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California's New 'By-Right' Housing Law: Will it Make a Difference?

A new law could enable affordable housing projects, if they meet the specified criteria, to bypass the public process that so often blocks their approval.
October 5, 2017, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Nick Starichenko

"One of the bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown Friday as part of a larger housing package could fast-track certain affordable housing projects in Los Angeles, potentially bypassing a process that has allowed community groups to stonewall such projects in their neighborhoods," reports Elizabeth Chou for the Los Angeles Daily News on Sept. 29.

The legislation, SB 35, could allow multi-family, affordable housing projects to be built in Los Angeles without the usual public input process, and instead allow those units to be approved through an administrative process, known as “by-right.” 

This process, also known as ministerial review, would allow eligible projects with a certain percentage of housing affordable to households making below 80 percent of the area median income located in specified "urbanized areas" and "urbanized clusters" based on census data to avoid "a discretionary process that includes planning commission and City Council approval," adds Chou.

The bill would force cities like Los Angeles that cannot meet state-mandated affordable housing goals to build multi-unit projects, with more than 50 percent affordable units, under the “streamlined,” by-right process.

An example of how the discretionary process blocked a controversial 49-unit homeless shelter in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles was noted in an article by Adam Nagourney of The New York Times on Sept. 29, the same date the governor signed the 15 housing bills.

Opponents invoked environmental concerns in seeking to derail the project, pointing to an abandoned oil well on the site, even though it has long been dormant... José Huizar, a City Council member who blocked the complex, said that while he supported the construction of housing for homeless people, the nonprofit group promoting this project was trying to muscle through a plan over well-grounded neighborhood concerns.

The topic of Nagourney's piece was how the passage of Measure HHH, a "$1.2-billion bond measure to build housing for the chronically homeless" last November, may have been a victory but not a solution in itself to building the needed housing.

For homeless advocates who had been glowing after November, the unanimous vote in August blocking the project by a Los Angeles City Council land use committee, headed by Mr. Huizar, was a discouraging setback. It was also a reminder that some of the toughest battles lie ahead as Los Angeles moves from the task of persuading voters to raise money for the homeless to the logistics of getting the money spent.

It would seem that SB 35 may enable eligible projects to avoid the discretionary process where public pressure can cause good projects to die, i.e., death by NIMBYism (not in my backyard). What will be critical, though, is determining whether the projects, their locations, and the cities fit the law's criteria.

Hat tip to Gladwyn D'Souza.

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Published on Friday, September 29, 2017 in Los Angeles Daily News
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