Fix it, pass it, build it

Controversial California housing bill is amended for both pro-housing and tenant advocates

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Controversial California housing bill is amended for both pro-housing and low-income tenant advocates. (Jared Erondu)
Controversial California housing bill is amended for both pro-housing and low-income tenant advocates. (Jared Erondu)

California State Senator Scott Weiner has unveiled a slate of new amendments aimed at shoring up support behind his controversial housing bill—SB-827—that could potentially spell the beginning of a detente between pro-housing and social justice-focused advocacy groups in the state.

In a Medium post published Monday night, Weiner laid the groundwork for this potential reconciliation by addressing some of the thorniest aspects of the bill critics have lamented thus far, while also proposing the addition of key new elements. Additions to SB-827 include mandatory affordable housing requirements, strengthening demolition controls outlined specifically by the bill, and doing away with the most significant height increases allowed by SB-827.

Weiner’s bill has been heavily criticized from multiple angles since it was introduced earlier this year. On one side, NIMBY groups have decried the intended effects of the measure—densification along transit stops and an erosion of parking and height limits associated with development in these areas—while groups that represent low-income residents and communities of color have targeted the bill as yet another instance of top-down exploitation. In response to the latter set of critiques, Weiner added a bevy of pro-tenant fixes to the legislation several weeks ago, proposing a so-called “right to remain” that would require developers to offer new units to existing tenants for projects that benefit from the bill’s new development standards, among other fixes.

The most recent crop of changes aims to further soften the edges of the bill, while making explicit elements that were only hinted at before.

The biggest change comes from the addition of an affordable housing requirement for all but the smallest projects. The bill will now require between 10 and 20 percent of new units constructed to be set aside as deed-restricted affordable housing, with specific allotments made for “low income” and “very low income” households within these new guidelines. The highest inclusionary requirements are triggered for mixed-use projects consisting of 25 percent or more office space, according to the post, with projects made up of nine or fewer units exempt from inclusionary rules.

While the proposed bill did not initially propose to strip away local control over building demolitions, the updated language would penalize developers who utilize California’s controversial Ellis Act provision to evict tenants from rent-controlled units. In a significant win for rent-stabilized households, the bill will halt the issuance of a demolition permit on properties that have recorded an Ellis Act eviction within the last five years, meaning that landlords will not be allowed to evict rent-controlled tenants in order to demolish an existing structure to make way for market-rate or luxury development.

Going one step further, the bill will also aim for a so-called “no net loss” strategy that will force developers to replace any demolished rent controlled units lost in the process of redevelopment.

These protections will apply in addition to the right-to-remain and inclusionary requirements, so if, for example, an existing 10-unit, rent-controlled structure is demolished, the new development must include 10 new rent-controlled units, add roughly one new deed-restricted affordable unit, and allow all ten existing tenants to take up their old leases at similar rents as before, with however many remaining new units set aside as market-rate homes. The new compromises represent a victory for social justice groups and low-income tenants and could potentially smooth out opposition to the bill in some of these communities, though that is yet to be seen.

Another key change is that the bill would no longer totally eliminate parking requirements for transit-adjacent areas, but allows up to 0.5 parking stalls per unit for developments located along high-frequency bus routes and for developments located more than a quarter-mile from a rail stop or a ferry terminal. The bill will also require developers to issue monthly transit passes to building tenants.

The new bill would also scrap a previous 85-foot height limit imposed on transit-adjacent properties in order to “focus the bill on 45- to 55-foot wood frame buildings,” which Weiner contends are more affordable to build than the steel structure buildings that would be required at the higher limit. The additional height limits will also no longer apply to rapid bus-adjacent sites, though those parcels will still benefit from lower parking and higher density restrictions.

The bill is making its way toward formal hearings on the California State Senate floor. For more information on the changes, see Weiner’s post.

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