Mayor: Proposed State Housing Law a Bad Fit for Pasadena

Mayor Tornek said the City is prepared to go to court to fight if the State continues to siphon off more municipal authority

Published : Tuesday, January 8, 2019 | 5:39 AM

A new bill authored in the state Senate seeks to encourage new housing development near transit and employment hubs, but Pasadena’s mayor says it’s an overreach by the state into local authority.

Senate Bill 50, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco last month, would force city and county governments to automatically approve qualifying housing project in “transit-rich” or “job-rich” areas. Transit-rich is defined as being within half a mile of a rail station or major bus stop, while the job-rich criteria is to be based on Department of Housing and Community Development and Office of Planning and Research guidelines, according to the text of the bill.

The law does not provide exemptions for cities like Pasadena, which are already generating housing at a rapid pace, Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said.

“We have so much new housing that people are beginning to balk, but Scott Wiener from San Francisco has decided, in his wisdom, that we should have a lot more, regardless of what we’re doing,” Tornek said. “It’s really insulting and inaccurate and inappropriate and it’s going to create a backlash that I predict will have a much bigger impact than he may realize.”

The law would effectively do away with the city’s General Plan and local ordinances when it comes to areas designated “transit-rich” and “job-rich,” Pasadena Planning Department Director David Reyes said.

“State law trumps local city regulations. Each city would be bound by state law,” he said.

Tornek said he understands the statewide housing shortage, but the one-size-fits-all mandate from the state legislature is the wrong way to go about it.

“I’m not suggesting that my grandchildren shouldn’t have a place to live as they grow. But I think that the idea that we need to just keep producing and producing at some unlimited level is subject to some challenge and some discussion,” Tornek said. “I think the primary point is that cities exist for a reason, unless we want to just eliminate city control over everything and just say we’re just going to have one series of legislators and they are going to be in Sacramento and they are going to decide everything for every place.”

While the current form of SB 50 allows for exemptions for cities that meet state Regional Housing Need Allocation requirements, the exemption amounts to an empty gesture, the mayor said. “Nobody meets all of those goals.”

The City will formally take a position on the bill soon, Tornek said. Officials plan to discuss the issue with legislators in hopes of reshaping the final version of the bill with their input.

But if conversations and lobbying don’t prevent the state from siphoning more authority from local governments, Tornek said Pasadena is prepared to go to court.

A recent density bonus law passed by state legislators already prevents cities from blocking developments that include required levels of affordable housing.

“The fact that they’ve effectively already eliminated all single-family zoning in the state of California is stunning,” Tornek said. “They did that in the granny flat (law).”

“They have to be more respectful of maintaining some level of local control than they have been,” he added. “I think they’re just running amok.”

According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest:

This bill would require a city, county, or city and county to grant upon request an equitable communities incentive when a development proponent seeks and agrees to construct a residential development, as defined, that satisfies specified criteria, including, among other things, that the residential development is either a job-rich housing project or a transit-rich housing project, as those terms are defined; the site does not contain, or has not contained, housing occupied by tenants or accommodations withdrawn from rent or lease in accordance with specified law within specified time periods; and the residential development complies with specified additional requirements under existing law.

State Rep. Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, said he hadn’t yet examined SB 50 in detail, but there’s no doubt California’s housing shortage needs to be addressed.

“Affordable housing continues to be a pressing issue for California, so the more tools we can create for local jurisdictions to tackle the problem the better,” he said. “Assembly Bill 11, that I authored with Assemblymember David Chiu, among others, takes a similar approach to the tax increment financing structure used by the former redevelopment agencies, but prioritizes affordable housing and sustainable growth. Every city should stand to benefit from the creation of such a mechanism.

“We are still in the very early stages of the legislative process and I haven’t had a chance to fully review Senator Weiner’s legislation,” Holden said. “More bills on this issue may be introduced before the February 22nd deadline and each one will have to go through the committee process, so it’s too soon to know which bills will be combined, amended or passed before landing on the Governor’s desk.”

The Southern California Association of Non Profit Housing has also yet to take a position on SB 50, Executive Director Alan Greenlee said.

“We’d like to see a bill like this have some meaningful housing affordability requirements in it,” he said. “And then I think the second big issue would be about sort of what protection does this a bill like this offer to existing residents? And are people currently living affordably in areas that could be subject to displacement and gentrification pressure, thereby limiting the ability for low income people and continue to live there?”

The proposal is not something to be taken lightly, Greenlee added.

“The notion of essentially allowing for increased density in specific areas as a matter of state policy is a big deal, especially in a place where most land use policy is governed essentially at the local level,” he said. “And so the real question is: what are the details associated with that and how does it work? And that’s what the legislative process is all about, and that’s what we’re engaged in now.”

Greenlee said he commended Sen. Wiener for reaching out to affected stakeholders.

He pointed to the “Transit Oriented Communities” program in Los Angeles as an example of a success story.

“It essentially does what Scott Wiener’s bill purports to do, but it has really strong tenant protections in it and it has really good affordability requirements in it and it’s limited only to transit high-frequency transit area,” according to Greenlee. “In L.A., I feel like we’ve sort of threaded the needle, found the place where a developer is willing to do the work and include the units that the policy requires.”

A report issued by the City of L.A. last summer found the TOC program was responsible for generating more than 5,500 new housing units, with 21 percent of them for affordable housing.

Moving forward, “I think for us, the big issues, again, are the affordability and gentrification displacement issues,” Greenlee said. “We won’t be able to take a position until there’s more clarity on those.”

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