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

With California staring down the barrel of a deficit of 3.5 million homes, the scale of the problem has overshadowed the potential of smaller housing developments to provide a solution.

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But a new legislative push in Sacramento — via Senate Bill 10 — recognizes this potential and seeks to make it easier and quicker for local governments to take advantage of it. It deserves lawmakers’ support.

We see this promise first-hand in San Francisco. At the end of 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 Habitat for Humanity development: The utilization of a small parcel of land — in this case, 6,414 square feet — to build safe, decent and affordable homes for working families.

As our community of volunteers prepares to start building, it is clear that this is precisely the sort of project that can make a significant contribution to affordable home production in California. And with the potential for these modestly-sized developments to provide hundreds of thousands of units in cities statewide, the time has come for state and local lawmakers to support them.

These projects, like their larger counterparts, can be subject to interminable zoning delays, are often mired in arcane environmental disputes, or are otherwise tied up in red tape. Being smaller, their financing is less able to withstand escalating costs associated with extended and unpredictable timelines, processes and lawsuits. It’s no wonder they have yet to be built in the numbers they might.

That’s why San Francisco State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 10, which addresses urban housing density, is so important. Aimed squarely at projects of 10 units or less, it would allow local governments to zone any parcel of land if the site is close to transit or jobs, or is an urban infill project, such as ours in San Francisco.

If this bill passes, local jurisdictions would be free to adopt an ordinance exempting such  projects from restrictions that could prevent them from moving forward. It would give local residents a chance to determine what happens in their communities and hold their elective representatives accountable for the decisions they make.

Under SB 10, the California Environmental Equality Act would not apply to ordinances adopted under the bill. This is crucial, because, as Habitat has experienced, too often this legacy environmental law is used by special interests as a tool to stop affordable homebuilding.

Up to 500,000 potential infill parcels, totaling some 220,000 acres, exist in California’s towns and cities, according to a 2006 UC Berkeley study. There is plenty of opportunity for desperately needed family homes to be built if the legal and regulatory structure adapts to make this possible.

Our experience shows that there is support for such projects when they are built  thoughtfully and in close collaboration with the community. Modestly-sized projects designed to complement the neighborhoods in which they are built often win backing from local residents.

That was the case with our San Francisco project, with residents of the city’s Diamond Heights neighborhood — not a place one would expect affordable homes — welcoming the Habitat community.

Facilitating the building of developments with fewer than 10 units protects the ability of local governments to shape their housing future, but the path needs to be cleared of unduly burdensome regulations that stymie much-needed construction.

SB 10 is on the list of 12 bills from both houses that will be permitted to progress this legislative session, reflecting the importance lawmakers place on housing in helping the state in its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an ingenious way to address our profound needs for housing and for local communities to maintain control. We urge lawmakers to pass it and deliver a solution to our housing production problem.

Maureen Sedonaen is chief executive officer for Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.