The Mercury News
San Mateo uses new state law for low-income units
After the defeat of a controversial proposal to boost housing density throughout California, San Mateo may become the first city to use a different state law to increase the number of affordable housing units on a new project east of downtown.
Housing advocates say they expect more Bay Area cities to rely on Assembly Bill 1763, which took effect last month and says that low-income housing projects can be denser and taller, regardless of what local guidelines allow.
The legislation, while more limited in scope, echoes some of the elements of Senate Bill 50, which would have allowed developers of affordable and market-rate homes to boost density throughout the state to help solve Califor
nia’s housing crisis. Under AB 1763, projects near major transit hubs can be up to three stories taller.
That means San Mateo’s five-story, 164-unit project could be turned into a seven-story complex with 225 units for low-income families. The development is set to be built in a relatively industrial area just east of the downtown core, near auto repair shops and a lumber company. And under the new law, the developer could have proposed adding another story but decided against it.
“I am thrilled we are starting to see cities take advantage of this new law to provide more affordable housing,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-san Francisco, said in an email. “AB 1763 will help maximize our scarce affordable housing dollars by allowing projects to be built taller and denser.”
The San Mateo project — from nonprofit developer Midpen Housing — is the first the lawmaker’s office is aware of to rely on the new law and must still gain final approval from the City Council after community meetings. But it won’t be the last.
The law, said David Garcia, policy director at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, “is going to be impactful for affordable housing projects, particularly in areas where zoning is such that you don’t get the density needed to make a project pencil out.”
Without AB 1763, San Mateo said in a news release, height and density limits approved by city voters — five stories and no more than 50 units per acre — would have limited the number of affordable homes that could be built on the site along East Fourth and East Fifth avenues between South Railroad Avenue and South Claremont Street.
The legislation aims not only to give affordable housing developers like Midpen the ability to increase density to make more potential projects possible but to compel cities with more restrictive zoning laws to allow more homes.
“In a way, it kind of forces their hand on the zoning piece,” Garcia said.
SB 50 from state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-san Francisco, also backed by Chiu, would have forced cities’ hands in an even bigger way — requiring local governments to allow taller, denser housing of all types near transit and job hubs. But the idea failed last month for the third time amid intense pushback.
Garcia thinks Chiu’s proposal passed in part because it’s relatively “narrow in scope” compared with SB 50, “which took a more global view of housing broadly.”
In a statement when the law passed, California Housing Consortium Executive Director Ray Pearl called the legislation “one of the most significant policy changes the state has ever made to increase the production of affordable housing,” allowing every new affordable housing development in the state to include 80% more units than it could in the past.
Even as San Mateo has embraced the Midpen project, it has pushed back on increased density in other areas. The city is embroiled in a housing lawsuit with potential statewide implications, after the city rejected a 10-unit condominium complex because it didn’t meet design guidelines aimed at limiting height differences with surrounding properties.
There also are dueling factions in the city battling over whether to preserve existing height restrictions, or allow taller, denser buildings.
Michael Weinhauer — president of the Central Neighborhood Association, where the Midpen project is set to be built, and a member of the group San Mateans for Responsive Government, which wants to maintain the city’s current height and density requirements and its suburban feel — urged the council to push back against the larger project.
“As soon as the opportunity presents itself, we see everybody rushing to jam as much into that space as possible,” Weinhauer said at a February meeting.
In an email, San Mateans for Responsive Government said that it supports affordable housing but thinks the new design does not include enough parking and that the city is trying to rush the process without adequately hearing or considering the needs of the surrounding community.
“The one-size-fits-all solution of AB 1763 ignores local history and reality,” the group said.
But Midpen has praised the city for recognizing a new opportunity to boost its affordable housing stock and San Mateo itself has touted the legislation’s impact.
“It’s a way for cities to do more with the most precious resource they have — their land,” said Nevada Merriman, director of housing development for Midpen. “Their council is very excited to pursue this.”
Chiu and other lawmakers have pointed to figures that suggest there are more than 2 million low-income families competing for only around 664,000 affordable rental units in the state.
If the San Mateo development moves forward, the project could include hundreds of homes for workers, including school staffers and government employees struggling to get by in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.
In addition to providing the land for the project, San Mateo is set to contribute $12.5 million toward the $182 million project, which includes a standalone parking garage for residents and downtown visitors.
“The Bay Area is at the epicenter of the jobs-housing imbalance and cities must maximize efforts to provide stable housing options for our workforce,” San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals said in a statement.
“We have over 2,000 units in the development pipeline and with the housing community that Midpen is building, along with the increase to our belowmarket-rate program, we’re providing opportunities for every income level.”