California Needs a Housing-First Agenda: My 2018 Housing Package

Last year, California began a pivot from a housing-last policy to a housing-first policy. After a half century of bad housing policy—policy designed to make it incredibly hard and expensive to create housing—we began the long process of righting the ship and recognizing that housing must be a top priority.

Yet, even with last year’s fantastic housing package— 15 strong pro-housing bills, including my housing streamlining bill, SB 35 — much work remains, and we must continue our momentum toward a better housing future for the residents of our state. Whether in transit-rich city centers, suburbs, or rural areas, people throughout California need better access to housing. California’s housing shortage is statewide — with far too many people struggling with housing costs — and we need statewide housing solutions.

At the signing ceremony for the 2017 housing package, I joined various other members of the Legislature in declaring that the package was the beginning, not the end, of our work. Today, I’m announcing three new proposals to continue down the path of putting housing first.

These three bills (1) mandate denser and taller zoning near transit; (2) create a more data-driven and less political Regional Housing Needs Assessment process (RHNA provides local communities with numerical housing goals) and require communities to address past RHNA shortfalls; and (3) make it easier to build farmworker housing while maintaining strong worker protections. California must continue to reform its housing policies and create more opportunities for housing, whether in transit-rich city centers or in rural areas where workers need a place to live.

SB 827— Mandating Denser & Taller Zoning Near Transit

California has a number of communities with strong access to transit, and we continue to invest in public transportation. Too often, however, the areas around transit lines and stops are zoned at very low densities, even limiting housing to single family homes around major transit hubs like BART, Caltrain, Muni, and LA Metro stations.

Mandating low-density housing around transit makes no sense. It pushes more people to drive by leading to sprawl, thus undermining our economy and environment. It also leads to significant inequities, as limited density around transit spikes the prices of transit-accessible housing, meaning lower income and working class people struggle to live there and are pushed out into non-transit areas.

Transit-rich areas are *exactly* where we should be putting dense housing. We must build more housing near transit so that we can reduce reliance on cars and so that more people can access the benefits of transit.

Increasing housing density around transit is also one of California’s most promising sources of new housing, according to a recent California analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey, creating up to three million new transit-accessible homes:

SB 827 creates density and height zoning minimums near transit. Under SB 827, parcels within a half-mile of high-connectivity transit hub — like BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations — will be required to have no density maximums (such as single family home mandates), no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. (Developers can, of course, decide to build below that height.) A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it. SB 827 allows for many more smaller apartment buildings, described as the “missing middle” between high-rise steel construction and single family homes.

SB 827 is a strong step toward denser housing near transit and a more sustainable development patterns. I’m proud to be working with California YIMBY and other advocates on this bill.

SB 828— RHNA Reform: Relying on Data, Not Politics, in Projecting Housing Needs

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), which is how California determines how much housing each local community should build, is based on a flawed methodology that significantly underestimates population growth and how much housing will be needed. In addition, the current RHNA allocation process is non-standardized, insufficiently connected to actual data, and highly politicized, thus giving some communities advantages when assigning state housing goalsToo often wealthier and more politically connected areas are able to pressure for lower housing allocations, while lower-income areas receive higher housing allocations. This pushes a disproportionate amount of development into lower-income communities.

Graph from a study by the Haas Institute For a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley showing problems with current RHNA process

SB 828 creates a clearer, fairer, more data-driven, and more equitable process for how the state and regional bodies assign RHNA numbers to local communities. It does so by requiring a more data-focused, objective process and by creating stronger guardrails, thus reducing the wiggle room jurisdictions use to lower their RHNA allocations. SB 828 also requires communities to begin making up for past RHNA deficits. California has a huge housing deficit due to years of under-production, and we need to dig out of that hole.

SB 829— Expanding Farmworker Housing While Maintaining Strong Worker Protections

The state’s housing shortage isn’t just an urban problem — it affects rural areas, particularly those that depend on agriculture. Many farms have surplus land that could be used to build safe and secure housing for farmworkers, but the land needs to be rezoned. Unfortunately, this rezoning is often blocked by communities that don’t want housing for farmworkers. This leads farmworkers to be housed in unsafe and crowded conditions, like in distant motels or in their cars, and hurts our ability to draw workers to California’s farms.

SB 829 creates a by-right process where farm owners and operators can dedicate agricultural land for employee housing. The owner of the housing will finance and develop it by-right, provided it meets certain objective standards. The housing must to be operated and managed by an independent non-profit to ensure that the worker-tenants have protections from employer intimidation, and workers will receive strict tenant, labor, and immigration protections.

No one bill or package of bills will end California’s massive housing shortage. Yet, we are making progress by setting stronger standards to stop our downward housing spiral, which threatens our state’s diversity, economy, environment, health, and quality of life. These three bills continue our move in a positive direction for housing in California.