California housing bill offers local control to Sonoma County, cities statewide to boost homebuilding

With the statewide housing affordability crunch worsening, California lawmakers are taking another crack at passing landmark legislation to force cities and counties to loosen development rules to allow mid-rise apartments near transit hubs and townhouses in single-?family home neighborhoods.

Such a measure stalled last year, but this time around the legislation introduced this week adds a key wrinkle giving communities two years to draft their own plans to boost high-density home construction.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 50, still would require municipalities to build apartment complexes, such as near the North Bay’s SMART commuter rail line, and change zoning rules in single-family neighborhoods to allow for four-unit townhomes called fourplexes. Also, local development plans would need state approval and could not disproportionately concentrate new housing in low-income areas, among other things.

California is experiencing the lowest homeownership rate since the 1940s, said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who co-authored the legislation with Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

“We are in crisis mode,” McGuire said in an interview. “There is no perfect solution, which is why we’re advancing critical tools to help solve this crisis, to help expedite the development of ... housing connected to transit.”

The legislation reintroduced Monday with revisions comes with a narrow time frame for approval. The deadline for the bill to pass the Senate is Jan. 31. A similar measure was shelved in legislative committee last spring, stalling what was viewed as the most radical proposal to address the escalating housing costs and availability of affordable homes statewide.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that cities want flexibility to implement this kind of legislation in a way that works best for them,” Wiener said in a statement, alluding to the two-year window cities and counties would have to achieve increases in building apartments and homes under the bill.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to weigh in this year on the legislation and his influence could go a long way to determine the fate of measure. McGuire Tuesday deflected a question about whether he thought Newsom soon would voice support for the amended legislation. The governor last year expressed disappointment when the similar bill stalled.

Smaller communities with fewer than 50,000 residents would be subject to less stringent development rules than cities larger than that but would still have to allow construction of fourplexes in single-family home neighborhoods. Santa Rosa and Petaluma, each with more than 50,000 people, would have to allow among other things building one floor higher than the maximum permitted if a housing development proposal is located within a half mile of a Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station.

Santa Rosa City Council last year set a goal of having 500 new apartments under construction downtown by Nov. 2020.

“There’s a lot of similarities, and I think it’s right in line with what we’re trying to do in Santa Rosa,” assistant city manager David Guhin said of the amended Senate legislation. “Hopefully we can be a model, or a test case for these types of aggressive policies.”

Sonoma County needs up to 30,000 new homes over the next five years to meet its housing needs, according to an estimate county officials gave last year. Yet from 2011 to 2018, only 5,000 new houses and apartments were built countywide - and the 2017 fires destroyed about 5,300 homes in a single day.

State officials reported last year that California needed more than 1.8 million new homes by 2025 to keep up with projected population growth. A 2016 study from McKinsey Global Institute, part of the prominent consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said California should build as many as 3.5 million new homes by 2025 - a goal that Newsom has adopted.

Meanwhile, the state’s median single-family home price is $550,000, more than twice the national average. In Sonoma County, that median home price was $649,000 in November, the latest data available from the California Association of Realtors.

Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy said the amended housing bill seemed like “baby steps in the right direction,” but he remains wary how the legislation would affect the entire county.

The zoning changes proposed by Wiener and McGuire’s legislation might make sense in San Francisco where residents of all income levels commonly rely on public rail like the Muni Metro, Healy said. That’s not the case for SMART, a north-south rail line from Sonoma County airport to Larkspur in Marin County that only began service in August 2017 and is working to boost ridership.

“You don’t ride it to school or you don’t ride it to grocery shopping,” Healy said of SMART. “At most, you go to work and back so it’s more used for commuting.”

It’s unclear if Wiener and McGuire’s legislation will garner sufficient support in the Senate, particularly among fellow Democrats who were among the most hostile to the plan.

Last April, Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, shelved the earlier bill before a vote in the appropriations committee he chairs.

Portantino on Monday told the Los Angeles Times he hadn’t yet seen Wiener’s changes, but expressed concerns the new bill would prioritize market-?rate housing instead of low-income development without ensuring new streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure would come alongside homebuilding.

The measure has to pass the appropriations committee before a vote can be taken on the Senate floor.

Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said he favors the amended legislation.

“The bottom line is that we need to do a better job building housing,” Dodd said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate Senator Wiener’s efforts to make it easier to build housing, especially affordable infill projects. His new amendments providing greater local control, while still holding local governments accountable, is a big step in the right direction.”

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