Clear the way for more housing

University of California, Berkeley students search for apartments in Berkeley on March 29, 2022. Photo by Eric Risberg, AP Photo
University of California, Berkeley students search for apartments in Berkeley on March 29, 2022. Photo by Eric Risberg, AP Photo

By Ben Christopher


SB 423 and SB 4 — both authored by San Francisco Democrat and human housing bill factory Sen. Scott Wiener — take aim at California’s dire housing shortage by making it easier to build.

SB 423, the most closely watched housing bill of the year, renews Wiener’s 2017 law that forces local governments to automatically greenlight apartments and other dense urban housing projects, so long as developers set a certain share of the units aside for lower income residents and abide by more stringent and costly labor standards. That means no lengthy environmental reviews or noisy city council meetings. This year’s version tweaks the formula slightly by relaxing some of the labor standards and nixing a prior exemption for many coastal neighborhoods

SB 4, dubbed the “Yes in God’s Backyard” bill, would clear the way for churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship, along with nonprofit colleges, to build designated affordable housing on their properties without having to conduct environmental reviews, receive approval from local governments or request changes to zoning.


Though the coalitions supporting both bills aren’t identical, housing developers, “Yes in My Backyard” activists, affordable housing advocates and some of the state’s biggest labor unions have lined up behind both. Arguably the most politically significant backer has been the state’s unionized carpenters, who have emerged over the last two years as one of the most well-organized interest groups in support of more housing construction and whose support has given many labor-friendly Democrats tacit permission to break with less enthusiastic organized labor groups.


Many local governments, building trade unions and environmental activists have lined up against bills, but for different reasons. Local governments and other champions of local control over land use are rarely fans of state laws that usurp their decision-making authority. Many construction union groups are still angry that Wiener — arguing that the prior rules made it prohibitively expensive to actually build anything — watered down some of the hiring standards in SB 423. And some conservation groups are opposed to that bill for its failure to exempt the state’s entire coastline. Environmental activists for lower income communities removed their opposition from SB 4 after it was amended to exempt areas around oil and gas wells and other heavy industry facilities. 


The law that SB 423 would re-up was used to fast-track the approval of more than 18,000 units in its first four years, according to a UC Berkeley Terner Center analysis. The Terner Center also calculated that SB 4 would open up tens of thousands of acres of land for ready-to-go affordable housing construction. These are both meaningful increases in housing supply, though a far cry from the state’s goal of 315,000 per year.

More dramatic is the political upheaval that these two bills represent. When Wiener was elected to the Legislature in 2016, the argument that the state should play an aggressive role in removing obstacles to more housing construction, even over the objections of local governments, was a political lightning rod. Now it’s almost taken for granted. SB 423 passed with overwhelming support in both houses. The margins on SB 4, two versions of which failed in prior years, were even higher. Particularly with the rise of the carpenters’ union as a pro-housing force, the lobbying bloc in support of building more housing has become as formidable as any in the Capitol.