New directions

Board of Supervisors gets a crash course in new affordable housing laws

In Butte County, disputes over new housing developments sometimes play out on the floor of the Board of Supervisors chambers, where passionate arguments by developers and would-be neighbors are heard by the five-member panel that votes on land-use matters that can make or break a project.

The board’s degree of discretionary authority is just one thing that will be affected by the passage in September of 15 bills aimed at addressing California’s affordable housing crisis. The new laws address a range of issues that have impeded development of low-income housing. They include fast-tracking permitting, funding affordable housing programs, lowering construction costs and limiting the power of local jurisdictions to block new development.

On Tuesday (Dec. 12), the Board of Supervisors got a primer on those new laws and their potential local impacts, delivered by Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Sang Kim and Charles Thistlethwaite, planning division manager of the county’s Department of Development Services.

“I think you can see that the state of California has now gone deep into the local land-use authority of city councils and boards of supervisors,” Kim said in summarizing the new laws. “For over 150 years, the power of land use was completely at the discretion of local governments. But as you can see, things have shifted.”

The package of laws has six main components, as outlined in Kim’s staff report: to fund affordable housing efforts; change planning and zoning laws to allow easier development; streamline building processes; strengthen enforcement of housing laws; require localities to submit annual progress reports on housing; and provide advance notice when low-income housing protections expire on existing properties.

Several of the bills are designed to keep local governments from stopping low-income housing development. Senate Bill 167 and Assembly Bill 1515, for example, would strengthen the state’s Housing Accountability Act to ensure disapproval of development is supported by a preponderance of evidence that the project does not comply with the locality’s zoning ordinance and general plan.

Another bill, AB 1505, affirms that local jurisdictions can pass ordinances mandating that market-rate developments set aside a number of units for low- to moderate-income residents, a practice known as “inclusionary zoning.”

Supervisor Maureen Kirk asked if the new laws mandated localities to adopt such a policy.

“It’s very close to that,” Thistlethwaite said. “There’s a common theme you’ll see throughout these bills that none of them specifically require the county or any jurisdiction to adopt an inclusionary housing requirement. However, in order to meet the requirements and [avoid] the penalties that can occur from noncompliance, we’ll probably be needing to look at adoption of an inclusionary housing program as part of our 2022 housing element.”

A housing element is part of the county’s general plan, and provides analysis of the community’s housing needs for all income levels, as well as strategies to meet those needs. Butte County’s current housing element was adopted in 2014; many of the new laws will affect the next version.

Two of the new laws are designed to fund new and existing affordable housing programs: Senate Bill 2 imposes a document recording fee for real estate transactions ($75 each, to a maximum of $225 per transaction), which Kim said could generate $225 million to $265 million statewide in 2018 and approximately $2 million for the county. SB 3 places a $4 billion bond measure on the November 2018 ballot, which includes $1 billion set aside for a program that helps military veterans purchase homes.

In response to the presentation, Supervisor Doug Teeter said he thinks it’s “unfathomable” that Californians would vote to approve that and other bond measures on next year’s ballot, while Supervisor Steve Lambert was critical of the entire package of bills.

“It blows my mind the state keeps putting more stuff on us and taking away jobs instead of going out and focusing their energy on creating jobs so that [the economy] will drive itself with good housing,” Lambert said. “Why not [help] people make enough money to buy a house?”

Contacted by phone after the meeting, Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s Housing Authority, gave a more positive approximation of the package of laws. He called them a “sea change” in state policy, which he said has evolved over the last 30 years to make it impossible for communities to build at a rate that meets their housing needs.

“[The laws are] exciting, because all of our policies up until now have benefited those that own property and disadvantaged those who don’t,” he said. “But it will take a couple of years to see if the state’s actions here are really effective.”