In recent months, legislators in California have begun a concerted effort to use state law to address the state’s ongoing housing crisis. The moves come amid worsening regional inequality that has pushed housing affordability outside the reach of many populations. Facing mounting pressure from a growing cohort of pro-housing YIMBY activists and increasingly grim economic and social impacts—including a sharp increase in the number of rent-burdened households and the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness—state-level legislators have begun to take action where municipal leaders have thus far stopped short. Late last year, the California State Legislature approved a bundle of housing-focused bills in what amounted to the first key win for state-led housing reform efforts. The legislature passed a total of seven bills aimed at streamlining permitting, enforcing regional housing production benchmarks, and preventing municipalities from down-zoning parcels or rejecting by-right projects. Several of the bills also aimed to stimulate new housing spending for affordable units, including a measure that will allow for a low-income housing–focused $3 billion bond to go onto the November 2018 statewide ballot and a measure that institutes a modest levy on certain real estate transactions in the state in order to raise up to $250 million each year for low income housing construction. The two combined measures could make over $8 billion in new funding available for affordable housing production over the next decade. These bills followed the adoption in late 2016 of a streamlined Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance that legalizes backyard homes across the state while also providing minimum zoning standards for ADUs that homeowners and developers can follow when local rules do not exist. The shift has led to a surge in ADU applications across California’s big and small cities alike, as homeowners move to build new ADUs while also legalizing existing bootlegged units. In a blow to NIMBY activists, the move also essentially doubled the residential density of the state’s single-family zoned lots overnight, with the added benefit that ADUs developed in certain areas—historic districts, ½-mile from transit—could be built without added parking. A recent report from the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation concluded that “ADUs are poised to play a significant role in alleviating California’s housing crisis and state, regional, and local leaders should continue to examine ways in which barriers to this type of development can be removed.” The report cited an explosion in building permits for ADUs following their legalization, with 1,980 units pending in Los Angeles for 2017 compared with just 90 the year prior. Efforts are currently underway to continue to streamline ADU development at the state level. Hopes of using state law to right California’s housing market were boosted further this year by the introduction of SB 827, a transformative new state law that would, among other things, override local planning code to raise height limits and boost density while abolishing parking requirements for lots located near mass transit. The bill is authored by State Senator Scott Wiener—one of the authors of several of the 2017 housing bills—and has the backing of many of the state’s increasingly influential pro-housing activists. Specifically, for properties located within ¼ mile of a transit corridor or one block from a major transit stop, the bill would disallow height limits lower than 85 feet, except for when a particular parcel fronts a street 45 feet or less in width, in which case the minimum height limit would drop to 55 feet. The bill would also forbid height limits below 55 feet for all areas ½ mile from transit routes. The law, if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, would also forbid the imposition of minimum parking requirements for parcels within a ½-mile radius of a transit stop or within a ¼-mile radius from a transit corridor. One of the bill’s strengths is that these provisions lump high-performing bus routes in with light and heavy rail infrastructure, making their potential effects across the state quite vast, as many of its major cities have extensive bus networks. Wiener’s bill is seen widely as a potentially earth-shattering piece of legislation that would upend decades’ worth of ever-tightening local control—often at the expense of density and new construction. The abolition of parking minimums in particular would represent a sea-change in car-loving California, where parking takes up a lot of space and significantly adds to the cost of building new housing. Policy Club, a collective of digitally-savvy professionals who aim to utilize data to help politicians craft “smarter public policies that will move the needle on some of California’s most pressing challenges” has generated a visualization that postulates what some of the changes in density, parking, and maximum height might look like for the City of Los Angeles. Hunter Owens, a Policy Club contributor, explained that, at least in L.A., parking reductions associated with the bill will do the most to change the way the city builds in response to the bill. Owens said, "We were surprised to find that it's the parking requirements that are keeping building heights and density down," adding that many potentially affected areas in L.A. already benefit from lenient height limits. Doing away with parking requirements would allow housing developers to build more of the units they are entitled to build and make for a more efficient use of land, the maps show. The group is currently working to digitize city planning codes from across the state in an effort to create more visualizations. Another potential benefit from the bill would be the dramatic increase in the number of new sites where deed-restricted affordable housing units could potentially be built if SB 827 and the affordable housing bond pass later this year, according to Brian Hanlon of California YIMBY. SB 827 would permit nonprofit developers to build affordable housing in many so-called "high-opportunity" areas throughout the state that currently prohibit dense development. The bill would also dramatically expand the production of deed-restricted affordable housing in cities with inclusionary zoning policies, since building market-rate homes also requires providing homes for low-income Californians, Hanlon explained. These changes could make deed-restricted affordable housing an additional major force in resolving the crisis by incentivizing—rather than requiring—inclusionary development along transit routes. That component as well as the other provisions of the law could generate “millions” of potential new units, according to Hanlon’s early projections. Though official estimates are still pending, the prospect for lots of new housing construction are good if SB 827 passes later this year.
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Prominent San Francisco pro-housing advocate Sonja Trauss has announced her candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, 6th District seat. The 6th District—currently represented by Jane Kim, who cannot run for reelection due to term limits—encompasses the booming South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods as well as the Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island settlements. Trauss is a well-known housing advocate who has become increasingly prominent on a national level as the head of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF), a pro-development, pro-housing group that advocates for increased housing production in San Francisco and its environs. As a result of advocacy efforts with SFBARF, Trauss has become a leader of the Bay Area’s nascent “YIMBY” (Yes In My Backyard) movement, a loose coalition of housing advocates seeking to promote increased development of varied housing types, from supportive and deed-restricted affordable housing to market-rate apartments and even luxury-oriented condominiums. The growing coalition is unified by a general belief that broadly-based and diverse housing production is one of the necessary requirements for general urban affordability. These groups promote the concept of “filtering,” housing jargon for the phenomenon by which new market-rate housing is gradually transformed into more affordable housing stock as it ages and is replaced by newer units with each successive economic cycle. Most moderate- to low-income renters, according to the premise, live in housing that was originally developed at market-rate, so limiting market-rate housing production today simply imposes a constraint on affordable housing supply further down the line while building more of can boost future supplies of affordable housing stock. The concept has its flaws, namely that the process it supports is a generational one that does not directly address contemporary affordability concerns or stop ongoing displacement phenomena. There are also concerns regarding whether “filtering” applies to luxury units, which existing communities fight against based on the belief that the production of this type of housing increases rents outright. The transition from single-issue advocate to politician (if she wins the seat) will be a welcome challenge for Trauss, who told The Architect's Newspaper (AN), “The job of Supervisor is so different from that of an issue advocate—When you’re supervisor, the only thing your constituents have in common is geography.” Trauss characterized District 6 as one of the few areas of San Francisco that has actually built new housing in adequate numbers over recent years. As a neighborhood adjacent to highways, formerly occupied by manufacturing and industry, and now full of new residents, South of Market in particular needs “wider sidewalks and calmer traffic” to ensure safety for the area’s new residents, according to Trauss. Trauss is also hoping to push the Board of Supervisors to act to alleviate homelessness in the area and is looking forward to making sure existing residents of the district’s Treasure Island area “are well taken care of” as that neighborhood prepares for the implementation of a new master plan and redevelopment scheme developed by SOM and Perkins+Will. Trauss also hopes to serve the district’s homeless population by working to fund more new supportive housing developments. She said, “Supportive housing is the thing that solves the problem for the individual on a personal basis, we need more of it. I will try to get supportive housing built in other neighborhoods, as well.” And what will become of SFBARF? It will go on, according to Trauss, who explained that the remaining team members will continue to advocate for new housing across the region and that her current position with the group will simply be filled by someone else. She said, “all the other people working on [SFBARF] are talented and dedicated, they don’t really need me."
A staggering 68.8% of Los Angeles voters in this week’s election pulled the lever against the anti-development initiative Measure S. Following the election—which, problematically, had a historically low turnout rate of 11.45%—there has been much debate within the anti-Measure S camp regarding what, if any, takeaways are to be had from the results. Taken together with this week’s passage of Measure H (an initiative focused on raising sales tax to fund housing assistance and development for formerly homeless individuals) and the passage of the transit-friendly Measure M and Measure HHH (a municipal bond-funded proposal to build 10,000 new supportive housing units, passed last November), the defeat of Measure S might suggest an electorate doubling down on a vision for a dense, equitable, and urban Los Angeles. The elephant in the room is that Los Angeles is one of the most unaffordable major cities in the world, an issue that has come to the forefront of civic discourse there as rents have increased year over year to the detriment of many deeply-rooted communities. The pro-Measure S side argued to some success that systematic corruption in the development community was fueling the production of luxury units. Those new luxury developments, Measure S proponents argued, were being pursued at the expense of rent-controlled housing in L.A.’s core communities. The “no” camp fought back by arguing that passage of Measure S would depress housing production so much that rents would grow worse still. In the end, the opposing argument—that the best way to keep rents from going any higher was to not hinder the development of more units—won out. Central in the efforts to fight Measure S was the relatively new group, Abundant Housing LA, a local collective of pro-housing advocates dedicated to building more housing of all types in the Los Angeles area. The self-described Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) group fought Measure S the old fashioned way: phone banking, canvassing, and online activism, all to much success. The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) caught up with Mark Vallianatos, communications director for Abundant Housing to discuss the election results and what Los Angeles can make of the recent election results. AN: Now that Measure S has been defeated, what are some ways Abundant Housing LA plans to harness the growing momentum for a denser, transit-oriented Los Angeles? Abundant Housing LA was formed to advocate for more housing of all types (affordable, market rate, permanent supportive, co-ops, etc). We support good projects and better policies and have grown rapidly, showing that there was a pent-up demand for an active YIMBY group in L.A. Measure S forced us to switch gears. We focused on campaigning against it because it threatened to hurt Angelenos by raising rents even higher and by forcing more people, especially the working poor and younger residents, to leave L.A. We are now excited to get back to our positive agenda of advancing housing. We will continue to support good developments that expand the number of homes in the city without displacing residents. And we hope to expand advocacy for better plans and policies. We are already engaged on a few transit and community plan updates, and will try to do more if the city follows through on accelerating community plans. We need these new plans to reverse the downzoning that has led to low vacancy rates and high housing costs. This is a tough sell, not just due to local opposition, but because planners are wary of adding more capacity than required to meet projected population growth. We also want to improve and simplify planning and entitlement processes so it is easier to construct housing in the region. AN: Ballot box Planning initiatives like Measure S have a long and problematic history in California and in Los Angeles, particularly. Is it time to revisit some of our legacy initiatives like Proposition U? Yes, we see upzoning of commercial corridors as key to allowing more space for housing without removing older rent stabilized apartments. We also want to figure out how to allow more new housing in existing residential areas. This requires a balance of preservation and allowing ‘missing middle’ housing types, so that not all new units have to fit into commercial and industrial sites. AN: There has been lots of debate recently regarding Los Angeles's lack of affordable housing, including potential measures to fund its development by taxing the construction of market-rate units. Where does Abundant Housing stand in this debate? We strongly support identifying more local funding for the construction and preservation of deeded affordable housing. We supported City of L.A. Measure HHH, for example. We are on record opposing the proposed linkage fee because it taxes the construction of housing to pay for housing. We proposed that the City identify alternative sources of funds such as a parcel tax that are A) more board based and B) do not discourage new housing. Fees on parking and/or real estate recording may also be good sources of money that do not put the burden on home construction. AN: What role (if any) is Abundant Housing LA playing with regards to housing development affiliated with the expansion of the transit system? We have begun advocating on the City of L.A.’s new transit neighborhood plans as well as Community Plans in areas with expanding transit. Our initial advocacy focuses on the Expo Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan and DTLA 2040. We also plan to advocate around the transit neighborhood plans being developed for the purple and orange lines. For each of these plans, we encourage the city to significantly upzone to take advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity of the re-establishment of rail transit in L.A. County. We also encourage density bonuses to incentivize affordable units. AN: What role can architects play in Abundant Housing LA's mission? We welcome L.A. area architects as members and/or as resources on urban design. Most of our advocacy to date has been in the City of L.A., and we have aspirations to do more in other cities in L.A. County. We rely on members to be local advocates in their neighborhood or city. In addition to encouraging more housing, we are also interested in allowing and encouraging more types and scales of development, as well as innovative construction methods, in order to expand housing choice, reflect the diversity of the region, and encourage good urban form. We would welcome architects’ expertise on housing typologies, planning and building codes, and other insights on how L.A. can add housing, enhance quality of life, adapt to climate change, and support civic culture. As a relatively new volunteer organization, we get work done by empowering members to take the lead on projects that they are passionate about. We would welcome architects’ expertise. For more on Abundant Housing LA, see their website.