San Francisco benefits from housing law that streamlines approval

Photo of a permit center courtesy San Francisco Mayor London Breeds X account.

To address the state's housing crisis, California enacted a Statewide Housing Plan in 2022.  It says that every city and county must build its share of new homes to meet a total of 2.5 million new homes the state estimates it will need by 2031. San Francisco's part of the job is to build 82,000 units by the same deadline.

On Monday, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that the city will be the first in the state subject to Senate Bill 423, a new California law that is triggered if the state determines a city is falling behind on its housing goals. It directs governments to streamline permitting processes to bypass local obstacles and regulations.

The "new" law is not entirely new. In 2017, Wiener passed Senate Bill 35, which did essentially the same thing - triggered a switch from a more complicated local review process to a state designed streamlined one.  

According to the San Francisco Planning Department, over 3,600 homes have received streamlined approval in the city under SB 35, 88% of which are affordable at below-market rates. 

The difference lies in which development projects are eligible for the green light.  In the 2017 version, the emphasis was on affordable housing projects.  The new law, SB 423, expands the fast lane option to developers building market rate homes, which can be sold to the highest bidder. 

"SB 423 is a rebranded SB 35," according to Anne Yalon, spokesperson for the San Francisco Planning Department.  "The big change is now market rate developments can take advantage of it, whereas before you could only take advantage if your project had 50% or more affordable units, and now it's 10%."

Yalon said SB 423 is changing who can take advantage of the law, such as market rate developers.

In a press conference with Breed on Monday, Wiener said San Francisco will now have the shortest approval process in the state. 

"It will do so by releasing developers from the hyper-political mosh pit of San Francisco," said Wiener. "If you meet the permitting rules with your project. You just get your damn permit, period."  

But according to San Francisco Board of Supervisor's President Aaron Peskin, the city already has 56,000 approved housing units sitting in limbo.

"The real obstacle to building housing, and especially affordable housing, is financing," he said. "My concern with SB 423 is that it will be a boon for speculators and developers who will build expensive units out of reach for most San Franciscans -- and relying on a planning department to protect tenants when they have shown over and over that they are incapable of enforcing those laws. When combined with the state mandated rezoning, it could enable widespread by-right demolition of beloved and economically thriving neighborhood corridors with no input possible from residence and vital small businesses. It also significantly curtails community input in 'priority, equity, geographies,' those most vulnerable to gentrification and displacement."

The difference between the new and old permitting process lies in understanding the difference between discretionary and ministerial approval.

Discretionary approval looks at the impact of each project individually. An example of discretionary approval would be when a neighborhood organization expresses concerns about a proposed development. For example, they might worry about the cumulative impact of having a bunch of building projects going up in a neighborhood all at once. They could ask the planning commission to consider ways to preserve the cultural and economic character of the neighborhood.

Ministerial approval looks at the paperwork. If a developer proposes a housing project that meets the city's building code, it gets permitted. In many ways, it's the opposite of discretionary.

In his statement Monday, Wiener cited a UC Berkeley study released in October that found, between 2014 and 2017, the median approval timeframe for multifamily housing in San Francisco was 26.6 months.

"Because SB 423 requires city planning officials to issue a final decision on most new housing permits within 6 months of application, the new law will slash San Francisco's median approvals time to a quarter of its length before streamlining took effect," Wiener said.