SB 827 Retains an Awful Lot of Local Control and Community Planning

A few months ago, I introduced SB 827, my bill to allow more housing near public transportation. The bill has triggered a statewide, very robust discussion about our dire housing situation, the need to do a lot more to address it — as opposed to nibbling around the edges — and the role the state should play (or not play) in setting standards. I am extremely appreciative of the engagement of so many people, including those who are critics of the bill. The dialogue and feedback has been very helpful, and we will shortly be making amendments to the bill based on that feedback.

While SB 827 sets some basic state standards for local zoning around public transportation — and in that area certainly impacts local control — it retains significant local control in many areas. Given some inaccurate information circulating around the bill — including claims that SB 827 is a complete state takeover of land use — I want to make sure people understand what the bill does and what it doesn’t do.

SB 827 helps address a grim reality facing California:

  • We have a housing deficit approaching 4 million homes and growing;
  • That deficit has exploded housing costs, leading to evictions and displacement of a huge number of people, sometimes out of state entirely;
  • Because coastal job centers, with strong transit access, have not created nearly enough housing, people are pushed inland, into sprawl and huge commutes, which increases inland housing costs and undermines our climate goals;
  • We have major transit infrastructure surrounded by low-density zoning — for example, mandating single family homes or two unit buildings and banning even small apartment buildings;
  • As we close our huge housing deficit, we should focus those new homes around transit, rather than simply creating more sprawl, covering up farmland and open space, clogging our freeways with mega-commuters, and increasing carbon emissions.

SB 827 sets baseline standards for local zoning near public transportation (i.e., within a half mile of a major transit hub or a quarter mile of a high-frequency bus stop). It forbids arbitrary density limits (e.g., mandates that only one or two housing units can be built on a parcel near transit); it provides that a city cannot mandate maximum heights below typically 4–5 stories; and eliminates minimum parking requirements in these transit-adjacent areas (parking requirements significantly increase the cost of housing and result in less housing being built).

These zoning baselines constitute state intervention in local zoning, no doubt about it. And we can debate that issue vigorously. The state has overridden local zoning in the past — for example, the longstanding state affordable housing density bonus (allowing greater height and density and eliminating parking requirements in projects with higher affordability) and secondary unit mandates. SB 827 constitutes an additional state policy determination that greater density is warranted in a particular situation (proximity to public transportation).

Some have come away, however, with a misconception (sometimes through a misunderstanding of the bill and sometimes, unfortunately, due to deliberate misinformation spread by a few of the bill’s opponents) that the bill eliminates all local control. That is simply untrue.

Here are a number of ways in which SB 827 retains local control and the ability of local communities to plan and shape their neighborhoods:

  • Local project approval: SB 827 does not in any way affect the way in which individual projects are approved. The process in place today for approving projects will be the process in place if and when SB 827 becomes law. For example, if a conditional use permit is required today, it will be required after SB 827. If community meetings are required today, they will be required tomorrow.
  • Local design standards: SB 827 does not preclude local design standards. Cities can still adopt and enforce design standards relating to architecture, setbacks, streetscaping, and so forth. The bill does constrain abusive design standards whose purpose is to dramatically shrink the size of buildings, but not the overwhelming majority of design standards that are simply intended to have well-designed and configured buildings.
  • Local demolition restrictions: SB 827 does not in any way impact local demolition restrictions. Cities, as today, will be able to set whatever demolition restrictions they want. Some cities currently have extremely tight demolition restrictions; others have looser controls. That decision will continue to be made by each city.
  • Local affordable housing requirements: SB 827 fully respects local inclusionary housing requirements (e.g., where a city requires that a certain percentage of new units be affordable to lower income residents). Whatever the local affordable housing requirement, it will fully apply to SB 827 projects, which can result in a significant increase in the number of affordable units, since more units overall will be produced.
  • Local retail restrictions/incentives: SB 827 does not change the ability of cities to require or incentivize certain kinds of retail. A city can still require that a certain percentage of projects be devoted to retail and can set rules — whether mandates or making permits harder or easier — for favored or disfavored types of retail. For example, as today, a community can ban retail that’s considered problematic, require additional permitting for those types of retail, or streamline the approval process for retail that’s considered important. So, a community could, for example, ban payday lenders while streamlining permitting for grocery stores in food deserts.
  • Local impact fees: SB 827 does not undermine or affect in any way locally adopted impact fees. Those impact fees — which are often calculated based on a project’s square footage, number of units, or just as a flat fee — can include affordable housing fees, transportation impact fees, sewer hookup fees, park fees, school fees, and so forth. Cities can retain their current fees or adopt revised fees in the future. For fees tied to the size of projects, SB 827 will result in increased fee collection since the projects will be larger.
  • Local residential zoning decisions: SB 827 applies to land that a city zones as residential. If a city zones land for only commercial, office, industrial, public use, or other non-residential use, SB 827 doesn’t apply.
  • Local community planning: SB 827 sets a state baseline standard for height and density near transit. The bill leaves ample space for community planning, including in the areas listed above. Currently, community planning doesn’t exist in a vacuum and must comply with various state rules. SB 827 adds one more state standard.

I look forward to a continued robust discussion about SB 827. I simply ask that the discussion relate to the actual provisions of the bill.

CA State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, clean energy, criminal justice reform, health, ending poverty. Democrat. 🏳️‍🌈