Senator Wiener's 2021 Housing Legislation Passes the Assembly Local Government Committee

July 2, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s housing legislation, Senate Bills 478, 477 and 10, passed the Assembly Local Government Committee. They passed by votes of 5-2, 8-0 and 6-1 respectively, and will now head to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Each bill is sponsored by California YIMBY, and SB 477 is additionally cosponsored by SPUR.

SB 10 creates a voluntary, streamlined process for cities to zone for missing middle multi-unit housing. This legislation allows cities to upzone non-sprawl areas (areas that are close to transit or in existing urbanized locations, thus reducing vehicle usage and long commutes) up to ten unit buildings, if they choose. This streamlining tool will be a powerful one for cities to increase density. By allowing cities to choose to zone for up to 10 units per parcel, SB 10 makes 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 and near transit leads to sprawl development, which increases carbon emissions and wildfire risk. SB 10 allows cities to voluntarily 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.

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 478would 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.

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.

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.

“It’s time for California to build more multifamily housing affordable to working people and families across the state,” said Senator Wiener. “We need to make it easier to build housing, and give cities more tools to do so. These housing bills will help us end loopholes that prevent multifamily housing in areas that are zoned for it, allow small apartment buildings in areas where cities choose to zone for them, and will help us understand how state housing laws are impacting our housing crisis.”