California cities forced to build more housing under newly-passed bill

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State legislators approved a raft of housing bills Friday afternoon, including a key measure that would force cities and counties to loosen restrictions on building more multi-family housing.

Senate Bill 35 would require communities that are falling behind on state-mandated housing goals to expedite projects that meet zoning requirements. This streamlining would save developers time and money and reduce the potential for lawsuits by neighbors. Developers, in the meantime, would have to pay union-level wages to construction workers on projects containing low-income housing. 

The bill is one of three major pieces to the Legislature's housing package initially developed by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders to address the state's crippling housing crisis.

While S.B. 35 eases regulations, while the other two measures create funding for low-income housing. Before S.B. 35's final vote Friday afternoon, sponsor Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said communities need to meet their housing production goals as set in the state's Regional Housing Needs Assessment.

"We are past the point where we can treat individual cities as kingdoms onto themselves where they can decide whether or not they want to produce any housing," Wiener said.  

Wiener's legislation divided cities in southern California. Several, such as Thousand Oaks, went on record as opposing the bill, arguing that it would hurt residents’ quality of life. Peter Gilli, who works in community development in Thousand Oaks, said the measure takes away local control on issues such as parking.

"I think there are scenarios where something could come through that could be very objectionable and cause some long-term impacts on most areas of Thousand Oaks," Gilli said. 

But Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti voiced his support for the housing package, including SB 35, as a way to boost housing production. 

'To really solve the housing crisis, no city can do it alone," said Ben Winter, who advises the mayor on housing. "It really requires every local jurisdiction and unincorporated area around us to also step up to the plate."

The housing package was the Legislature's first major attempt to take control of the housing crisis since it spiraled out of control in the years following the recession.

The most controversial of the three major pieces of the housing package — S.B. 2 — is projected to raise more than $250 million a year by tacking on a $75 fee to real estate transactions, excluding home sales but including mortgage refinancing. It struggled to win two-thirds support and overcame its biggest hurdle Thursday night in a nail-bitingly close vote in the Assembly.  

Another bill, S.B. 3 , also required a two-thirds vote because it involves placing a $4 billion bond on the 2018 statewide ballot to go toward building low-income housing and home loans for veterans.

The housing package, which includes a total of 15 bills, next heads to the governor's desk for a signature. 

“For millions of people, it is next to impossible to buy a house or even find an apartment they can afford,” Brown said in a statement Friday. “These 15 bills will spur the building of more housing and increase the number of Californians who can actually afford to buy or rent.”

Wiener said the Legislature had to do more to solve the housing crisis, and the package of bills would not solve the problem but was a "huge first step."

"This is not a city-by-city issue," Wiener said. "This is a statewide issue, and it’s time for the state to step up and recognize that."


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