California Housing Bill Aims to Eliminate 'Zombie Zoning'

Updated: Feb 26

  • A package of California state bills seeks to strengthen collection of housing data statewide, and eliminate obscure loopholes that can be used to prohibit multi-family housing in areas already zoned for density

  • One bill, called SB 477, would require cities to collect data on the use of SB 35, a bill enacted in 2018, to build new housing. That law has been invoked in the development of hundreds of affordable units in San Francisco since it was passed

  • Even accounting for recent price drops, San Francisco remains the most expensive housing market in the country with only 20% of residents earning enough to afford a home in the City

  • With a median home price of $1.6 million, a household must earn a minimum income of $292,800 a year to afford a home in San Francisco

  • State Sen. Scott Wiener, who introduced the bills, expressed optimism about their chances of success and praised recent moves by Berkeley and Sacramento away from exclusionary single-family zoning

A package of housing bills seeks to eliminate hidden barriers to housing production and boost accountability among cities amid an ongoing shortage of affordable housing in San Francisco and statewide.


The bills, introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener, center around raising standards for housing data collection and eliminating obscure loopholes that can be used to kill multi-family housing even in areas already zoned for density under state or local rules.


The latter bill, called SB 478, "is a wonky bill in many ways, having to do with floor area ratios and minimum lot sizes," said Wiener. "These are 'housing nerd' concepts, but are actually profoundly important because these are two issues and strategies that sadly many cities use to make it impossible to build multi-unit housing."


The bill establishes minimum standards on floor area ratios and minimum lot sizes on areas already zoned for multi-unit housing, making it more difficult for cities to impose excessive restrictions on those two concepts as a way to make apartment construction unfeasible. The bill does not change existing zoning or height requirements.


"Some might refer to this as zombie zoning," Wiener said.


SB 478 is accompanied by several other housing-related bills on deck in the 2021 legislative session that, if approved, could speed up housing production in cities that have failed to meet housing needs. Another bill, SB 477, would add new requirements to the annual housing progress reports that local governments must submit to the California's Department of Housing and Community Development.


If enacted, that bill would require cities to, among other things, collect data on the use of SB 35, a bill enacted in 2018 that exempted certain affordable housing projects from discretionary review. In San Francisco, that law has been cited in a number of ultimately successful affordable housing developments. Those include a 260-unit building at 1068 Mission, a 203-unit development at 921 Howard, a group housing development totaling 270 rooms at 457-475 Minna, and several others.


"[SB 35]is singularly responsible for the most significant production of 100% affordable housing projects in San Francisco," said Todd David, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition. "Every affordable housing developer will invoke SB 35 in their application...it is objectively true that the bill has had a tremendous impact."


Other housing bills under consideration this legislative session include SB 10, a "gentle density" bill that would make it easier for cities to build denser housing in areas close to job centers or transit; and SB 234, which would create a $100 million forgivable loan program to fund housing for transitional age youth, such as those exiting the foster care system, that may otherwise be at risk for housing insecurity.


Wiener's office expressed optimism that housing bills such as SB 10 have a good chance of success this legislative cycle, and praised recent moves by Berkeley and Sacramento to eliminate zoning that allows single-family homes exclusively. Wiener previously sought to end single-family zoning at the state level with SB 50, which would have mandated that cities allow denser housing near transit and job centers, but prior versions of that bill have been either defeated or shelved.


"The tides are changing, and I am hopeful about the future," Wiener said. “I hope to see my own city, San Francisco, live up to its progressive values and follow suit. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country. It’s time we end mandated single-family zoning and legalize multifamily apartments and affordable housing throughout our great city.”


Even accounting a sharp drop in rents during the COVID pandemic, San Francisco remains the most expensive housing market in the country.


According to a survey from the California Association of Realtors, only 20% of San Francisco residents can afford to buy a home in the City. The median price of a San Francisco home was $1.6 million in the fourth quarter of last year, requiring a household to earn a minimum income of $292,800 a year to be able to afford a mortgage in the City.


Housing affordability, defined as the percentage of the population that earns enough to buy a median-priced home, has been plummeting statewide since 2012. Only 27% of Californians could afford to buy a home last quarter, compared to 55% in the broader U.S.


In San Francisco, where 73% of land is zoned for single-family homes and duplexes only, local leaders have floated more modest proposals to expand housing production compared to moves by neighboring Berkeley and Sacramento to eliminate exclusionary zoning.


Mayor London Breed has signaled plans to introduce a ballot measure that would exempt housing developments from San Francisco’s lengthy bureaucratic process, which can drag out for years, if they are either 100% affordable or include 15% more affordable units than are otherwise required by the City.


Earlier this month, Sup. Rafael Mandelman announced plans to introduce two pieces of housing legislation: One to allow fourplexes near transit stations and on corner lots citywide, and another to curb the conversion of existing housing into large mansions.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup
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