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Proposed state law tells cities: Build more, or we’ll do it for you

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San Francisco’s new state senator pitches housing bill mere hours into his term

A photo of the Capitol Building in Sacramento. Victoria Lipov

Every California city is required to build a certain amount of housing to meet the state’s overall housing goals.

And a lot of places just plain seem to ignore the mandate. Earlier this year, former Palo Alto Planning Commissioner Kate Downing opined that the Regional Housing Needs Assessments lack so much as a built-in slap on the wrist.

A new law proposed in Sacramento would put some spurs to it by telling cities to start building before the state steps in to expedite the process.

If SB 35 eventually passes the governor’s desk, cities not pulling their weight would be hit with a Sacramento-designed, streamlined development process forcing them to fast track projects.

Local governments guard authority over hometown development quite jealously, and the new rules would play that to the state’s advantage by threatening loss of control.

San Francisco’s own Scott Wiener introduced the bill hours after being sworn in as state senator on Monday.

As a local lawmaker, Wiener frequently pushed to make development and construction easier. It took him less than the length of a leisurely lunch to start playing the same tune in the capital.

It’s not yet clear what the streamlined entitlements process would look like or how far behind a city would have to fall to provoke it. The version of SB 35 on file right now says barely anything, and looks like a placeholder until the real thing is finished.

This is something of a variation on a theme: Governor Jerry Brown previously tried to override local controls with an aggressive housing law of his own, only to see it chloroformed in the senate.

Wiener’s way allows cities to stay in the driver’s seat—as long as they keep pace. “Local communities, more often than not, know what is best for residents,” he says via Medium.

“[But] local control should mean that communities get to decide how they comply with housing goals, not whether they comply.”

Under the 2014-2022 RHNA, San Francisco should build about 3,608 new homes every year. Which the present construction pipeline will probably meet, although things get a little sketchy after 2020.

The rest of the Bay Area is expected to come up with nearly 160,000 homes over the same period. Including nearly 2,000 in Palo Alto and 83 in Brisbane.