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California’s Housing Battle: Preservationists vs. Pro-Development Advocates

The ongoing debate over where and how to build housing in California typically pits neighborhood preservationists against pro-development advocates. So it’s no small feat that a new bill from Assemblymember Matt Haney, representing San Francisco, appears to have united both YIMBYs and NIMBYs around fast-tracking the conversion of historic downtown buildings into housing.

Haney stated that his new bill, AB 3068, aims to address the state’s burgeoning housing crisis by repurposing the surplus of vacant office spaces currently plaguing downtown areas across the state, including San Francisco’s depleted central business district.

According to The San Francisco Standard, experts who have studied the feasibility of conversions say limited inventory and high costs remain the highest barriers to breaking ground on such projects. Buildings that do lend themselves to conversions generally skew older, and that comes with a Pandora’s box of complex and often conflicting historical preservation rules. 

“We’ve been fighting this zero-sum game at the local level where it’s either something gets completely knocked down or nothing happens at all,” Haney said. “Things get stuck in the courts, those fees add up and we get no clarity on how determinations are made.” 

Haney’s bill is meant to create streamlined statewide guidelines for developers and local governments to follow. Critically, if signed into law, AB 3068 would give qualified projects automatic state approval for tax credits focused on historic buildings. 

Historic tax credits are incentives provided by the government for the rehabilitation of historical buildings. Developers can receive an allowance that reduces the project overall tax liability and can help with financing. 

“This bill will bring opportunities for thousands of people to live near high-paying jobs and other amenities,” Rafa Sonnenfeld, policy director at YIMBY Action, said in a statement.

The bill offers qualified projects streamlined environmental and entitlement reviews, exemptions from certain fees, and the ability to proceed with conversion in areas not traditionally zoned for housing.

Haney argued he got historic preservationists on board by providing more certainty around what historical features will be protected from redevelopment or modification. 

“We’re not going to be rash,” Haney said. “We should protect enough that is needed and necessary. Vacant buildings that end up becoming sculptures don’t [do] us any good either.” 

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