California bill would lean on cities to build multiunit housing

By Alexei Koseff via email

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Scott Wiener will seek to loosen restrictions on how much Californians can build on lots zoned for multifamily housing, hoping to clear the way for more small apartment buildings as the state tries to increase its housing supply.

A bill introduced Thursday by the San Francisco Democrat takes aim at local regulations that limit the square footage of a project based on its lot size, which Wiener calls a “poison pill” to block anything but single-family housing.

“We should not tolerate a situation where a city makes it impossible to build,” Wiener said.

For properties zoned for multifamily housing of two to 10 units, Wiener’s measure, SB478, would prohibit cities and counties from setting a floor area ratio of less than 1.5 — meaning the total square footage of the building could be 1½ times the size of the lot.

Under this scenario, a two-story building could cover three-quarters of the property and a building covering half the lot could be three stories tall, unless there are local height restrictions.

This would be far more what is now allowed in some Bay Area communities. In unincorporated areas of Marin County, for example, duplexes have a maximum floor area ratio of 0.3, or a fifth of what Wiener would require, and can be built only on a lot that is at least 7,500 square feet.

Wiener says such minimum lot size requirements make it too expensive to buy land for more modest multifamily housing, preventing the development of anything but large single-family homes. His bill would lower those requirements for housing with two to 10 units, though the new standards have not yet been determined.

Though these changes are technical, they could be significant as Wiener and other legislators push to boost the construction of small multifamily housing, particularly in places that have long resisted it.

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, revived a bill that would make it easier to split lots and convert homes into duplexes, building up residential neighborhoods in a more limited way.

Wiener is also trying again to pass a measure that would let cities rezone residential parcels for apartment or condominium projects of up to 10 units without doing years-long environmental reviews. Cities could adopt the change for neighborhoods near public transit and in high-income areas with access to jobs and good schools, but would not be required to do so.

Both proposals emerged last year after the failure of SB50, Wiener’s bill to allow denser residential construction around public transit and in wealthy suburbs. Supporters say they are trying to increase housing production while respecting local control and neighborhood character, though these new measures have encountered resistance as well…(more)


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