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How a new law would let California pressure cities to build more

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State senator Scott Wiener explains how he wants to give teeth to state rules requiring that cities build

Construction cranes in San Francisco Shannon Mollerus

As soon as former San Francisco lawmaker Scott Wiener finished swearing in as state senator in December, he announced a new law that, if passed, would all but force cities to build more new housing until they meet state goals.

At the time the actual bill on file was a placeholder for work in progress, and Wiener didn’t announce many details. This week, once again, he took to Medium to put some meat on the plan’s bones.

Under the proposal, if a city isn’t building enough homes to meet its state-assigned Regional Housing Needs Assessment figures it would have to switch over to a severely streamlined building-approval process until they catch up.

RHNA plans cover an eight-year span. Cities would be expected to have built a quarter of their eight-year totals within two years, half within four year, and so forth. Otherwise, Sacramento will hit the accelerator on their behalf.

The law would assess new units produced at various income levels. If a city is keeping up with market-rate housing, but not affordable housing, for example, the fast-lane entitlements would apply to new affordable projects only.

New developments would be approved if they “pay a prevailing wage for construction labor” and live up to “affordability, density, zoning, historic, and environmental standards outlined in the bill,” writes Wiener writes, adding:

“SB35 will retain local control for those cities that are producing their share of housing, but create a more streamlined path for housing creation in those cities that are blocking housing or ignoring their responsibility to build.”

RHNA assumes that cities can produce the requested housing. But in reality, city government can only make room for a certain amount of housing in their general plan and then trust that developers show interest in building.

Since there’s never been any penalty for failing to build as much as the state would like, the question of whether some cities might not be able to drum up adequate supply has never come up either.

Torbak Hopper

Through a spokesperson, Wiener told Curbed SF, “If no one wants to build in a city, then whether or not they’re streamlining is irrelevant and has no impact.”

Spokesperson Jeff Cretan added, “If it turns out there’s no [developer] interest, the question then becomes why not, and are there barriers in the way?”

Senator Wiener and staff are still working on the bill. In this year’s budget, Governor Jerry Brown asked lawmakers to put forth new tools for accelerating development, but stopped short of specifics.

To be continued.