Current events being what they are, I’m happy to be writing about something positive. Once again, we’re getting an ambitious housing reform package in the California legislature. The various bills focus on removing obstacles to new housing and are a sign of the growing momentum Yimby activists have built up over the last few years.
The permitting process for new housing in California is the bureaucratic equivalent of American Ninja Warrior. Localities use restrictive zoning and discretionary approvals to block new construction. When faced with state level oversight, California cities have historically leaned on bad faith requirements to ensure theoretically permitted and approved housing remains commercially infeasible. And as if that weren’t enough, “concerned citizens” can use the ever popular CEQA lawsuit to kill projects themselves (independent of direct involvements from electeds).
This year’s housing package helps reduce the difficulty of getting a project through the gauntlet. Still an obstacle course, but with a few less water hazards and a slightly shorter warped wall. Still suboptimal, but directionally correct in a very big way.
There are several pro-supply bills in the package, but two are especially worth calling out.
SB 6 allows for residential development in areas currently zoned for commercial office or retail space. The bill would also create opportunities for streamlined approval if some portion of a proposed project site has been vacant. This last bit seems to be intended to encourage redevelopment of dead malls and similar retail heavy areas that could be better put to use as housing.
SB 9 allows for duplexes and lot splits in single family zones by right. This type of missing middle housing could – at least in certain parts of California – be new housing that’s less expensive then existing stock; that’s a great outcome from a policy perspective, but would also come with the political upside of breaking the association between market rate and luxury.
There are several other pro-supply bills in the package, but most of them deal with the more arcane minutiae of California’s land use system. Folks can check out SPUR’s legislative explainer (see the Land Use, Zoning and Streamlined Approvals section) for the TLDR on each.
The big takeaway is that we’re nowhere near a bill that institutes Japanese style zoning with by-right approval state wide, so continued progress pulling apart the gordian knot of California’s land use regime is something to be excited about.
Beyond the potential policy wins, it’s worth appreciating where we’re at politically. Every year for the last several, we’ve had more and more state legislators authoring more and more pro housing supply bills. Yimby Activism has taken a settled policy debate as a foundation and begun building a sustainable political movement on top. I’m sure all of us are hoping this year is better than the last. In the area of state housing policy in California, I’m at least hopeful we’ve got a chance.