State Legislators Seek to Regulate Local Decisions Regarding Inclusive Zoning and Affordable Housing

SB 50 would allow high-density affordable housing near transit centers

By: Tim Houchen
April 24, 2019 —

Senate Bill 50, dubbed the “More Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity and Stability Act” – or “More HOMES” Act, would require local land use authorities – be it a city or a county – to grant an equitable communities incentive to create high-density, low-income affordable housing projects near transit and job centers.

SB 827 was an ambitious zoning bill aimed at alleviating the state’s acute housing shortage and would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 50 was introduced in December 2018 by State Senator Scott Weiner just seven months after the bill’s predecessor, SB 827, died in committee almost a year ago.

Although SB 827 was killed in its first committee hearing in April 2018, the battle to increase California’s housing supply has just begun for State Senator Scott Wiener and his YIMBY allies.

“We must take bold steps now to address our severe housing crisis…,” said Senator Scott Wiener in a release. “California’s housing shortage hurts our most vulnerable communities, working families, young people, our environment, and our economy. It also increases homelessness. ”

In a hearing room in California’s capitol on Tuesday, State Senator Scott Wiener described a widespread housing crisis in stark terms. California is short about 3.5 million homes, he said, citing a McKinsey report that projected housing demand by 2025. Buying a home at the Golden State’s median price—over half a million dollars—is a fantasy for most households. Rents are soaring, homelessness is up, and displacement is refacing storied neighborhoods.

“Red or blue, all of our communities are struggling,” Wiener told an audience of lobbyists, citizens, and members of the state senate housing committee, who would later have their say about how to address the housing crisis.

Unfortunately, solving the state’s housing crisis cannot be solved by legislators crunching numbers in Sacramento. The politics of SB 50 cut deep into the emotions of two very diverse, but separate classes of Californians lining up on either side of the bill.

On one side of this legislation are people from the wealthiest suburbs in America. They place high value on ownership and insist on sovereignty and freedom from external rule and intrusion. People living in these enclaves have the highest opinions of self-entitlement bought and paid for through sweat equity and property taxes. They could be no less inclusive.

On the other side of this bill, you have the very poor and the working class. They are ethnically diverse and live in neighborhoods that are fighting with gentrification and displacement. They are rent-burdened with many households paying 60% and more of their total income each month. Many of the working poor, must struggle with long daily commutes into areas where work is plentiful, but rents are too high in proportion to the wages they earn.

SB 50 is like a line in the sand with the poor on one side and the wealthy on the other. Both are squared-off and preparing to settle once and for all, who should live in California, where and how?

Current state law leaves most zoning and land use decisions to local governments, and includes no density standards around public transportation and job centers.

Our municipalities have been entrusted with the authority to make local decisions pertaining to housing and zoning for years. But, they have failed for the most part to serve more than just a handful of affluent citizens and have neglected to serve the needs of the larger part of the population.

The resulting neglect and economical disenfranchisement has placed California at the top of the list of all states with more people living at or below the poverty level than any other. One in five people in California currently are living in poverty and are our most underserved sector of the entire population of California. Educational and economic opportunities have become increasingly concentrated in and near urban areas, we must ensure all of our residents are able to access these opportunities.

Lack of affordable housing is the number one cause of homelessness in California according to studies performed by Universities and surveys taken from the annual Point-in-Time counts under the direction the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California leads the nation in that distinction as well.

The More HOMES Act eliminates density restrictions for housing near high quality transit and in job-rich areas, in order to ensure that the benefits of public investments in transit are accessible to Californians of all incomes and to enable people to live near where they work. It applies these standards to sites within ½ mile of fixed rail and ¼ mile of high-frequency bus stops and in job-rich areas. Within these geographies, a city may not limit density (e.g., banning apartment buildings). Within ½ mile of fixed rail, a city may not impose maximum height limits lower than either 55 feet or 45 feet. (Bus stops and job-rich areas will not trigger height increases; rather local height limits will apply.)

SB 50 defers to local design standards, inclusionary housing requirements, setback rules, demolition standards (unless they are too weak), and height limits (except near fixed rail stops). SB 50 also includes strong protections for renters and low-income communities and creates better access to jobs

One could easily point a finger at the lack of response made by our cities. All counties and cities are required by state law to report on housing stock and to identify the needs for affordable housing based on several different levels of income and special needs of people living within the city. The housing element defines the needs for housing and how the needs are being met.

Cities in South Orange County are among the list of violating municipalities and are most unwilling to comply with these state laws. The City of San Clemente has famously evaded state law for years until recent actions on behalf of the courts that have punished the city by remanding the city’s ability to issue permits for commercial properties.

More recently, the courts have revoked the authority of San Clemente to enforce its anti-camping ordinances. Until the city provides shelters for the homeless persons there, the homeless are free to pitch their tents anywhere on public property. There is still no indication when the city will unveil its plan to shelter the homeless.

In 2019, we are seeing another round of bills from the state that support affordable housing in one way or another. If you look hard enough at these bills and squint your eyes just a little bit, you might see that these new bills come with a little more teeth than other housing bills in the past.

Another hint that the state might begin playing hardball with cities, was when the freshly inaugurated Governor Gavin Newsom, ordered the Attorney General to file suit against Huntington Beach for its failure to provide any affordable housing at all. Could this be a warning to other cities of intentions of the state to force cities to conform to state housing element law?

The good news is that Huntington Beach finally approved a location for their homeless shelter on April 18, 2019. The first shelter site was found to be too close to a high school, but on a second try the city council was able to approve the shelter with only one opposing vote coming from the mayor.

The special meeting was held on Thursday and notice was given to the public on Monday. Many Huntington Beach residents that attended the special meeting were caught off-guard when City Council decided to vote at the special meeting rather than wait until the next scheduled council meeting on May 6th which had previously been announced as the decision date.

As the council moved to vote, members in the audience shouted, “Why the rush?” As if waiting until the next meeting would somehow influence a different decision that would relieve the city from its court-ordered obligations to provide an emergency homeless shelter.

Before the special meeting it was acknowledged by city officials that they would have to move quickly due to Judge Carter’s court orders and the risk of further litigation. So far, eight Orange County cities as well as the county itself have been sued over failure to provide shelters.

“We know on good authority that Huntington Beach is on the list for the next wave of lawsuits,” said City Attorney Michael Gates.

Many homeless advocates noted that shouts from the audience calling for a delay on the vote were extremely insensitive especially since several advocates had spoke during public comments of the high number of homeless deaths in Huntington Beach over the past year. Those advocates that spoke called on the council for an urgent response in order to save lives.

A recent report from the Orange County Coroner indicated that 18 homeless persons died in Huntington Beach during 2018, the fourth highest count among all Orange County cities.

For the most part, residents in the northern and central areas of Orange County understand the need for solutions to homelessness and city officials are demonstrating a little political will, or at least enough to get emergency shelters online. Litigation does that sometimes.

On the other hand, South Orange County is inhabited by an entirely different cold-blooded species of NIMBY and political will among city officials is almost nonexistent.

Residents and officials here are boldly defiant to following the orders from a judge that presides from a courtroom located in Santa Ana and are as much defiant of the long arm of lawmakers in Sacramento regulating land use in their cities. They are especially resistant to providing any type of housing to the poor and homeless within their communities.

In the past, It has not been in the interest of the state to intervene in such matters as regulating housing on the local level, but that is beginning to change as demonstrated in many bills that are currently working their way through the State Senate and Assembly.

Thirty-one cities – about 10 percent of California’s 482 cities – are out of compliance with state requirements for affordable housing, according to the California Business, Consumer Services.

Tyler Diep is a former Westminister City Council Member and currently serves as an Assemblyman for the 72nd District in Orange County and represents part of Huntington Beach.

“Litigation to force housing in any city is an ineffective way to approach the housing shortage,” he said.

However, Diep emphasized: “I strongly support affordable housing, and I think Huntington Beach should help provide more of it.”

State Senator John Moorlach is a Republican representing the 37th Senate District in Orange County and co-author of SB 50. Senator Moorlach senses that cities are giving only the minimum amount of effort to address the issues of housing and homelessness. He recommends that the legislature and Governor Newsom need to focus their efforts on encouraging cities to step-up and follow through with more effort to address the issues.

“California has numerous cities that have not complied with the requirements of SB 2, to establish a zone where year-round homeless shelters can be built,” says Moorlach.

“Many other cities have declared an SB 2 zone, but it is just to satisfy the state requirement. The possibility of an actual shelter being built there is next to zero,” he continued. “I’m co-authoring the bill with the understanding that it doesn’t increase prevailing wage requirements. Some question my willingness to address a massive problem through a public, deliberative, legislative process. I find that this is a distinctly different – and I would argue – better way to find housing options rather than by fiat or litigation.”

SB 50 is scheduled for a committee hearing today April 24, 2019.


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More articles for you —

SB 50: Inside the Political Fight Over How to Handle California’s Housing Crisis

Zoning the “Ultimate Constraint” to Housing in California

Why California’s governor is suing Huntington Beach

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