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Arizona zoning bill supported by Republicans close to going to Gov. Hobbs' desk

By Bob Christie
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- The centerpiece of Republican-led efforts to address Arizona’s lack of affordable housing that strips cities of their ability to set many zoning rules for single-family homes is one vote away from heading to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs desk.
But there remain hurdles for the bill GOP lawmakers have dubbed the "Arizona Starter Home Act.''
Republican Senate President Warren Petersen said on Tuesday that it appeared his chamber's version of the bill may still be short of the 16 votes it needs to pass. That's after senators backing the measure amended their version of the legislation, SB1112, to make it identical to the bill passed last week by the House, HB2570.
Many lawmakers from both parties are convinced that city-adopted zoning regulations are hindering the construction of smaller, cheaper homes. That lack of less-expensive new homes has made it tough for young families to buy a new home because there are few if any choices in their price range.
But others disagree and remain concerned about exerting their statewide power over local decisions such as zoning for residential, commercial and industrial developments.
The twin bills are not the only efforts at the Capitol to address concerns about affordable housing.
Others include:
- Requiring cities of more than 75,000 people to allow back-yard casitas. That already is law in some cities. But the legislation would allow up to five structures to be built in a backyard; rules in Tucson and Phoenix rules allow just one.
- Allowing developers to convert commercial properties like strip malls which have become vacant as shoppers move to online purchases to new apartment homes;
- Setting an absolute limit of two public hearings when a developer seeks a rezoning.
Of note is that backers and opponents of many of the proposals include both Republicans and Democrats, leading to unusual alliances in an often-times politically polarized Legislature. That's led to fits and starts on many of the proposals as backers try to tweak them to win supporters and opponents work to beat them back.
The main zoning bill awaiting a vote has been altered. But it still is opposed by the association that represents the state’s cities, despite the changes, as are many of the proposals making their way through the Legislature this session.
As originally proposed, cities would have been barred from having any sort of minimum lot size to construct a new home.
That was scrapped to let cities ban housing on lots of less than 1,500 feet. That's the equivalent of just 50 by 30 feet, something still much smaller than what now applies to city lots.
Of note is that the U.S. Census Bureau says 1,500 square feet was the median size of new single family homes built in the 1970s.
Add to that a provision that homes could be as close to 10 feet from the street -- and just 5 feet away from a neighboring home on the sides or back.
"Basically, it's right up against the street,'' said Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, which opposes the bills. "This is typically the kind of setup we have for multifamily (apartment) housing.''
What that would mean, Belshe said, is the ability to build homes as small as 600 square feet on a 1,500-foot lot -- or 1,200 square feet for a two-story house.
The version of the bill proponents are hoping to send to Hobbs does maintain many of the limits on city zoning rules that initially drew opposition from cities. They are now able to detail zoning rules without interference from the state.
Some contentious provisions were removed, including one that banned city rules on minimum parking. The House and now Senate version also now exempt neighborhoods designated as historic districts.
But it still would override other regulations.
Municipalities would be barred from adopting rules mandating specific design, architectural or aesthetic elements for new homes, and could not require homeowner associations or common walls, landscaping and other features maintained by HOA fees.
Of note is that backers, in efforts to line up votes -- and minimize opposition -- agreed that the new rules would affect only cities of 70,000 or more.
The original version had a 50,000 threshold.
That change exempts many medium-sized municipalities, including Lake Havasu City. That city is represented by the Republican Senate and House bill sponsors, Sen. Sonny Borrello and Rep. Leo Biasiucci, who serve as majority leaders in their respective chambers.
The measure now applies to just 16 of the state’s 91 cities and towns. And it only applies to new developments over 5 acres, removing opposition from residents of established neighborhoods worried about infill development cramming lots of homes into areas with normal-sized lots.
Biasiucci said they increased the city population threshold because backers wanted the impact to be in larger cities where the need for starter homes is greatest.
Both bills now contain unusual legislative intent language -- verbiage that is not part of the law itself but is designed both to send a political message and provide guidance to judges if any of the provisions are challenge.
That language says Arizona is in a crisis due to the lack of available housing and that "the American dream of owning their own home,'' has become "virtually impossible'' for many Arizonans. And it specifically lays the blame squarely on the cities.
"The statewide housing crisis is caused in no small part due to highly restrictive regulations imposed by municipalities,'' according to the bill.
That language shows that homebuilders have succeeded this year in getting support for their perennial arguments that cities are hindering their ability to build new homes through onerous zoning regulations.
There are, of course, many other reasons why the state has a shortage of new homes.
Belshe has noted that despite homebuilders' arguments, metro Phoenix alone has about 275,000 approved new home and apartments sites. Of those, more than 105,000 are single-family home lots waiting for builders to start work.
And while acknowledging that cities aren't blame-free, he said builders also share responsibility for the current housing shortage.
Builders essentially stopped putting up new homes after the Great Recession hit in December 2007. And the resulting mortgage crisis created problems not only statewide but also made metro Phoenix the hardest-hit in the nation for home foreclosures.
That slowdown in new construction went on for years even as collapsed home prices eventually bounced back. And homebuilders are just now returning to pre-recession construction levels despite years of population growth in Arizona.
Other issues contributing to high housing prices include rising material and labor costs and a shortage of skilled craftspeople to actually build new homes and apartments. And the rising cost of new and existing homes isn't just an Arizona issue, since home prices have increased nationally as well.
One proposal billed as affordable housing has failed.
Rep. Barbara Parker's HB2096 would have allowed small homes on rural lots in counties with 500,000 residents or less. More to the point, it would have exempted them from building codes. The proposal from Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, would have allowed a property owner to build a home or casita of up to 600 square feet without a building inspection. She called the proposal a way to allow property owners to construct small homes free of government red tape.
"This will never be a mass-produced commercial, congested inner-city, cookie-cutter maze of homes, no lobbyists, no special interests, truly organic,'' Parker said on the House floor in reacting to the defeat of her bill. "This tiny homes cottage home act would have made it easier for rural property owners to build on their own land without the interference of excessive and intrusive government regulation, because property rights are human rights.''
One opponent noted that Parker herself expected few homes to be built because of her measure and said it was not a viable solution to the lack of new homes that are affordable for average workers.
"This bill is the wrong way to build new homes,'' said Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Laveen during debate earlier this month.
"It is unsafe and frankly, irresponsible,'' he said. "Families will have no guarantees of basic sanitation, electrical work that is done well. They will have no guarantees, even smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Simply put, this is a bill that could create homes that are unfit for human habitation members.''
On Twitter: @AZChristieNews