs can effectively prohibit this type of housing. Sadly, that is exactly why some cities enact restrictive FARs — they can put multi-unit zoning in their housing element but make it effectively impossible to build.

SB 478 will also set a sustainable minimum lot size for 2-10 unit parcels. Exceptionally large minimum lot sizes can be highly restrictive to the production of smaller, more affordable units on multi-family parcels, especially in expensive areas where land cost is steep — in other words, the larger the mandated minimum lot size, the higher the land use per unit, meaning small multi-unit homes don’t pencil out whereas mansions do. Scholars agree that large lot mandated zoning constrains even minimal density, which then increases housing costs, exacerbates segregation, and contributes to sprawl – incentivizing single family mega-mansions rather than smaller, multifamily units.

As just one example, a small California city currently requires a lot to be at least 14,520 square feet to build a duplex. This means that the required cost just to buy the land to build a duplex is $540,000 per home. Such a project would never pencil out. By contrast, building a large mansion on that parcel would pencil out.                                                         

Both excessively low FAR and excessively large minimum lot sizes incentivize large single family homes and make missing middle small multi-unit projects financially impossible. Large single family homes can be sold to wealthy people willing to pay a premium. By contrast, people looking for homes in small multi-unit buildings are typically not wealthy and can’t pay as much. Abusive FAR and minimum lot size requirements are designed to prevent multi-unit construction and absolutely have that effect.

SB 478 will help California build the denser housing – affordable to middle class and working people – that it so badly needs to help young families stay in California, lessen the prevalence of homelessness and evictions, and provide more affordable housing options near jobs. This bill will also help cities and counties meet the housing goals legally required of them by the RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) process.

This bill does not require cities to undertake any rezoning, or change the current zoning on existing parcels. SB 478 also does not change other objective standards such as height, setbacks, or parking requirements.

SB 477 - Housing Data Act

SB 477 strengthens California’s housing data collection to ensure the state and the public understand the impact and effectiveness of state housing laws. The bill adds a number of requirements to the annual progress report (APR) that local governments are required to submit to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) each year. This will provide more robust data with which to evaluate housing streamlining measures and any given jurisdictions’ progress in meeting their share of the RHNA goal.

This bill will instruct the state to collect data about SB 35 (Wiener, 2017), which established a streamlined, ministerial approval process, not subject to discretionary review, for certain multifamily affordable housing projects proposed in local jurisdictions that have failed to meet their share of the regional housing need. SB 35 has spurred the creation of thousands of affordable housing units, built more cheaply and quickly than ever before. But the state has yet to quantify the full impact of this law.

SB 477 will also improve California’s housing data collection by adding a number of other data reporting requirements, specifically:

●     The location and total number of developments approved, building permits issued, and number of units constructed pursuant to streamlining requirements for permanent supportive housing, low barrier navigation centers, and Project RoomKey. 

●     Specified information relating to mitigation fees, zoning ordinances, and development standards that local governments are required to report on their websites pursuant to AB 1483 (Grayson, Chapter 662, Statutes of 2019).

●     Whether an application for a housing development project was submitted under any of the following: the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or junior accessory dwelling unit (JADU) statute, or both; the density bonus law (and if so, what bonus, concession, or waiver was requested and approved); SB 35 (Wiener, 2017); Project RoomKey; a list of specified housing-related CEQA exemptions; and CEQA.

More background on the other bills in Senator Wiener’s housing package:

SB 234 - the SUPPORT Act

The SUPPORT Act (Supporting Underserved Young People for Positive Resets and Transitions) is an affordable housing bill that creates a $100 million forgivable loan program to fund new housing, or acquire existing housing, for transition age youth between ages 16 and 26. The housing will be targeted toward young people who are homeless, in or exiting foster care, or exiting the criminal justice system.

SB 10 - Light Touch Density

SB 10 allows cities to upzone non-sprawl areas (areas that are close to job centers and/or transit and areas that are in existing urbanized locations, thus reducing vehicle usage and long commutes) up to ten unit buildings. This streamlining tool would be the most powerful one for cities to increase density. By allowing cities to choose to zone for up to 10 units per parcel, SB 10 will make it possible for cities to build significantly more housing in a way that makes sense within their local context.

Right now, it is illegal to build any more than one unit of housing per parcel in areas subject to single family zoning. This hyper-low density zoning in existing urbanized areas near jobs and transit leads to sprawl development, which increases carbon emissions and wildfire risk. SB 10 allows cities to increase density up to ten unit buildings in a streamlined way, without having to go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Cities will also be able to designate these projects as by right, meaning they can be approved ministerially and without a lengthy approval process.