State’s ‘anti-NIMBY law’ will bring more housing to SLO, whether neighbors like it or not

A rendering of the four-story building proposed for 790 Foothill Blvd. in San Luis Obispo. The state’s “anti-NIMBY” law severely limited the city’s ability to make any changes to the plan.
A rendering of the four-story building proposed for 790 Foothill Blvd. in San Luis Obispo. The state’s “anti-NIMBY” law severely limited the city’s ability to make any changes to the plan. SanLuisObispo

For years, the state of California has tried to nudge cities and counties into approving more housing — a toothless effort that hasn’t worked.

Finally, the state has brought the hammer down. A revamped Housing Accountability Act — often referred to as the “anti-NIMBY law” — is making it harder for cities and counties to deny housing projects that meet all local laws.

If a jurisdiction refuses to comply, it can be fined $10,000 per unit, or $50,000 per unit if the case drags on.

We hate to say it, but the law is a necessary evil.

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Too often, politicians presented with a good project have caved when confronted with a group of angry people complaining that growth will ruin their neighborhood.

That’s one reason we now face a critical housing shortage in California, especially in desirable coastal areas like ours.

Now, housing projects that comply with a jurisdiction’s General Plan must be approved, unless it can be shown that the project will present significant, specific threats to public health and safety.

Cities that try game the system by revising their General Plans to deny a particular project are out of luck; the General Plan that was in effect when the application was filed is the one that holds sway.

This isn’t about Sacramento dictating to local communities. It’s about holding communities accountable for following the plans they adopt.

The law already is making a difference locally.

Last month, it came into play when the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission approved a controversial, four-story apartment/commercial complex at 790 Foothill Blvd., over the opposition of a roomful of nearby residents worried about increased traffic, diminished views and lack of parking.

Commissioners had reservations about the project, but on account of the Housing Affordability Act, they said there was nothing they could do.

“We don’t have any discretion. It’s pretty well gone,” said Commissioner Chuck Stevenson. “This is not a good thing for the city of SLO, (where) we pride ourselves on evaluating projects with very fine-tuned discretion.”

We share the commissioner’s misgivings about the size and density of the project, which will function primarily as a private dorm for upper-level Cal Poly students.

It will include 78 apartments — 12 of them studio apartments set aside for very low income residents.

Ideally, the building would be smaller, and a greater share of the units would be for low-income tenants.

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But on the plus side, San Luis Obispo needs more housing, and the Foothill corridor is a logical place for it. Students will be able to walk, bike or take the bus to class. If they do drive, they will have staggered schedules so it won’t create the huge morning and evening traffic tie-ups we see elsewhere.

The addition of 12 affordable units, which are likely to go to permanent residents on account of eligibility rules, is a significant gain, since units for very low income tenants are especially scarce.

Finally, it makes a lot more sense to put a modern, four-story building here than smack in the middle of the historic downtown.

The Foothill Boulevard project still must get a final blessing from the City Council, and the council undoubtedly will be urged to deny the project.

If the council were to do so, there’s a good chance the city would wind up in court.

Five Bay Area cities have been sued in recent years for violations of the Housing Accountability Act. In one case, the city prevailed; another case is pending; and in the other three, the cities wound up approving the projects. Cities that lose such cases not only face fines, they also are liable for plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

Like Commissioner Stevenson, we don’t feel great about the project; we wish the anti-NIMBY law gave local officials authority to streamline it and make it better.

But we can’t continue the cycle of encouraging housing projects, only to deny them or radically downsize them on account of neighborhood opposition.

If it takes an anti-NIMBY law to break that pattern, it’s a necessary evil we’ll learn to live with.