California Lawmakers Advance Plan for Denser Housing

For counties with more than 600,000 people, the bill would make communities approve denser building around rail, ferry and bus stops as well as areas with a high number of jobs

California lawmakers advanced a proposal Wednesday to spur more housing near transportation and jobs and make it easier to turn single-family homes into fourplexes as the state grapples with a lack of affordable housing.

The measure, a compromise between two Democratic senators, sets different requirements for small and large counties. Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Mike McGuire, who represents the coast from just north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, announced their plan at the start of Wednesday's public hearing, giving advocates who came to testify little chance to digest the changes.

"What works for downtown Los Angeles doesn't work for a county of 600,000 or less," McGuire said. "I'm also a believer that no community should see dramatic change, but every community should see some change. I do believe this bill is trying to strike that balance."

California has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs, and prices are increasingly becoming out of reach for rents and potential homeowners. Lawmakers from both parties, developers and tenants alike are calling for changes, but there's little agreement on what works best. Some tenant groups argued the proposal would fuel gentrification, while others said encouraging more building benefits everyone. Many local governments opposed the bill because it usurps their authority to design neighborhoods.

"What cities will do in response to a bill like this is sue the state," said David Reyes, director of Pasadena's planning and community development department. "We will no longer have good planning within the city."

The compromise takes elements of both Wiener's and McGuire's bill and applies standards statewide. It must clear another Senate committee before going to the Senate floor.

Across the board, it would be easier to build fourplexes in residential areas typically reserved for single-family homes. Four-unit buildings could be constructed on vacant land or by converting homes, provided the square footage and exterior walls remain largely intact. It would not allow existing homes to be demolished and replaced.

For counties with more than 600,000 people, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, the bill would make communities approve denser building around rail, ferry and bus stops as well as areas with a high number of jobs. Wiener has argued California needs denser building in those areas to give people more options for living near where they work. It aims to stop suburban sprawl that's prompting residents to commute farther from home to work, clogging California's roads and spewing more pollutants into the air.

Counties with fewer than 600,000 people — 43 of the state's 58 counties — would encourage denser building around ferry and rail stops only, with more limits how that building looks. Areas at very high risk of wildfire and many coastal zones would be exempt from the new requirements.

The new proposal requires that a certain percentage of any new building be set aside as affordable housing, designed for people who make less than the area median income. It does not specify the percentage as lawmakers continue to negotiate with advocacy groups. Statewide, the proposal also includes exemptions for "sensitive communities," which include cities with high segregation and poverty as well as environmental challenges.

Laura Raymond, director of the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, said the bill doesn't require enough of the units to be designated for affordable housing and that it lacks specifics on how "sensitive communities" would be chosen and given resources to develop their own housing plans.

"We're working really hard to make sure that this bill is changed to do more to protect communities and provide value for low-income renters," she said Tuesday.

The density proposals were among a slew of contentious housing bills up for debate this week. Later Wednesday, a Senate committee will take up a proposal to provide long-term money for affordable housing, and on Thursday two proposals aimed at expanding rent control and capping rent increases are before Assembly committees.

Rent control proposals have failed in the past, including last November at the ballot. A nonprofit that bankrolled the rent control ballot measure has filed paperwork to mount another ballot measure in 2020 if the Legislature doesn't act.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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