Steve Heap

California legislative leaders backed a pair of bills that would open up much of the state’s commercial land for residential development to help alleviate the housing shortage in the state. Officials estimate California needs to build about 310,000 new housing units per year over the next eight years—more than two-and-a-half times the current annual rate—to provide residents enough places to live. Both bills make it easier to build housing in now-empty retail spaces with the potential to provide more than 1 million housing units across the state.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks’ Assembly Bill 2011 more narrowly targets infill building along heavily transited commercial corridors. Under her proposal, a developer would get to build housing “by right” — which means skipping lengthy and costly local review processes, including the much-dreaded California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA — as long as they paid workers union-level wages and offered health care benefits, among other requirements.

Senate Bill 6, by Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat, would knock down one key barrier to building housing in commercial sites — rezoning — but leave in place many of the other forums for local government input on housing projects. To take advantage of the rezoning benefit, developers must use a skilled and trained workforce, which effectively means a portion of the workforce must be union labor. In a noteworthy concession from the Trades, Caballero’s bill was amended Thursday to say that if developers don’t get at least two bids on a project, they can move forward with it anyway — as long as they pay union-level wages.

Besides labor standards, the main difference between the two bills is affordability. Under Wicks’ bill, at least 15% of housing units in a building built by-right would need to be deed-restricted affordable — either for purchase or rental — to low income households. Alternatively, 8% of units would need to be affordable to very low income households, and 5% would be affordable to extremely low income households. Under a third option, 100% of units would be affordable.

Caballero’s bill cut down its original 15% affordability requirement to 0 — and was renamed the Middle-Class Housing Act to reflect that. Still, Caballero said a local government can impose affordability requirements if it wants.

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