Now There is Senate Bill 828

While we fret over Senator Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 827 – Transit Zoning , his SB 828 – RHNA Reform is moving right along, and is now in the Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee since March 21.  SB 827 has been languishing in the T & H Committee since March 1.

As in the case of the “housing package” passed by California legislators in 2017, which included SB 35 – Streamlined Approval Process, SB 828 is intended to significantly increase housing production, including low and very-low income housing.  Theoretically, nothing but a substantial mandated increase in housing production at all income levels in all neighborhoods will bring down housing costs, allow workers to live closer to their jobs, and reduce greenhouse gases by reducing travel distances.  

Critics of SB 828 and other “housing first” legislation recently passed or introduced, point not only to the costs associated with such legislation, but also to the flaws inherent in the legislations’ assumptions.  For example, The American Planning Association position letter regarding SB 828 states,

Beyond the more positive changes to RHNA [Regional Housing Needs Allocation] distribution, however, the bill contains a number of new RHNA requirements that simply can’t be met and would set up local governments to fail.

Perhaps we need to widen our view when judging the pros and cons of SB 828 and review the performance of other state and regional mandates.  How is Plan Bay Area performing in its stated goals of equitable access to housing, efficient cost-effective transportation systems, and traffic-jam free city streets.  Also, we might want to consider whether failure to achieve targets can be cured by increasing the forcefulness and penalties for failure.  How are state and city laws designed to lessen housing evictions working out?

Highlights of SB 828

*  Doubles the percentage of very low and low-income households that cities and counties must plan to accommodate from the current 100% to 200%.

*   Mandates cities, counties and regions take “all possible actions” to ensure housing production quotas are met, “including embracing and promoting all applicable reforms and incentives in Section 65582.1” [Code Section 65582.1 enforces mandates under Senate Bill 35, “by right” streamlined production approval process].

*  If median rent or home prices available for rent or sale exceed median income, communities must produce more housing to alleviate the imbalance.

*   Communities with high rates of income growth must “also have a high rate of new housing production for households of all income levels, in particular low-income and very low-income households, to ensure equity and to stabilize home prices and communities.”

*  Council of governments cannot use past underproduction of housing as measure for future production.  If there is a deficit in allocated production, the deficit must be rolled over to the next production cycle.

*  There will be no excuses for a housing production deficit.  “This housing deficit shall be considered a binding and nonnegotiable obligation, and this assignment shall be considered an administrative action by the department.”

Concerns

*  Requirements for housing needs allocation have been in force at least since the 1960’s.  After more than half a century, these requirements have yet to achieve their stated objective of providing affordable housing for all.

*  What the requirements have achieved is a tsunami of increasingly forceful mandates transferring control of land use and planning away from cities and counties.  Under such mandates substantially the same state rules apply to all communities, removing residents’ ability to help plan for their own cities and counties

*   Assumptions underlying SB 828 ignore significant possibilities:

      Residents and city councils might reach a tipping point and simply refuse to accept housing production allocations, choosing instead to sue in court – for any possible reason – anyone who attempts to act under such allocations.  We have seen a comparable scenario with the use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

      Planning for 200% of forecasted housing needs, including need for low and very-low income housing, is expensive.  Money to produce lower-income housing needs to come from somewhere.  Most likely money would come from a combination of market-rate buyers/renters and taxpayers, who might also reach a tipping point, refuse to buy/rent in California, or vote “no” on tax proposals

      Higher income residents living in high-value neighborhoods are unlikely to sit still while SB 828 works to reduce the value of their property.  More likely such residents will sell and leave the state before the full force of the bill takes effect.

      There is very little in life that is “binding and non-negotiable,” and some say only death and taxes truly fall under that category.  Everything else can be ignored, stonewalled, or litigated forever.

Deeper Questions

California legislators subscribe to a particular set of beliefs:  the state needs to foster economic growth, growth necessitates workers, workers need to have housing they can afford, housing needs to be close to where workers work to spare workers from long commutes and reduce greenhouse gases.  The only solution being discussed is forcefully-mandated dense housing near mega job centers and along the state’s anemic transit corridors.  Are we lacking competing solutions, or even competing assumptions?

Some Things Better Not Be Messed With

Single family neighborhood
Haight Ashbury in San Francisco