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Bill sabotages statewide affordable housing efforts

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Assembly ill 2501, the Density Bonus Law, is a key measure to build affordable homes and encourage environmentally friendly infill development. (Courtesy photo)
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Peter Cohen is at it again. A week after getting rebuked by state Sen. Scott Wiener for misleading the public about Wiener’s Housing Accountability and Affordability Act, Cohen dissembled about the Density Bonus Law in these pages. Contrary to being a “gift that Santa brought to San Francisco developers,” last year’s amendments to the Density Bonus Law (Assembly Bill 2501) were sponsored by a coalition of advocates for low-income people to create affordable housing. Now, Cohen is attempting to sabotage the Density Bonus Law with the help of Assemblymember Phil Ting by proposing Assembly Bill 915.

Let’s be clear: The DBL is a key measure to build affordable homes and encourage environmentally friendly infill development. But don’t take my word for it. The sponsors of AB 2501, the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said, “AB 2501 is one piece of a multi-pronged effort by legislators, housing advocates and other organizations to address California’s unfortunate dominance of the list of the country’s least-affordable housing markets. By reducing regulatory barriers to housing development, this bill would stretch any increase in state housing funding further and would induce market-rate developers to build below-market units without any public funding.”

The Cohen-Ting bill would:

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1. Reduce significantly the economic incentives to use the DBL, which will reduce the supply of affordable homes, by automatically imposing a local on-site inclusionary requirement or in lieu inclusionary fee on the units awarded under the state DBL.

2. Force municipalities that support the state DBL to pass new laws. Under AB 915, localities that support the current density bonus program must specifically exempt density bonus units to local on-site inclusionary requirements or in lieu inclusionary fees.

3. Create huge financial, legal and political uncertainties for developers who have state DBL projects already in the pipeline, in many instances for several years.

4. Create huge financial, legal and political uncertainties for developers considering using the DBL for future projects and for landowners wishing to sell their land to such developers.

5. Permit municipalities that are hostile to the DBL to make density bonus units economically infeasible. Cities opposed to housing low-income people could evade the DBL by imposing on-site inclusionary requirements or in lieu inclusionary fees specifically on units awarded under the DBL that would make construction of such units economically infeasible.

6. Reduce the supply of new housing by making financially infeasible, delaying and increasing the cost of many projects. In places with high inclusionary zoning requirements, like The City, many proposed housing development projects are only financially feasible if they receive density bonus units under the current law program.

7. Completely circumvent the spirit, intent and function of the state DBL, which is: “to be interpreted liberally in favor of producing the maximum number of total housing units.”

While San Franciscans love bickering about housing developments more than complaining about the fog, AB 915 is a sad example of how The City’s internal political squabbles worsen state-level policy and harm low-income people from San Diego to Crescent City. In San Francisco, 40-plus years of restricting home building alongside robust high-wage job growth created a large delta between construction costs and market prices, which The City exploits to mandate low-income housing. As Capital of the Internet, Bay Area cities have the luxury of requiring below-market-rate housing. Cities like Fresno aren’t so lucky.

After AB 2501 passed last year, the Western Center said the bill makes “meaningful steps toward addressing California’s growing housing crisis and providing critically needed units affordable to the lowest-income Californians.” Don’t let Cohen and Ting turn back California’s progress and deprive affordable homes for low-income families statewide. Give Assemblymember Ting a call at (916) 319-2019 and tell him to rescind AB 915.

Brian Hanlon is co-founder of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund to make housing more affordable and accessible throughout California.

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