State Warns San Francisco Concerning Rejected Housing Projects

State

The Board of Supervisors (“Board”) recently issued two unusual denials of large housing projects – the projects would have provided over 800 dwelling units, over 130 of which were affordable.  In an even more unusual move, last week the California Department of Housing and Community Development (“HCD”) informed San Francisco officials that the City may have violated state housing laws by rejecting the projects.  Without getting into the Board politics behind the project denials, the State’s actions are notable.  The State rarely takes such a public stance concerning local planning and zoning decisions, indicating the high priority the State is placing on the provision of housing and the concern with these decisions.

The Two Rejected Housing Projects

The two housing projects at issue are located at 469 Stevenson Street and 450-474 O’Farrell Street.  The 469 Stevenson Street project is a mixed-use, 27-story high rise with 495 dwelling units, including 89 affordable units.  The Board of Supervisors denied the project on CEQA grounds, overturning the Planning Commission’s certification of the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report (“FEIR”).  In HCD’s own words, the Board cited “various vague concerns about FEIR deficiencies, including seismic concerns, effects (e.g., shadowing) on historic resources, and gentrification.”

The project at 450-474 O’Farrell Street is a modification of an earlier project.  The new project proposes more, smaller units (316 vs. 174) that are “affordable by design”, and included 43 affordable/below market rate units.  The Board overturned the Planning Commission’s approval of a Conditional Use Authorization for the project without yet issuing written findings.

HCD Letter

HCD made its concerns known to City officials in a letter last week.  The message was pointed.  HCD expressed concern that the Board’s decisions “represent[] a larger trend in the City/County,” noting that “California’s housing production does not meet housing need. In the past ten years, housing production has averaged fewer than 80,000 new homes each year, far fewer than the 180,000 new homes needed…. As a result, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, and San Francisco stands amongst the top two most expensive housing markets in the United States.”

HCD raised significant concerns with the City’s compliance with the Housing Accountability Act (“HAA”).  Under the HAA, a local government cannot disapprove or reduce the density of a housing development project that complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards, in effect at the time that the application was deemed complete, unless it makes written findings supported by a preponderance of the evidence on the record that the project would have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety and there is no feasible way to mitigate that impact.  The Board did not make such findings for either project.

HCD also expressed “concern[] about the significant delays in the approval of housing generally and in the City/County in particular.”  As to the O’Farrell project, HCD expressed concern that the City violated the “5 Hearing Rule” set forth in the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (SB 330).  The Planning Commission had six hearings on the project and the Board appeal was the seventh hearing.

Lastly, HCD warned the City about its implementation of and compliance with its existing Housing Element and its upcoming Housing Element update.  The Housing Element update “must … demonstrate local efforts to remove governmental constraints that hinder the locality from meeting its share of the regional housing need and include program actions with metrics and milestones to remove or mitigate identified constraints…. Academic research continues to show that San Francisco’s processing and entitlement timeframes and procedures exceed the norms for other jurisdictions of similar size and complexity and act as a constraint on the development of housing.”

HCD concluded by reminding the City that HCD “has both the authority and duty to review any action or failure to act by a city, county, or city and county that it determines is inconsistent with an adopted housing element… or in violation of the HAA.”  HCD’s investigation remains open and they are continuing their review of the City’s practices with respect to housing review and approval generally.

 

Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorney Thomas P. Tunny.

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.

Cities’ Upcoming Need to Identify Housing Opportunity Sites

Housing

The next RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) cycle is quickly approaching, which means that all Bay Area cities will be taking a closer look at their Housing Elements and determining whether they have enough land zoned to accommodate more housing.

In June 2020, the California Housing and Community Development (“HCD”) provided the Bay Area its Regional Housing Needs Determination for the next RHNA cycle (2023-2031), identifying a need for 441,176 new housing units.  The overall figure is further categorized into very low (26%), low (15%), moderate (16%), and above moderate (43%) housing and income levels.  This figure represents a significant increase when compared to the prior RHNA cycle (2015-2023) when the Bay Area was allocated 187,990 units.  In the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) is responsible for allocating the overall figure among cities and counties, and its Housing Methodology Committee spent much of 2020 in meetings to discuss and decide on different methodology options.  Regardless of which allocation methodology was going to be chosen, most Bay Area cities and counties are seeing a significant increase in their RHNA allocations.

ABAG’s Executive Board approved the Draft RHNA Methodology and Final RHNA Subregional Shares (“Draft Allocation”) for the Bay Area on January 21, 2021.  The Draft Allocation is subject to HCD approval on or before April 11, 2021, and thereafter an appeal opportunity by individual cities and counties during Summer/Fall 2021.  Historically, very few appeals by individual cities or counties have been successful, and thus most of the Draft Allocation figures are anticipated to be adopted as final allocations by late 2021.

Once the allocations have been finalized, individual cities and counties will need to amend their Housing Elements and identify sufficient number of vacant or underdeveloped sites that can accommodate the RHNA figure allocated to each city.  Many cities are currently starting the process by engaging consultants to work on their next Housing Element update.  The updated housing elements must be submitted to the State by each city and county no later than January 2023, and if applicable, cities and counties will thereafter need to rezone properties consistent with the updated Housing Elements and site identifications.

To understand the magnitude of the increases cities and counties are facing for the next RHNA cycle, it is helpful to look at some of the Draft Allocation figures.  The following represents a sampling of Bay Area cities, comparing their final 2015-2023 RHNA figure to those proposed in the Draft Allocation for the next, 2023-2031 cycle.  For a complete list of cities/counties, see the Draft Allocation.

City2015-2023 cycle2023-2031 cycle
San Francisco28,86982,069
Oakland14,76526,251
San Jose35,08062,200
Berkeley2,9598,934
Fremont5,45512,897
Concord3,4785,073
Lafayette4002,114
Walnut Creek2,2355,805
Novato4152,090
Tiburon78639
Daly City1,3504,838
Menlo Park6552,946
San Bruno1,1553,165
Cupertino1,0644,588
Los Gatos6191,993
Sunnyvale5,45211,966

Cities and counties are not required to build new housing, but they are required to plan for it and specifically plan for enough housing that satisfies their assigned RHNA figure.  Since most Bay Area cities and counties are subject to significant increases, local city councils and board of supervisors, along with their Planning Departments, will be taking a comprehensive look at zoning and development in their jurisdictions over the next year and a half.  This may also represent opportunities in the near-term for property owners of currently vacant or underutilized properties and/or those that lack the zoning necessary for residential development.

 

Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorney Tuija Catalano.

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.