Housing under construction in HillcrestHousing under construction in Hillcrest. Photo courtesy Circulate San Diego

With California staring at a deficit of 3.5 million homes, the scale of the problem has overshadowed the potential for smaller housing developments to solve.

But a new legislative push in Sacramento – via Senate Draft 10 – recognizes this potential and seeks to make it easier and faster for local governments to capitalize on it. It deserves the legislature’s support.

We see this promise firsthand in San Francisco. In late May, San Francisco Mayor London Breed attended a groundbreaking ceremony for eight affordable homes in the heart of the city. The housing project is a classic development by Habitat for Humanity: The use of a small piece of land – in this case 6,414 square meters – to build safe, decent and affordable houses for working families.

As our community of volunteers prepares for construction to begin, it becomes clear that this is exactly the type of project that can make a significant contribution to affordable home-grown California. And with the potential for these humble developments to deploy hundreds of thousands of units in cities across the country, it is time for state and local lawmakers to support them.

These projects, like their larger counterparts, can be subject to endless development delays, are often embroiled in obscure environmental disputes, or otherwise involve bureaucracy. Because its funding is smaller, it is less able to withstand the rising costs associated with extended and unpredictable deadlines, litigation and legal proceedings. It is no wonder they still have to be built in as numbers as they could.

This is why Senate Law 10 of the San Francisco Senate, Senator Scott Wiener, which addresses urban housing density, is so important. It is directly geared towards projects of 10 units or less and would allow local governments to zoning any property if the location is near transit or workplaces, or is an urban infill project like ours in San Francisco.

If this law is passed, local jurisdictions will be free to issue an ordinance exempting such projects from restrictions that could prevent them from moving forward. It would give local residents the ability to determine what happens in their communities and hold their elected representatives accountable for their decisions.

Under SB 10, the California Environmental Equality Act would not apply to regulations made under the bill. This is vital because, as Habitat has seen, this outdated environmental law is too often used by Special Interest as a tool to stop affordable housing.

According to a 2006 study by UC Berkeley, California cities have up to 500,000 potential infill parcels totaling approximately 220,000 acres. There are many opportunities for much-needed single family homes as the legal and regulatory structures adjust to make it possible.

Our experience shows that such projects are supported if they are built carefully and in close cooperation with the community. Modest-sized projects designed to complement the neighborhoods in which they are built are often supported by local residents.

That was the case with our project in San Francisco, where residents of the Diamond Heights neighborhood – not a place you’d expect to find affordable homes – welcome the Habitat community.

Facilitating the construction of settlements of less than 10 units protects the ability of local governments to shape their housing futures, but the path must be cleared of inappropriately burdensome regulations that hamper much-needed construction.

SB 10 is on the list of 12 bills from both houses to move forward in this term, reflecting the importance that lawmakers attach to housing in helping the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a brilliant way of meeting our profound housing needs and keeping control of the local communities. We urge the legislature to pass it and come up with a solution to our housing problem.

Maureen Sedonaen is the Chief Executive Officer of Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism company dedicated to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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