City Officials Downplay Effects of New State Housing Crisis Bill on Pasadena

“If the governor signs it, as we fully anticipate he will, it doesn't really change a whole lot of how we operate. We're not that concerned,” a Pasadena official said

Published : Friday, September 13, 2019 | 4:47 AM

The domes of Pasadena City Hall, at left, and the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

At a second glance, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature appears to take aim at lower-density housing schemes in urban areas and creates regulations and punitive tools as ways of increasing housing and empowering permitting processes.

A sprawling, complex piece of legislation still being digested in Pasadena by those whose job it will be to comply with it (and those who oppose it), Senate Bill 330 would limit the ability of local governments to adopt policies that favor low-density uses of land with their city’s limits.

Its provisions are not permanent (they sunset in 2025), but the changes they will make to California cityscapes probably would be.

With rents in California “significantly” exceeding the rest of the country and homeownership at “abysmal” levels, “builders find themselves unable to meet the demand because of local rules that limit the number of units or simply prohibit building altogether,” said a Senate floor analysis of the bill.

The bill, it said, targets the most egregious practices by preventing downzoning, unless there’s an upzoning elsewhere, and stopping cities from changing the rules and raising fees on builders mid-permitting process.

According to the analysis, the legislation places restrictions on certain types of development standards, amends the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), alters local approval processes, and also amends the Permit Streamlining Act.

Unpacking one at a time, the “certain types of development standards” that are restricted are those that limit density.

Were the bill to garner Newsom’s signature (as is expected), cities and counties would be prohibited from enacting general plans, specific plans, or zoning codes that encourage “less intensive use” than what’s on the books any time before Jan. 1, 2018.

“Less intensive uses” refers to height, density, and floor area ratio restrictions, or open space requirements and other policies encouraging a lower-lying, more dispersed complex. This, in urban planning parlance, is called “downzoning.”

Mayor Terry Tornek downplayed the measure’s impacts on Pasadena specifically.

“The bill really seems directed at cities that have kind of played at doing significant downzoning in terms of reducing densities, it’s not what we have contemplated,” said Tornek.

Its potentially limited impact on Pasadena notwithstanding, City Planning Director David Reyes, said the curbs on downzoning make SB 330 a bad bill.

“Saying you can’t do a moratorium on growth, or with respect to development projects, and then taking away a city’s ability to downzone as needed should be under the purview of local government,” he asserted. “But if the governor signs it, as we fully anticipate he will, it doesn’t really change a whole lot of how we operate. We’re not that concerned.”

The exception to the downzoning proscription would apply where a city “concurrently changes the density elsewhere to ensure that there is no net loss in residential capacity” or “upzoning” as it is called.

Moratoriums and limitations on developments would also be prohibited, again, at least until 2025. The bill would also appear to prohibit new design review standards, after Jan. 1, 2020, that are not “objective.”

Also forbidden is the establishment of policies limiting land-use approvals and permits. Similarly, there would be a prohibition against capping the number of residential units that can be built. That is unless the limit was approved by voters prior to 2005.

“Where I think it could have some implication is on caps,” said Tornek. “We have unit caps, the number of units that can be built in each of the specific plan areas. I’m not sure I understand what the implications of this legislation may be on those, but it may be that it blows them up.”

Reyes concurred, with regards to caps.

“There’s really nothing in here that’s changing too much of what we’re doing other than the cap,” he explained. “We don’t see the cap being an issue, at least in the near term. And I wouldn’t expect, for the next couple of years, that we would even be having a conversation about being out of development caps.’

When a city approves the demolition of an existing housing project under the proposed law, it must needs be replaced with one resulting in at least as many units as the one being knocked down.

The bill also provides some protection for residents of the complex slated for demolition.

The second thrust of the bill is to increase that density with greater speed through a streamlining of the permitting process, according to the Senate analysis.

To that end, the measure provides that, for a project in compliance with the general plan and zoning standards in effect at the time an application is considered complete, the city can conduct no more than five hearings.

SB 330 would require a city to consider and either approve or disapprove the application at any of the five hearings. When an application has been deemed complete, the local government must make a determination as to whether the project is on a historic site.

The bill further imposes statewide standardized procedures for filing an initial application, and sets a bar for when an application is considered complete.

Not every mandate in the bill is aimed at cities, for it requires a developer to submit a full development application within 180 days of its preliminary application filing.

In determining an application to be incomplete, the city would be obligated to provide an “exhaustive” list of items missing, and the bill goes into specifics about what types of things should be on that list.

Under the Permit Streamlining Act, a city currently has 120 days to act on an application.

If signed, the new law would amend the act so as to reduce the window to 90 days, where project is reviewable under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or if the it is at least 49 percent affordable housing units.

“That’s just the length of time we have to review it,” explained Tornek. “And that limits the number of public hearings. It doesn’t mean that from the time you submit and application that a project has to be approved in 60 or 90 days. It’s not an instantaneous review.”

SB 330 would amend the Housing Accountability Act to prohibit a local agency from applying ordinances, policies, and standards to a development after a preliminary application containing all the required information is submitted.

Jason Rhine, Assistant Legislative Director with the League of California Cities, said this provision locks in fees at the time of application, including project-specific fees.

“Those project-specific fees aren’t possibly known when we get the initial application, because we don’t know the totality of the project,” explained Rhine. “Therefore we don’t know if there are any project specific fees that need to be addressed.”

There are some exceptions to the freezing of fees and standards and they include fees tied to economic indicators, or where evidence makes clear a project’s adverse impact on health and safety, or where CEQA requires some mitigation, among a few more.

The complexity of the bill must be stressed, and the fact that it is not yet law.

Said Tornek, “There’s a bunch of other housing legislation still pending. We’ll wait and see how they all fit together and give our planners and attorneys an opportunity to analyze them, and then we can make a more detailed assessment of whether we need to modify our planning process currently underway.”

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