West Hollywood is one of 13 California cities and counties that will be exempt from a new state law that streamlines the process for developers to build new housing.
The law — Senate Bill 35 – simplifies the government approval process in areas have not yet met their targets for housing for very low-, low-, moderate- and above moderate-income people. Those targets are determined by a study called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). The last version of Southern California’s RHNA was adopted in 2012 and includes targets for housing from October 2013 to October 2021. For West Hollywood the calculation was 77 units.
The streamlined process under SB 35 lets developers get necessary permits for projects without having to present them to planning commissions or city councils. However, to qualify the projects must be on an infill site and comply with existing residential and mixed-use zoning. Participating developments must provide at least 10% of units for lower-income families. Workers on all projects over 10 units must be paid the prevailing wage and larger projects must provide skilled and trained labor.
Without the SB 35 exemption, developers in West Hollywood will continue to have to negotiate the complex process for getting approval of new housing developments that require any sort of variance from the zoning laws. In addition to a review by City Hall staff, such a project must be reviewed by an outside design consultant who presents his opinion to the Design Review Subcommittee of the Planning Commission. The project then goes before the Planning Commission for its endorsement and then before the City Council. The process often involves expensive lobbyists and lawyers. Also, it is not unusual for residents sitting on those committees to demand changes in the design and esthetics of a building. Owners of homes near proposed multi-unit buildings usually show up at public meetings to contest them, arguing that they will cause an increase in neighborhood traffic, a reduction in parking or cast shade on their homes.
The fact that West Hollywood has met its RHNA goal of 77 units (with 322 inclusionary housing units alone built by the end of 2016) has been used by some home owners to protest new proposed housing developments or argue that rather than make 20% of new units affordable, as required by city law for buildings of 10 units or more, the developers should give money to the city’s Housing Trust Fund. That reduces the likelihood that low-income people will be able to livie in the neighborhood where the new building is built.
The City of West Hollywood has said that it views the RHNA number as a floor rather than a goal.
“Although housing production in West Hollywood has performed better than anticipated in the state’s current planning cycle for housing (State Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA 2013-202118), a affordability is still an issue,” says the city’s 2016 Housing Report. “The California Department of Finance estimates 40.5% or 9,320 households in West Hollywood are Very Low or Low income, earning less than $29,616 or $47,386 annually. Additionally, 16.9% or 3,889 households qualify as moderate income, earning less than $59,232. Most new residential development in West Hollywood is out of reach to low and moderate wage households.”
The other Southern California cities where the SB 35 exemption won’t apply are Beverly Hills, San Fernando, Carpinteria and the Lemon Grove in San Diego County. All in all, 526 California cities and counties failed to meet their RHNA goals or haven’t submitted the required progress reports.
SB 35 – one of 15 new laws approved last year to address California’s housing crisis – was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. Wiener has attracted a lot of attention recently with his introduction of SB 827, which would allow developers to erect buildings of four to eight stories, depending on the nature of a street, on any street within a half-mile of a major bus stop or other transit station. That would include all of West Hollywood, whose zoning laws limit multi-unit housing development by area to from three to four stories, with five stories permitted in exchange for particular concessions by the developer.
WeHo City Council members John D’Amico and Lauren Meister, in an op-ed published on WEHOville, objected to Wiener’s proposal.
“This bill has the potential to destroy our urban village,” they said. “Full stop. And communities all across Southern California; or worse, simply open up development to an ad-hoc collection of mismatched, mis-sized projects with no relationship to our stated city goals.”