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JUNE 2024 Real Estate Law Newsletter

Housing, Unions and Tiny Forests


This edition highlights an impending effort to reduce the time and cost to build modest sized residential developments, as well as forces that may make affordable housing more expensive. In addition, we showcase a relatively quick way to reforest urban areas, something cities and developers are starting to see as an imperative with the rising temperatures caused by global warming.

Please contact Selna Partners Law with questions about the information below.

July 1:  No Hearings or CEQA Review for Projects of up to 10 Homes

Do you have a modest-sized housing project in mind? On July 1 a new California law will require city agencies to review housing projects of ten or fewer units and their parcel maps without public hearings or environmental reviews.

SB 684, which was approved during the 2023 Legislative Session, is yet another attempt by lawmakers to reduce the time and expense of building small and medium sized housing projects.

In a notable example from 2021, the State Legislature also approved SB 9, requiring over-the-counter approval for applications to: 1) split single-family lots in two for housing; and 2) construct two homes on one lot. This allowed four dwellings on property that previously allowed just one.

Details on SB 684: to be exempted from hearings and environmental reviews, projects must result in ten or fewer parcels and ten or fewer units on lots no larger than 5 acres. A project parcel must also be zoned multifamily or be located in single-family zoning and vacant.

Review deadlines: SB 684 requires local agencies to approve or deny a completed application for a parcel map or a tentative and final map within 60 days from the date the agency receives it. If not, the map is deemed approved. The map applications also are not subject to public hearings or appeals.

Trade Unions Want a Piece of Oakland’s Affordable Housing Money

The City of Oakland recently convened stakeholders regarding an Oakland City Council proposal to place undefined “labor standards” on housing projects seeking taxpayer-approved affordable housing funds. Rob Selna is the vice president of the Oakland Builders Alliance (“OBA”). The OBA was grouped with local, minority contractors as one of several stakeholder groups providing feedback on the proposal.

The OBA generally opposes adding regulations to public affordable housing fund allocations because they drive up construction costs. And, local minority contractors have been harmed by labor standards proposed by trade unions due to their administrative and financial burdens. Moreover, trade unions proposing the standards have historically excluded women and minorities.

At a time when nearly all agree that Oakland and the State of California desperately need more affordable housing, studies confirm that cities increase the cost of affordable housing and reduce the number of units built when they impose more labor requirements on developers seeking public funds.

Recently released data shows that Oakland’s homeless population increased by nine percent to 5,490, since 2022. And the City of Oakland reports that it currently costs $900,000 to produce a single unit of affordable housing.

In 2022 Oakland taxpayers approved Measure U, a bond dedicating $350 million to build lower-cost housing. In February, construction trade unions operating in the East Bay urged the City Council to add a “policy” on labor standards to Measure U fund allocations, starting with a $22 million outlay this September.

Councilmembers Nikki Bas and Kevin Jenkins, ardent unions supporters, introduced a February resolution implying that imposing new labor standards on affordable housing funding was a foregone conclusion.  “[T]he future policy on labor standards for Measure U Bond funding for affordable housing projects shall apply to future New Construction Notices of Funding Availability related to Measure U Bond funding” their resolution stated.

But Emily Weinstein, head of Oakland’s Housing Department, told local news reporters that Oakland already imposes “substantial” wage, local business, and local hiring requirements on affordable projects. Weinstein expressed serious concern that a discussion about adding yet more requirements might delay the City’s issuance of affordable housing funds.

More Labor Standards Decrease Housing Production:  In 2021, RAND conducted the only publicly available research analyzing the impact of labor standards on affordable housing production. Focused on L.A., It found the additional standards increased costs by an average of $43,000 per unit and resulted in a missed opportunity to create 800 additional units of affordable housing. The cost increase would likely be higher in 2024 due to inflation and other factors.

Selna Partners will continue to update readers on this matter of on-going concern.

The Builders Remedy Evolves

Under the “Builder’s Remedy,” residential projects are freed from the zoning regulations of the city in which they are proposed if the city lacks a state-approved housing production plan, and the projects include affordable housing.

As 2023 deadlines for cities to achieve compliant housing plans expired, some developers made headlines by using the Builders Remedy to advance extraordinarily tall and dense projects. This caused concern at the local level and reconsideration at the State Legislature. After all, the goal of the Builders Remedy was to push local governments to create ambitious housing production plans, not obliterate their zoning codes.

In that vein, AB 1893, a 2024 bill introduced by Assembly member Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, would restrict the size of projects using the Builder’s Remedy to three times the allowable density in urban areas near transit, and double the density elsewhere. The bill would also lower the percentage of affordable housing required in mixed-income projects from 20 percent to 10 percent. Finally, it would exempt projects with 10 or fewer units from affordability requirements.

Tiny Forests and Urban Environments

In his spare time, Rob Selna is the director of a non-profit organization that plants trees and builds community gardens in Oakland. The organization planted eight African Sumac trees in October, adding to the trees it planted two years before and a large community garden it built in 2015.

Recently, the group happened upon a Japanese tree planting method that, in recent years, has been adopted in several cities around the world, partly in response to climate change. Now the method has started to show up in the United States. As one local example, in the past several years, the Berkeley School District has used the technique at four schools to reforest the campuses and teach students about environmental stewardship.

The Miyawaki method (named after Japanese botanist Kira Miyawaki) includes restoring soil and then planting layers of native tree species close together, so they compete for nutrients and sun. Doing so recreates the fertile conditions of the natural primitive forests and makes the trees grow quickly. The tree stands can reach maturity in 15 to 20 years, 10 times faster than average.

Because Miyawaki forests started out as a tool to revitalize polluted industrial land, they have often been employed in urban areas, and sometimes on very small lots. The “tiny” or “pocket” forests, are capable of thriving in a space as small as 50 square feet. As such, they are useful tools for greening long-vacant, small infill lots, and possibly helping developers meet their project’s open space requirements.

Thanks for reading and look for more to come!

Rob Selna

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