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Led by Sen. Wiener, CA Housing Advocates Turn the Tide Against NIMBYs

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Two bills from San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener become law in 2024, making it easier to build affordable housing in California, (AP File)
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If California wants to build its way out of its long-term housing shortage, plenty of things stand in its way in 2024: high interest rates, sluggish local approval processes, and a persistent shortage of skilled construction workers, among others.


Ben Christopher

CalMatters

But a slew of housing bills from the 2023 legislative session going into effect on Jan. 1 promise to ease or eliminate some of the other burdens.

Among the batch of fresh housing laws is an especially high profile set by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener: Senate Bill 423 re-ups and expands a law that speeds up the approval of apartment buildings in which some units are set aside for lower-income Californians, while SB 4 does something similar for affordable housing on property owned by religious institutions and non-profit colleges.

Wiener’s two new laws set the tone of housing legislation in 2023, where ripping out barriers and boosting incentives for housing construction emerged as the dominant theme.

“The era of saying no to housing is coming to an end,” Wiener said in a statement after the two bills were signed.

YIMBYS Are Winning: Politico Headline

That was especially true for developers of purpose-built affordable housing, per policy analysts at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation in an end-of-year legislative summary.  Lawmakers, the analysts wrote, in the continuation of a “remarkable run over the last several years,” gave “more flexibility to exceed or override local zoning, greater certainty on the timing and likelihood of planning approvals, and substantial relief from (environmental) review and litigation.”

“I’ve never seen this type of consensus in the Legislature before,” said Michael Lane, state policy director for the San Francisco-based urban planning think-tank SPUR.

Or as Politico put it succinctly in a headline from late summer: “YIMBYs” — short for so-called yes in my backyard activists who push for more building — “are winning.”

Other notable victories from that camp include AB 1287, a bill by San Diego Democratic Assemblymember David Alvarez, that will give developers permission to build denser, taller buildings if they set aside additional units for middle-income earners, and SB 684, which will make it easier to divide up large parcels of land for modest clusters of townhomes and cottages.

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for the pro-development caucus. That second bill, by Merced Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero, will only apply to parts of the state already zoned for multifamily housing. Historic single-family home neighborhoods got a last-minute carve-out, leading one of the bill’s sponsors to take the unusual step of asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto their own bill (he didn’t). That eleventh-hour switcheroo demonstrated that though the political coalition opposed to state pro-density policies is on the back foot, it’s still a force to contend with.

That coalition of local governments, certain organized labor groups, and environmental justice advocates also prevented housing supply boosters from entirely rewriting the state’s signature environmental law, as some advocates had hoped earlier this year.

New Laws Make It Harder for Housing Opponents to Rely on CEQA

But a host of new laws will make it more difficult for opponents of proposed housing projects to use the California Environmental Quality Act to delay certain types of housing projects. Oakland Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks wrote a bill that instructs judges not to consider the noise of future residents as a pollutant in need of environmental mitigation, a response to one of the most headline-grabbing California court decisions of the year.

“We know we have these two million homes to get built and they’re not getting built fast enough. … Local governments just aren’t getting the job done.” — Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco

Wicks’ bill, which went into effect in September, may have gotten much of the media attention, but other, similarly intentioned bills that will become law in 2024 may prove more consequential. One, SB 439, by Berkeley Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner, will make it easier for courts to slap down “frivolous” environmental lawsuits. A second, AB 1449, by Alvarez, will shield many affordable housing projects from environmental review and a third, AB 1633, by San Francisco Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting will force cities to either approve or deny a project’s environmental review within a set time limit.

“This just points out the reason we need to continue to have this fight at the state level,” said Ting in a recent webinar touting the new policy. “We know we have these two million homes to get built and they’re not getting built fast enough…Local governments just aren’t getting the job done.”

About the Author

Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Before these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state’s economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics. Ben also has a past life as an aspiring beancounter: He has worked as a summer associate at the Congressional Budget Office and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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