New state bill could open up vacant land for housing construction

Housing projects like Santa Maria’s Hope Village and Santa Barbara’s Dignity Moves could expand across the state and offer rental opportunities after a new bill got introduced in the state Senate. 

Currently the states planning and zoning laws require each jurisdiction to adopt housing plans and use proper zoning where multifamily and mixed uses are permitted. This bill, known as SB 634, would define “opportunity housing projects,” which would allow relocatable housing to be developed on vacant lots regardless of zoning and may not require a conditional use permit, according to the bill’s full text

“Because the bill would impose new requirements on local governments in the review and approval of opportunity housing projects, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program,” the bill stated. 

SB 634 was authored by state Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo) and introduced to the Senate on Feb. 16. It still has to go through various committees before the Senate and Assembly can vote on it. State Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) told the Sun in a statement that she appreciated the communities starting to have more conversations about people getting housed.

“This bill would facilitate housing projects like Hope Village in Santa Maria. We have seen success stories locally, and I hope we can continue to have needed conversations both at a local level and on the statewide,” Limón said in the statement. 

The bill is sponsored by Dignity Moves—an organization that develops interim supportive housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. The organization has worked on several housing projects throughout the state, including the two in Santa Barbara County.

Currently, Dignity Moves only develops its non-congregate housing units for individuals experiencing homelessness, but CEO and Founder Elizabeth Funk said she’d like to see this model expanded to low-income or farmworker housing.

“When you’re in a sheltered system, you’re still considered homeless. The cities don’t have the incentive to spend money on interim housing because their homeless numbers don’t go down, but if they pay rent they are housed,” Funk said. “In this model, the resident could pay rent, get a housing voucher, and the [city] doesn’t need to worry about it.” 

Dignity Moves follows an emergency building appendix already in place in the California Building Code, which allows the organization to construct the moveable structures on public vacant land, bypassing local building codes. The appendix is modified in this bill so Dignity Moves and other organizations could also build on private land.

“In the California Tax Code, if a private land owner uses their land for nonprofit uses—including low-income housing—they get their property taxes exempt,” Funk said. “If they lease it to the nonprofit for a dollar, that’s a donation to the nonprofit and that’s a tax benefit. Private landowners could have a real incentive to donate their land.” 

Expanding this type of housing to rental units could also help local jurisdictions meet their state-required Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) numbers, Funk said.

According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, as long as it’s non-congregate housing and it’s the person’s habitual place of residence, it counts toward RHNA, Funk said, comparing this model to dorm room facilities or mobile home units. 

“This housing does count toward RHNA, we’re not changing that in this law,” she said. “Cities should be super excited because they’re getting a lot of pressure from the state, and this is going to be super helpful to get that.” 

The bill wouldn’t require local jurisdictions to comply, but “strongly suggest that they agree,” she said. 

“If there’s a public agency that has land not being used and not a demonstrable use in five years, they need to respond with a justifiable reason for saying no,” Funk said. “If they don’t want to, we’re not going to force them, but the state is sending a strong signal to make their land available.” 

Although Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino was not available for comment, she has often expressed frustration with the state mandates, including during the discussion of the Dignity Moves project Hope Village. 

“We’re seeing more and more local control being taken away from us. Not just the city, but the county,” she said during a community meeting about Hope Village. “And Sacramento is doing nothing; they’re making it worse for us.” 

Comments (0)
Add a Comment