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Can California’s housing problems be solved? Bill changed to speed building

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is the author of Senate Bill 35. The bill would create a process for streamlined approval of housing projects.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is the author of Senate Bill 35. The bill would create a process for streamlined approval of housing projects. The Associated Press

A California lawmaker has made a key change to expand the reach of a plan designed to speed up construction of affordable housing projects.

The move suggests the Legislature, due to return from summer recess Monday for a final four-week crush of business in the 2017 session, is moving toward agreement on a package of bills aimed at easing the Golden State’s housing crisis.

The measure by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would require cities and counties to offer expedited review for affordable housing developers. Gov. Jerry Brown has demanded a quicker approval process as part of any package that includes more money for affordable housing. The lack of agreement on such legislation scuttled last summer’s talks to allocate $400 million to help underwrite housing projects.

Until a few weeks ago, Senate Bill 35 applied to infill sites in “urbanized areas” as defined in state law. But amid intense Capitol talks involving the Brown administration, housing advocates and others, Wiener amended the bill to apply the U.S. Census definitions of “urbanized areas” and “urbanized clusters.”

That greatly expands the bill’s impact, covering hundreds more small and mid-size cities, such as Davis and Folsom in the Sacramento area, based on a review of census data.

“I think it makes it a better bill,” Wiener said of the change. “But I don’t think the change switched anyone’s position.”

 

Impact of affordable housing bill

As originally written, Senate Bill 35 – a measure meant to streamline the approval of affordable housing – would have applied only to some cities in the Sacramento region. Recent revisions mean the proposal would apply to most cities in the state.
Map of local cities by affected by bill 
Source: SB 35, U.S. Census
The Sacramento Bee

Nearly a dozen bills could be part of this year’s affordable housing debate. They include a $3 billion affordable housing bond for the 2018 ballot and a new $75 fee on real estate filings to raise money for affordable housing projects.

Wiener and other supporters of SB 35 say it will spur the construction of new housing. Some critics, though, say the bill would erode local control, and the California Building Industry Association objects to provisions requiring developers who want the expedited approval to pay prevailing wages on those projects and comply with worker training standards.

The association said the wage and training rules would increase housing expenses, undermining the bill’s intent.

“If the costs outweigh the benefit of the streamlining, we are concerned about the number of projects that will seek to take advantage of it,” the association wrote Wiener in a June 30 letter.

The definition of where the bill should apply hasn’t sparked the same level of disagreement, but it has far-reaching implications.

Under state law, an “urbanized area” is a city of 100,000 people or more, or a group of contiguous smaller cities with a combined population of at least 100,000. That leaves out many cities of less than 100,000.

But in the view of the U.S. Census, an “urban area” is either an “urbanized area” of 50,000 people or more, or an “urban cluster” of 2,500 or more people. Almost all of the 482 incorporated cities and towns in the state overlap a census-defined urban area.

Housing advocate Brian Hanlon is using financial backing from Silicon Valley tech executives to start a new political venture in Sacramento called California YIMBY – or “Yes in My Back Yard.”

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