Construction work progresses at 401 S. El Dorado St. in Stockton, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2022. A groundbreaking ceremony at the site in June 2022 launched the construction of at least 30 affordable housing units for unhoused people living with mental illness. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News / Catchlight Local)

Sen. Scott Wiener has introduced a bill that would loosen square footage limits in an effort to make it easier for cities to build dense, multi-family housing.

Senate Bill 294, introduced Feb. 2, would raise the minimum cap cities can place on the square footage of a single unit based on the size of the lot on which a housing complex is built.

The bill deals with local regulations on the floor area ratio, or FAR, of a building, which is the ratio between a building’s total area and the area of its plot of land.

According to Wiener’s office, cities often set the FAR for housing developments too low to allow for the construction of more than a handful of housing units.

Cities can also limit the ratio even in areas that are specifically zoned for dense, multi-family units, according to Wiener, contradicting efforts to build large amounts of new housing.

SB 294 would prevent local jurisdictions from implementing an FAR of less than 2.5 on housing developments between 11 and 20 units. It would also bar jurisdictions from implementing an FAR of less than 1.25 on a housing project of more than 20 units.

“If a city zones for a particular density, it should not be able to make that density impossible by imposing impossible-to-meet square footage limits,” said Wiener, D-San Francisco. “By blocking construction in areas they have zoned for dense housing, hyper-restrictive FAR allows cities to give with one hand while taking with the other.”

Wiener also authored the state’s last effort to raise minimum FAR caps. SB 478, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in 2021, raised FAR limits for buildings with between three and 10 units.

While SB 294 does not currently have any other co-authors, the bill is sponsored by business and economic development group the Bay Area Council.

“SB 294 will make sure the housing we need and plan for is not undermined by a particularly onerous and technical design regulation,” said Louis Mirante, the group’s vice president of public policy. “This will help people build the homes our communities need.”

State lawmakers can begin negotiations of the bill as soon as March, once it has been in print for a minimum of 31 days.