Senate Passes Senator Wiener’s SB 478, the Housing Opportunity Act

May 28, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Today Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s housing legislation, Senate Bill 478, passed the Senate by a vote of 29-5. SB 478 will now head to the Assembly. It is sponsored by California YIMBY. 

SB 478, the Housing Opportunity Act, ensures that when cities zone for small apartment buildings — between 3 and 10 units — those buildings can actually be built and are not effectively banned via extreme and restrictive square footage caps. Specifically, SB 478 sets minimum standards on floor area ratios (FAR) and minimum lot sizes for these small apartment 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, but extreme FAR or lot size requirements make that zoned density effectively impossible. As a result, cities give with one hand and take with the other, by using these loopholes to effectively cancel local zoning.

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 1.0 on lots zoned for 3-7 units, and an FAR of 1.25 on 8-10 units, rather than completely nullify them, as is the case with ADUs. This legislation would apply in urbanized areas in multi-family residential or mixed use zones.

SB 478 also provides that cities cannot deny a project solely on the basis that the lot size does not meet the local agency’s requirements for minimum lot size. Additionally, localities will not be allowed to impose a lot coverage requirement that would preclude a housing development from achieving the allowed FAR.

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 However, due to the lack of adequate statewide standards and burdensome and outdated regulations, some California cities are able to avoid accountability and find loopholes to prevent denser housing from becoming a reality.

“To tackle our housing crisis, we need a multi-pronged approach,” said Senator Wiener. “We need to reform zoning, but we also need to end loopholes that make it impossible for our communities to actually build the multifamily housing for which we have already zoned. SB 478 will help ease California’s housing crisis and ensure housing is more affordable and accessible for all.”