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To help the housing crisis, California is letting developers circumvent some rules

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

California's housing crisis is acute, and the state wants cities to do something about it. But when cities fail to act, there's a tool that allows developers to circumvent local regulations. From member station KQED, Adhiti Bandlamudi reports on the, quote, "builder's remedy."

ADHITI BANDLAMUDI, BYLINE: Sasha Zbrozek and his wife Stella moved to Los Altos Hills near San Jose in 2019. They fell in love with their house. It's kind of funky. It's got a steep, slanted exterior that echoes the slope of the mountains. There's a huge spiral staircase.

SASHA ZBROZEK: What I liked about this place was that it wasn't cookie-cutter, and so being different was the attraction.

BANDLAMUDI: He and his wife hoped to raise their kids there someday. That is, until the first rainstorm, when wet spots appeared on the walls.

ZBROZEK: I punched some holes in some drywall, and that's when I got to see some of the structure of the place. And it's like, wow, you know, there's very little wood left here. No wonder it smells weird. It is all rotting away.

BANDLAMUDI: He went to get the permits for the repairs, thinking they'd be done in a few months, but found himself caught in the middle of an arduous two-year process. Meanwhile...

ZBROZEK: I'm living in this house, right? It's cold. It's wet. You know, my net worth has gone down a lot. Costs to construct have gone up a lot.

BANDLAMUDI: Zbrozek needed some way to make up the money he was bleeding from these repairs. The back of his two-acre lot is empty, and he thought, why not put housing there? He was so frustrated with this process, he quit his job as a software developer and became a housing developer instead.

ZBROZEK: I submitted a five-unit project. It's three buildings - two duplexes and one freestanding unit.

BANDLAMUDI: But the city says Zbrozek is not allowed to build townhouses there because his neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes. Enter the builder's remedy.

CHRIS ELMENDORF: The builder's remedy has actually been on the books for a long time, since 1990, but developers were afraid to use it.

BANDLAMUDI: That's Chris Elmendorf, a land-use law professor at UC Davis. Thanks to some recently passed state laws, the builder's remedy has more teeth. Every eight years, the state has to sign off on a city's housing plan, or a city can face consequences. Those include the loss of funding for transportation and affordable housing, lawsuits and, you guessed it, the builder's remedy. Elmendorf says it allows developers to circumvent local building rules.

ELMENDORF: The usual basis on which a city denies a project - it's too tall; it's too big; it doesn't conform to community character - all of that is off the table.

BANDLAMUDI: Already, developers are trying this tactic up and down the state. In Santa Monica, they submitted 16 builder's remedy projects while the city was out of compliance, which could result in almost 5,000 new units - about 1,000 of them considered affordable housing. But the builder's remedy terrifies some residents of Los Altos Hills, like Bob Meneely, who spoke up at a recent city council meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MENEELY: Developers are going to snap up every old ranch house that comes on the market and use the builder's remedy to put multistory housing on our one-acre lots.

BANDLAMUDI: California isn't alone in trying to force cities to build housing using the builder's remedy. Both New Jersey and Massachusetts have similar laws on the books.

AMY DAIN: It's been successful here - important tool in our housing planning toolbox.

BANDLAMUDI: Amy Dain is a housing policy researcher in Massachusetts. She says developers there have built more than 100,000 housing units since their law went into effect in 1969. Almost half of them are affordable.

DAIN: Really, you would prefer to have cities and towns plan for growth, and instead we're over-restrictive. And then we get a builder's remedy, where builders come in and build what the towns and cities hadn't planned for.

BANDLAMUDI: Here in California, the state has yet to approve Los Altos Hills' plan for reaching mandated housing goals. If it doesn't, homeowner-turned-developer Sasha Zbrozek says he's ready.

ZBROZEK: Then I get to go back to the town, you know, go tap, tap, you know, hey, I would like to have my entitlement, please.

BANDLAMUDI: Which for him means building those townhouses in his backyard and fixing up his leaky home.

For NPR News, I'm Adhiti Bandlamudi in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.