California's Housing Crisis Builds Appetite To Limit Local Control
As local governments in San Diego County work to encourage more housing production to alleviate the region's housing crisis, lawmakers in Sacramento are debating changes to a long untouchable facet of California law: local control over housing and land use.
The most aggressive of housing bills introduced in the state capital is SB 827, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). The bill would require cities and counties to allow apartment or condominium buildings of four to eight stories in "transit rich areas" — defined as land within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a quarter mile of a stop on a high-frequency bus route.
Governments would also be forbidden from requiring developers to include a minimum number of parking spots per home in those areas.
"Right now around a lot of public transportation we have low-density zoning, so very few people can live within walking distance of transit," Wiener said in an interview. "And what that does is it pushes people out to live in sprawl. They have to drive everywhere, it creates gridlock on our roads, it increases carbon emissions. So we're just trying to get more housing near transit."
The scope of the state's housing crisis was laid out in a report by the California Department of Housing and Community Development released last month, which cited tension between state and local control as a key barrier to making housing more affordable.
"Local decision makers may be opposed to planning for additional growth, increasing development density, or zoning for some kinds of housing (such as homeless shelters)," the report reads. "As a result, state planning priorities are not equally achieved across communities."
Weiner's bill could open up significant development potential in San Diego, where officials have a mixed record of planning for transit-oriented development. The city's 2015 Climate Action Plan already calls for denser housing near public transit, but progress on planning for that growth has been slow and officials have struggled to quantify exactly how much density is necessary.
An update to the community growth plan in North Park, hailed by some as one of the most pro-density plans in the city, still left untouched large portions of low-density neighborhoods within walking distance of MTS bus routes. A city-commissioned analysis in 2016 found that plan, and other growth plans covering Golden Hill, Hillcrest and Bankers Hill, would all fail to achieve the city's goal of shifting half of urban commutes away from cars.
Perhaps the clearest example of San Diego officials retreating on transit-oriented development came in 2014, as the city began planning for an urban village surrounding a future trolley stop at Clairemont Drive in Bay Park. Taxpayers are spending billions of dollars extending the Blue Line from Old Town to University City, and the project's success largely depends on how many people can live within walking distance of the new stations.
Officials proposed raising height limits near Clairemont Drive station, which is set to open in 2021, aiming to allow more housing nearby. Bay Park residents organized opposition to the plans and convinced the city to back down. The trolley station plan is now being incorporated into the ongoing Clairemont Mesa Community Plan Update.
Ginger Hitzke, a local affordable housing developer, said the controversy surrounding the trolley station plan was unfortunate, and that much of the land near the Clairemont Drive station seems ripe for denser housing. She said SB 827's elimination of parking requirements near transit would be especially impactful.
"A parking space is a very, very expensive amenity on a project," she said. "If you have a project that is immediately adjacent to transit, those parking spaces become less important."
Hitzke said she was supportive of SB 827, and that some local governments have proven they cannot be trusted to make smart decisions on housing.
"City Council members are elected to make tough decisions," she said. "And if they can't do what's necessary for the community now and for the community in the future, then maybe someone else has to come in and make that decision for them."
SB 827 has attracted intense criticism. A few weeks after it was released and before any amendments were made, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín called the bill "a declaration of war on our neighborhoods." Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came out against it because it could reshape much of his city's low-density neighborhoods. Wiener has also been mocked in collages posted to Twitter.
My bill allowing more housing near transit, #SB827, has led to some slick cartoons. The only part that offends me is they think I need platform shoes to be this tall. Oh, and the high-waisted pants make me even leggier than I already am. I guess you can’t win ‘em all. pic.twitter.com/jwDlDstgwh— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) February 28, 2018
The reaction from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has been far more measured. Spokeswoman Christina Chadwick said via email: "Mayor Faulconer and Senator Wiener share the same goal: increase supply, particularly near transit, to create more housing affordability for working families. We're taking significant steps on the local level to build more housing, reduce costs and promote smart growth. We have been in contact with Senator Wiener's office to share our ideas, and we look forward to working with him on SB 827 as it moves through the legislative process."
Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) last month introduced his own housing bill that aims to incentivize building smaller and more naturally affordable housing near transit. But Gloria's bill does not touch local control over zoning or height limits — something he admitted was a political decision.
"Right now I think (housing) is the biggest issue facing California, and I'm not willing to spend time having a debate about local control," he said at a press conference on his bill last month. "I want to get stuff on the books that will actually change people's lives, and help them afford to live here."
Gloria added that he was not opposed to SB 827 and that he was open to working with Wiener on amending it.
Wiener said cities and counties would still have plenty of latitude to plan for their own growth under his bill, but that local governments have to be held accountable for their role in creating the state's housing crisis.
"We have a system where we allow communities to take 10 or 15 years to put together a housing plan, and then very little housing gets built as a result because each housing project takes years to approve and the zoning is really low," he said. "When you try something for many years and it keeps failing and it's just getting worse, you need to try something new."