California’s “Housing Crisis Act of 2019” May Boost Housing Production or Just Boost Housing-Related Litigation
On October 9, 2019, Governor Newsom signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 330, or the “Housing Crisis Act of 2019” in an effort to combat California’s current housing shortage, which has resulted in the highest rents and lowest homeownership rates in the nation. In a nutshell, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 seeks to boost homebuilding throughout the State for at least the next 5 years, particularly in urbanized zones, by expediting the approval process for housing development. To accomplish this, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 removes some local discretionary land use controls currently in place and requires municipalities to approve all developments that comply with current zoning codes and general plans. If not extended, SB 330 will only be effective from January 1, 2020 through January 1, 2025.
Governor Newsom signed SB 330 over the objections of local governments to help meet his ambitious goal of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. One study by UCLA found that localities have already approved zoning for 2.8 million new housing units – 80% of Governor Newsom’s goal. However, if zoning alone was enough to increase housing production, California’s rate of housing production would be increasing. Instead, in the first half of 2019, there was a 20% reduction in the issuance of residential building permits compared to the same time period in 2018. California believes the reduction was due, in part, to excessive hearings and local approval procedures, mid-application spikes in development impact fees, and mid-application changes to development regulations, all of which can render a residential development project infeasible.
Only time will tell if SB 330 will actually increase the rate of housing production or merely fill the courts with more housing-related litigation prior to SB 330’s sunset in 5 years. However, one thing is for sure – local governments must tread carefully before denying the next housing project.
The Housing Crisis Act of 2019 applies to all housing developments consistent with objective general plan, zoning and subdivision standards in affect at the time an application is deemed complete, and affects all cities and counties in California – including charter cities. A “housing development” is defined as a project that is (1) all residential; (2) a mixed use project with at least two-thirds of the square-footage residential; or (3) for transitional or supportive housing.
SB 330 also places extra restrictions on certain “affected” cities and counties with housing statistics below national averages. As defined by the legislation, today there are nearly 450 cities and unincorporated parts of counties that qualify as “affected.”
For all cities and counties, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019’s major impacts include:
Retroactive prevention of zoning codes or design standards alterations that reduce residential density or intensity of use from that which was in place on January 1, 2018;
Authorization of proposed housing developments to override the local zoning codes that are inconsistent with the general plan, if the project is consistent with the general plan or land-use element of a specific plan;
Prevention of non-scheduled impact fees increases after a project applicant has submitted all preliminary required information;
Limitation of the number of public hearings on a development to 5; and
Specification that applications must be reviewed for completeness within 30 days of submission, provision of a written notice to the applicant if the agency believes the project is inconsistent with objective local development plans, policies and standards within 30 days if a housing project is under 150 units (and 60 days if the housing project is over 150 units).
Additional controls on “affected” cities include:
Prevention of municipalities from enacting moratoriums on residential and mixed use projects;
Prevention of municipalities from establishing caps on the number of people who can live in the municipality, the number of housing units allowed, or the number of housing units to be constructed; and
Prevention of any density reductions or changes to design standards that downzone or limit housing development.
In addition to the above-mentioned controls on a local government’s ability to restrict development, there are also special limitations on reductions to affordable housing in a community. As to cities and counties, a local agency may not disapprove, or condition approval in a manner that renders infeasible a housing project for very low, low-, or moderate-income households or emergency shelters without specific written findings based on a preponderance of evidence in the record. This only applies to projects with 20% of the total units set-aside for affordable housing at 60% area median income (AMI) or 100% of the total units set-aside for affordable housing at 100% AMI.
As for developers, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 bans any demolition of affordable or rent-controlled units unless the developer replaces all such units, allows tenants to stay in their homes until 6 months before construction begins, provides relocation assistance to tenants, and offers tenants a first right of return at an affordable rent.
SB 330 also implements penalties for violation of Housing Accountability Act (Govt. Code § 65589.5) (HAA) rules. Specifically, a court may require an agency make appropriate findings of denial or pay a $10,000 per unit fine into affordable housing funds. In the case of a local agency’s bad faith and failure to comply with a court order within 60 days, fines can increase to $50,000 per unit and the court can overturn a project denial and approve the project itself. Bad faith includes decisions that are frivolous or entirely without merit.
 SB 330 sets out criteria for identifying “affected” cities based on incorporation, size, and the average rent and vacancy rate compared to the national average.
Co-Author Kelsey Clayton is a Law Clerk in Sheppard Mullin’s San Diego office.