San Francisco, CA – One of the big problems that California now faces is that, while the state legislature has stepped up to make housing requirements more rigorous and put more teeth in processes like RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment), those laws are only as strong as the willingness to enforce them.
The Chronicle Editorial this week noted, “For a brief and shining moment last month, it appeared as if California was finally ready to do the tough and politically charged work of tackling its housing crisis.”
They noted the passage of “a suite of controversial housing bills [signed] into law, perhaps most significantly SB9, which effectively ended single-family zoning in California by allowing duplexes on lots reserved for houses.
“That feeling was nice while it lasted. Weeks later, California appears on the verge of flushing much of its housing progress down the toilet,” they write.
The Chronicle is talking about RHNA.
“This often incomprehensible program is the way California can most urgently address its housing shortage. And it is in danger of collapsing,” they write.
The problem with RHNA was that for years, cities put together elaborate rezoning plans “that they have no intention of enacting” and “The state doesn’t make them. Nothing gets built.”
“This time was supposed to be different,” they argue. “Over the past several years, California lawmakers, led by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, have put teeth into the process. Now once state officials certify a city’s housing element, that plan automatically overrides existing zoning laws, becoming the new local rules.”
The numbers are real. 440,000 new units in the Bay Area alone.
“The state isn’t messing around with its housing numbers,” the Chronicle points out. “Furthermore, the law now bakes equity into the needs assessment process. Cities can’t just dump all their dense housing in low-income communities of color — as they have historically done — thanks to a federal desegregation requirement called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”
“Remember Donald Trump’s rant during the 2020 election about how liberals were putting the suburbs under siege? He was talking about the fair housing requirement,” the Chronicle writes.
“A core part of my housing work in the Senate has been to fix California’s broken system of setting housing goals (and) to put teeth into those goals,” Senator Wiener tweeted last August.
This goes back to SB 828 which compels local governments to double the amount of land made available for mulifamily units and compels cities to zone sufficient land to accommodate projected population increases.
Meanwhile, Senator Wiener also drafted SB 35 puts teeth into RHNA attempting to force cities to approve housing and when they fail to approve enough housing, they are subject to this law which would force them to automatically green-light certain residential and mixed-use projects if they meet a city’s zoning and planning rules.
In theory, those two laws this RHNA cycle should have greatly expanded housing. But that requires the HCD to enforce it – and that is where the system appears to be breaking down.
The Chronicle argues, “The initial results are not good.”
Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing should be a component of California Housing Elements—“which means rich, white NIMBY communities with high-performing schools and easy access to jobs are legally required to open up. But only if the state Housing Department enforces the law. And that’s where the storm clouds are gathering.”
That’s not the only problem. THe HCD the Chronicle charges are not enforcing the laws and making sure that submitted housing elements are in compliance with new state laws.
For example: “Housing elements in the small cities of La Mesa and Imperial Beach in particular have drawn the ire of activists. Neither city appears to be in compliance with state guidelines, largely ignoring its desegregation mandate. Furthermore, local activists say these plans include transparently fake sites that will never actually be redeveloped into housing.”
But as the Chronicle put it: “the state signed off anyway.”
“We put these rules in place for a reason,” Wiener says. “HCD needs to enforce the rules to the letter.”
The Chronicle writes: “Housing Department officials say they have every intention of doing so.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“Cities in L.A. County and the Bay Area are going to look very closely at what’s happening in the San Diego area and are going to interpret this as a free pass to game the system,” Wiener says.
In response this weekend, Senator Wiener tweeted, “We’ve significantly strengthened state housing laws to ensure cities plan for & approve more housing. Unfortunately our state housing dept is off to a weak start in enforcing the law. This has to change & as Senate Housing Chair that’s a priority for me.”
But if state officials do not act quickly the housing elements approved by local jurisdictions will lock in housing rates and housing elements out of step with more aggressive state laws – and those changes will be locked in for the next eight years.
“What will that look like?” The Chronicle asks. “It will look like what development always looks like in California — not nearly enough to meet demand and concentrated in cities in lower-income communities of color, where it too often fuels displacement. That can’t be allowed to happen. Especially not after the state just took such major strides.”