Goodbye, California Zoning Laws, as Legislature Makes Authoritarian Grab for Land Control with 9 Proposals
The intention is to strip local governments of any power to control densification
July 26, 2020
Between the State Senate and the State Assembly, nine bills are under consideration that would drastically change the balance of power regarding land use and zoning in California. Each bill seeks to solve the state's "housing crisis" with attacks against local zoning ordinances, in particular those that restrict some areas to single-family homes.
Stripping local governments of their ability to decide their own physical appearance, these laws give the state government power to dictate higher density in every neighborhood. Since the proposed rationale for this massive power grab, a housing crisis, is an illusion, one is left to ponder the real reason the state government wants to add over a million residents and pack them in like sardines.
What the proposed laws do:
In a "set-spike" strategy, SB 902 ALLOWS local city councils to zone for 10 housing units on any one parcel. The "spike" comes in AB 725, which REQUIRES cities to put their required portion of moderate- to above-moderate housing in neighborhoods with at least 2 units of housing per parcel. Yes, weirdly, AB 725 demands that middle class people live in multi-family housing. In any case, it's clear a local government cannot accomplish the requirement without having the permission. It is no coincidence that State Senator Scott Wiener, who introduced SB 902, also co-authored AB 725. Neither is it coincidence that Wiener was the author of the wildly unpopular SB 50, another densification attempt which failed in the legislature last year.
The other potential laws supplement or build off of the same idea. AB 2345 increases the density allowed over local zoning ordinances if a project includes affordable housing. Density bonuses are already given developers for affordable housing units, but AB 2345 increases them from a maximum of 35 percent more dense to 50 percent more dense. SB 1085 also provides additional density bonuses for housing projects that include moderate-income units. Both proposed laws reduce required parking. This would be a state law - not what the local government might want.
Some of the proposed bills, like SB 1120, act as insurance. Should SB 902 not pass, SB 1120 would require cities to permit, by right, any duplex or the subdivision of any urban lot. This would have the same effect as SB 902 and would mean no more R-1, single-family housing neighborhoods. If someone wants to build a duplex there or subdivide a lot, no city can stop them.
Another proposed law goes beyond mere permissions for denser construction but act as incentives for such densification. AB 3040 gives a credit of 0.1 unit toward the city's required Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) for every parcel the city allows to contain at least four dwelling units.
(The RHNA is the number of new housing units a region is supposed to accommodate. Yes, our state government requires each locale to zone for additional housing units. Penalties are assessed in various ways should a city fail to supply the required number of potential housing sites.)
According to AB 3040, if a city were required by the RHNA to zone for 1,000 units but rezoned all of their 900 single-family lots to allow fourplexes, they could reduce their requirement to 910 units.
And finally, we have the punishment law, AB 3107, authored by our own Santa Monica city council alumnus, Richard Bloom. It's a real beauty, designed to take effect only if a city fails to meet its RHNA quota. Here a local authority MUST allow a housing development to reach a height or achieve a density equal to the highest and densest allowed within a half mile. At the very least, the project should be able to reach 36 feet in height. That would mean a three-story building in any neighborhood.
One law, SB 995, eases the environmental restrictions that might get in the way of all of this construction.
Aside from the clear objective of creating denser communities and shoving more housing down our throats, the ancillary menace in all of these proposed laws is the stripping of local communities from the power to decide what they want their city to look like. The state would take control of all local zoning. And that control would look dense.
These bills were all introduced in February of this year, with the exception of SB 902, which was introduced January 30. All are an apparent reaction to the public rejection of SB 50, which would have required local governments to upzone "job-rich" and "transit rich" areas, even if these comprised existing single-family neighborhoods. All current bills proceeded through committee and have been approved by their respective house of the legislature while a pandemic raged across the state, closing nearly all businesses and throwing millions of people into unemployment. Each of them has been read at least once in their opposing house of the state legislature. Bills must be read three times and are generally voted on at the third reading.
These bills progressed quickly through the legislative process while you were worrying about how to work from home, keep your child attentive to online learning, the fact you might have lost your job altogether, or dealing with sickness, some of which has been untreatable while medical facilities were closed or deferring appointments.
Clearly, our state elected leaders felt increasing the number of residential units in the state merited their full attention even under these trying circumstances, circumstances under which one might rationally wonder if 1.8 million more people are still going to want to live here.
The votes of your elected leaders:
Senator Ben Allen: Aye on SB 1120, SB 995, SB 1085 and NVR on SB 902
Assemblyman Richard Bloom: Aye on AB 725, AB 2345, AB 3040, and author of AB 1279 and AB 3107