This year’s housing and transportation package is a 21st century update to address our current nightmares of traffic, car crashes and housing shortages.
The California Dream has long been about suburban houses and driving on the open road. But these days that dream is dead for most, priced out of reach. Some are still trying to hold on: For example, Menlo Park residents will vote this fall on a measure that would require any rezoning of single-family neighborhoods to go to the ballot.
But efforts such as these are outliers as a new California Dream starts to take root — thanks to what was arguably the biggest year yet for housing and transportation legislation in California history.
A broad coalition that included housing advocates, construction workers, nonprofits, environmentalists and businesses got a record number of bills through the Legislature, most of which were signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. A majority of these laws take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, with a few going into effect later that year. Whether you’re a tenant, homeowner, business, nonprofit, religious organization or local government, there’s something in this year’s housing package that you can use. And projects as small as adding a bedroom to as big as transforming an office park into a mixed-use development are all in play.
Accompanying this housing revamp is a transportation package that will reduce the number of car trips in California by improving walking, biking and transit — by making it easier, safer and faster to build new infrastructure.
Here are some of the big opportunities coming:
California homeowners will find it easier to add bedrooms to their house (via AB916), build an accessory dwelling unit (AB2221) or remodel their garage into living space (AB2097). For those living within a half-mile of rail transit, a ferry terminal with a bus stop or a bus stop with service at least every 15 minutes during rush hour, new law SB897 allows new accessory dwelling units to be built two stories tall, regardless of local regulations.
AB2559 sets up the legal framework for reusable tenant screening reports for people looking to rent. This will soon make it possible to apply to many apartments at the same time without having to pay multiple screening fees. SB649 will allow affordable housing to prioritize tenants who live in the neighborhood and are at risk of getting priced out of the area. To address the challenges tenants face in finding low-cost housing that allows pets, SB971 will require new affordable housing to allow common household pets such as cats and dogs. Finally, SB1017 offers tenant protections to domestic violence survivors.
Because of the pandemic, more restaurants are offering outdoor dining and more people are working from home. While AB2097 is mostly known as a housing production and parking reform bill (it removes parking requirements near major transit stops), it also gives businesses new options. For example, business owners can now permanently convert their parking lots into outdoor dining under the bill. More ambitious business owners will be able to build housing on their parking lots or replace their properties with mixed-use buildings that have apartments above the store by using SB6 or AB2011, a pair of bills that allow apartments in commercial zones. Those that want to expand their business can take advantage of AB1551, which allows more commercial floor space in exchange for building or funding affordable housing.
Laws such as AB2011 will also reduce the delays proposals to build housing face by allowing city staff to approve them directly without having to go through multiple public hearings and city council votes. Consider the Mills Park Center project on El Camino Real in San Bruno that would replace commercial buildings with a five-story apartment building. Plans were submitted in 2017 but then went through a long process that saw a City Council rejection and the forced removal of a proposed grocery store. While the plan was finally approved in 2020, construction has yet to start because the alterations to the project and a turn in the economy have threatened its feasibility.
For those starting a business, SB972 makes it easier to run a street food stand or cart, while AB2097’s removal of parking requirements means that more locations will be legal for restaurants and retail, which typically have high parking requirements. For example, South San Francisco and many other suburbs currently require one parking space (which takes up about 300 square feet) for every 100 square feet of restaurant space.
Schools and colleges have also been given new powers to build housing. Earlier this year, opposition to student enrollment at UC Berkeley almost led to thousands of new students being rejected from the school until the Legislature passed an emergency bill at the last minute. Now, there is a long-term fix to speed up the building of new student housing to catch up to enrollment growth: SB886, which simplifies the approval process by exempting public universities from California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits that otherwise take years to resolve. For public school districts, AB2295 allows them to build apartments for teachers and other employees on their land, regardless of local zoning.
Nonprofits that build or preserve affordable housing gain a new set of tools: AB1837 and AB2170 give them priority in buying foreclosed property, SB948 and AB2006 lower financing costs, and AB2334 allows greater height and density in areas less dependent on driving. Community land trusts, a type of nonprofit housing organization, get a more flexible property tax exemption with SB1206.
Many religious organizations have long been active in building affordable housing as part of their community service. AB2244 would allow some of their parking lots to be used for building housing. Those near transit could also use AB2097 to build homes on their entire parking lot.
To prevent all these new homes from contributing to traffic, this year’s housing measures were coupled with a transportation package to make transit, biking and walking safer — and also to speed up the building of infrastructure.
Transit riders will benefit from safer rides, new infrastructure and cheaper rides. SB1161 requires California’s 10 largest transit agencies (including BART, Muni, AC Transit and Valley Transportation Authority in the Bay Area) to collect data on street harassment for use to improve rider safety. SB922 speeds up the approval process for building new transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. SB942 allows more transit agencies to use Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund money from California’s cap-and-trade fees on fossil fuels to pay for free or reduced fares.
Since almost any transit trip inevitably involves walking, there are several bills to make pedestrians safer. AB2264 gives pedestrians extra time to cross intersections. AB1938 allows cities to lower speed limits on more streets with a high crash rate and/or lots of pedestrians and cyclists. SB932 adds pedestrian, bike and car safety to cities’ general plans. AB2147 legalizes crossing the street in the middle of the block, which can often be safer than crossing at an intersection with turning vehicles.
There are also a couple of bike-specific bills: AB1909 contains a number of policy changes, including requiring drivers to use the passing lane to pass a bike. AB2863 will create requirements for installing secure bike parking in new buildings.
All told, this year’s housing and transportation packages breathe new life into the California Dream by giving it a 21st century update to address our current nightmares of traffic, car crashes and housing shortages. In the near future, Californians will be able to live closer to work and shopping, get around faster and safer, and have more options for building a business or home.
Alfred Twu is an architect, artist and housing advocate who creates illustrations explaining state housing legislation. He also serves on the Berkeley Planning Commission and has been involved in the city’s General Plan Housing Element update.