Real Property Law

California Tells Cities to “Approve Housing and Don’t Delay”

By Jonathan Kathrein

image of Jonathan Kathrein
Jonathan Kathrein

The Housing Crisis Act will strip cities and counties across California of their ability to avoid housing production because it removes the main tool used by housing opponents – unpredictability, subjectivity and delay. To deny a housing project application, cities and counties will now have to make an objective determination and make it more quickly.

The Housing Accountability Act already limits a jurisdiction’s ability to disapprove or conditionally approve a residential housing project for lower and moderate-income residents (up to 120% of the area’s median income level) if the project is consistent with the local zoning and general plan and it meets objective standards.

The Housing Crisis Act of 2019, also known as SB 330, continues to move State housing law toward objectivity and predictability. It applies to urbanized jurisdictions as will be determined by the Department of Housing and Community Development by July 2020 based on US Census data. We expect urbanized jurisdictions to include San Francisco and much of the Bay Area, Los Angeles area, San Diego area, and the Highway 99 corridor through the Central Valley. The new law went into effect on January 1, 2020 and will sunset on January 1, 2025.

An urbanized jurisdiction may not rezone or “downzone” properties where housing was allowed in 2018 in a way that would discourage residential development without “upzoning” elsewhere within the jurisdiction. This includes changes in height, density, FAR, minimum lot size, minimum frontage, and moratoriums or caps on housing approvals. Similarly, an urbanized jurisdiction no longer can adopt subjective design standards or apply those adopted after January 1, 2020 to proposed housing projects.

In an urbanized jurisdiction, residential units cannot be removed from the market. Any project that proposes to demolish protected residential units, including below market rate, rent controlled, or Section 8 units, must replace those units at similar affordability levels. A project applicant must also provide relocation assistance and an opportunity for those tenants to rent the new units.

An applicant can lock the then-current land use controls in an urbanized jurisdiction by filing a preliminary application. A full application must be made within 180 days of the preliminary application and the applicant has 30 months to begin construction. This does not limit existing fees with automatic annual adjustments.

Local planning departments are going to have to plan their hearing calendar carefully for these housing projects. Once a housing development project application is deemed complete (for an entirely residential project or a mixed-use project on land zoned to require at least 2/3 residential), a jurisdiction may only hold five hearings on the project. Workshops and continuances count toward the five-hearing limit. An appeal hearing also appears to count toward the five-hearing total. The number of hearings may not be extended by the applicant. Permit Streamlining Act timelines limit a jurisdiction’s ability to delay the five hearings.

A project applicant, a qualified potential resident, or a housing organization may bring an action to compel an urbanized jurisdiction to comply with these requirements. A court must take action within 60 days and the burden of proof is on the local jurisdiction to show that they complied.

Cities like San Francisco are already taking seriously these new changes. Other jurisdictions are likely waiting for HCD’s official determination later this year. The determination could be a pivotal moment for communities that are on the cusp of urbanization and use discretionary tools to slowly kill housing projects. We will be watching closely.

Please keep in mind that there are many subtleties to both new and existing law. Please contact Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP for more information.

Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorney Jonathan Kathrein.

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient.  Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein.  Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm.  We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law.  We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.

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