Governor Newsom Signs Senator Wiener’s Bill to Ensure Honesty in Zoning

October 1, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Today, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s honesty in zoning legislation, Senate Bill 478, into law. SB 478 will officially become law on January 1, 2022.

“SB 478 is a nerd bill, but it’s an important one that protects local zoned density from being undermined by back door loopholes,” said Senator Wiener. “Small, multi-unit housing – prior to SB 478 – could be prevented even allowed by local zoning code because of onerous and unnecessary restrictions on square footage and lot size. Now, with the passage of SB 9 and SB 10, SB 478 will ensure we can actually build the small, multi-unit housing that we need so badly across the state. SB 478 is wonky, but it will help us make a dent in our housing crisis.”

Background on SB 478:

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.