Mon, Jul

SB 423: Let’s Build In High Fire Risk Areas And Coastal Zones! What Could Go Wrong?


SENATE BILL - In his latest assault on rational planning practices, State Senator Scott Wiener wants to streamline approvals for residential projects in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) and Coastal Zones.  SB 423 is an extension of a previous Wiener bill, SB 35, that granted by-right approvals to qualifying projects, meaning no public hearings and no environmental review.  But it removes restrictions on building in VHFHSZs and coastal areas, and many of the bill’s opponents believe this is very dangerous.

It seems Wiener is unaware of, or unconcerned about, the fact that we’re facing increasingly large and destructive fires in this state.  According to CalFire, 11 of California’s 20 deadliest fires have taken place since the year 2000.  Over 100 lives have been lost since 2017.  Part of the reason recent fires are so dangerous is that they’re moving faster than ever, making it hard to give residents ample warning and making it difficult for them to escape in time.  And yet Senator Wiener wants it to be quick and easy to build residential projects in high fire risk areas.

SB 423 would also allow streamlined approvals in Coastal Zones, and this is another area where Wiener seems determined to ignore real risks.  The California Coastal Commission is concerned about the potential for new residential construction in areas vulnerable to sea level rise, and according to an article from The Hill, they asked for an amendment that would prohibit streamlining in “areas vulnerable to five feet of sea level rise as determined by best available science.”

Five feet is too much for Wiener, and he reportedly countered with a proposal for a ban in areas vulnerable to three feet of sea level rise.  The problem here is that no one is really sure how much the sea level is going to rise along the California coast.  The best estimates are still just estimates, and recent evidence shows that climate change is accelerating.  The 2022 Report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that beyond 2040, the impacts associated with key areas of risk could be multiple times higher than current estimates.  The report also states that:

“Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously, and multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions. Some responses to climate change result in new impacts and risks.”

Also, beyond sea level rise projections, coastal flooding caused by tide and storm surges is expected to increase dramatically.  The NOAA’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report [https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/sealevelrise/sealevelrise-tech-report.html] states that.  “By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.”

But Senator Wiener apparently doesn’t want to think about the risks SB 423 poses to people living in projects built in coastal areas.  Nor does he appear too concerned about the risks to human life raised by building in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones.  He seems to believe that the need for housing outweighs these risks.  But we have to ask, housing for who?  While Wiener cites data from the Terner Center showing that his previous bill, SB 35, has increased approvals of affordable housing projects, it’s important to remember that many approved projects don’t get built.  Lack of funding, and an absurdly complex process for obtaining funding, are huge obstacles to the construction of affordable housing. 

SB 423’s streamlining provisions aren’t limited to affordable housing projects.  They’re available to any residential project that includes as little as 10% affordable housing.  So, while a cursory reading of the Terner Center report might make it seem that SB 35 has resulted in an avalanche of new housing for low-income households, without data showing whether or not projects have been constructed, it’s hard to say how much has actually been accomplished. 

Wiener’s bill will streamline approvals for projects that have as much as 90% market rate housing, and while Wiener has argued that we need to build more housing at all levels, the facts don’t seem to support that view.  Let’s look at San Francisco, the area Wiener represents.  A 2022 Report by the Budget & Legislative Analyst, states:

“With an uptick in housing production in San Francisco since 2016, it appears that the

City is likely to meet its State-generated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA)

target for January 31, 2015 through January 31, 2023 of 28,869 new units. However,

the distribution of units by affordability level shows that San Francisco has already

exceeded its RHNA target for market rate housing but has under-produced housing

compared to the goal for very low, low, and moderate income households.”  [Emphasis added.]

The same report shows that between 2014 and 2019 vacancy rates in San Francisco went from 8% to 10%.  Experts consider 5% a healthy vacancy rate for rental housing.  Obviously, San Francisco has been well above that level for years, and vacancy rates in the city have soared even higher since the pandemic.   A report produced by the City of LA in 2020 estimated that the vacancy rate was between 6% and 7%, approximately 85,000 to 100,000 empty units.  Like San Francisco, LA has easily exceeded State goals for market rate housing, but has fallen way short of goals for affordable housing.  So, while Wiener wants to emphasize the affordable housing that could be produced under SB 423, the bill’s benefits are also available for developers building market rate housing.  As the stats cited above show, we already have more than enough of that.

Real planning means considering real risks.  Scott Wiener seems determined to gut the planning process with his obsessive push for streamlined approvals.   SB 423 has the potential to put new housing in areas at risk of flooding and fire.  Communities should consider carefully all the risks involved with building in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones and Coastal Zones.  Human lives could be a stake.

(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA [www.un4la.com]), and a CityWatch contributor.)