You may have heard some rumblings about this in recent weeks, but Governor Jerry Brown has been pushing through a revision to the state's density bonus program that would potentially wipe out the ability of local governments to stall developments or conduct design reviews, in an effort to streamline the development process and make housing development easier. It's would amount to a statewide policy change that makes residential development more possible "as of right," meaning that developers have a right to build, within a smaller set of guidelines and so long as they produce a minimum amount of below-market-rate units.
The Chronicle's editorial board has come out strongly in favor of this bill, following a report last week from the state's Legislative Analyst's Office that calls the bill "an important first step toward addressing California’s housing shortage."
The idea is that developers of urban, multi-family housing would have to include 20 percent affordable units in any development across the state in order to qualify for fast-tracking, but that number goes down to 10 percent if the development is close to transit. For all the specific requirements, check out this explainer on real-estate site The Registry.
This type of sweeping policy change is the worst nightmare of many longtime San Franciscans who are fond of having the ability to appeal developers' plans, take part in time-consuming design reviews, join vocal neighborhood groups that have sway with Planning, request changes based on various concerns, and fight for moratoriums on market-rate development as many sought to do last November with Prop I.
Brown has long been a critic of government intervention when it comes to housing development, and in 2011 he famously killed off California's decades-old system of Redevelopment Agencies which were one of the only state-endorsed tools for funding affordable housing using bonds funded by projected tax revenue from larger commercial and market-rate projects in "blighted" redevelopment areas. As the Business Times points out, this was all part of Brown's fiscal conservatism, and at the time was a move to trim what he saw as a huge and no longer necessary piece of the state budget.
Brown has also admitted before that the state's California Environmental Quality Act has been too often abused by foes of development, stretching the definition of what "environmental concerns" are to stall projects of all kinds at the local level.
In the same vein, this new new bill, AB2501, which was set for an Assembly vote as early as today, provides no new funding for affordable housing, and leaves that on the backs of private developers. Instead, it seeks to remove the regulatory burdens that developers always complain about, making development all around less risky and less expensive, while insisting on affordable requirements statewide that are less strict than what we already have in San Francisco but more stringent than in many other municipalities.
48 Hills is quick to sound the alarm of what this will mean for SF neighborhoods where the public's voice in big development projects is always loud. They cite a figure that "two-thirds of existing Bay Area residents can’t afford market-rate units," though the data for that is unclear, and suggest that this "free pass" for developers only promises to create "miniscule amounts of affordable housing."
Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim are already pushing to amend the bill to exempt places like San Francisco that already have larger affordability requirements and our own density bonuses. But that may be missing the point given that SF has one of the most intense and costly processes for seeking development approvals regardless. So far neither SF Assemblymen Phil Ting or David Chiu has offered to introduce such an amendment, as 48 Hills notes.
Ben Metcalf, director of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, tells the Business Times that the issue is really that funding to satisfy the state's dire need for affordable housing just doesn't exist in any adequate amount, so the state's only choice is to promote more supply. And, he adds, "There are just too many examples of projects that suck up hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions" while going through multi-year approval processes, even when they do include large amounts of below-market-rate stock.
Meanwhile, once again today, New York-based Gawker gets all up in our grill telling us we need to just build more housing, talking to us as if we are idiots because for some reason this is Gawker's job, and they just figured out a weak spot with which to come for SF on a monthly basis. Once again, Gawker, kindly shut the fuck up.
Rest assured that this bill will spark plenty of debate in the state Senate and likely in the media in the coming weeks.