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California State Housing Affordability Legislation Takes Effect

Assembly Bill 3194, known as the Housing Accountability Act, was part of a slew of bills signed by former Governor Jerry Brown in 2018 aimed at putting a dent in the state’s housing affordability crisis.

The new law, “prohibits a local agency from disapproving, or conditioning approval in a manner that renders infeasible, a housing development project for very low, low, or moderate-income households or an emergency shelter unless the local agency makes specified written findings, based upon a preponderance of the evidence, that one or more conditions exist, including that the housing development project or emergency shelter would have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety, as specified.”

“California housing has become the most expensive in the nation,” the bill stated. “The excessive cost of the state’s housing supply is partially caused by activities and policies of many local governments that limit the approval of housing, increase the cost of land for housing, and require that high fees and exactions be paid by producers of housing.”

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AB 3194, which went into effect on January 1 of this year, limits the ability of local governments to reject proposals for new housing projects that conform to the city’s or town’s general plan. In other words, during the project’s review process, if it’s found to be consistent with the general plan, it can’t be rejected, reduced in size or required to apply for rezoning. This is the case even if the project isn’t consistent with the current zoning for the project site. It’s been anticipated that developers will be submitting project applications that could benefit from the new law in terms of bolstering chances of approval.

“It’s still fairly new and no specific project in Santa Clara has come forward yet to take advantage of it,” said Reena Brilliot, Santa Clara’s Planning manager.

Brilliot explained that the legislation is intended to streamline the project approval process as the requirement to rezone can cause delay and make the undertaking heavier for developers. Some developers feel that they shouldn’t have to rezone, she said. Brilliot also said that although cities are supposed to have zoning codes and general plans that align with each other, many don’t.

Santa Clara has been in the lack-of-alignment category because a zoning ordinance update hasn’t been done since 1969. To remedy this, City staff have embarked upon a complete update of the zoning code, with a draft of the update expected to be ready for review by City Council by the end of this summer. With the update in place, Brilliot anticipates that AB 3194 may be less relevant in Santa Clara than in other cities that still lack code and general plan alignment. However, the law does make it more likely that a housing project with affordable units will be approved.

This could result in increased housing creation in Santa Clara and the state. According to data cited by the legislation, California is behind on building new housing by 2,000,000 units. In order to meet growth forecasted for 2025, 180,000 units will need to be built annually.

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