City Council Amends Zoning Laws to Support Building Shelters

By Daniel Perez-Crouse

City Council recently made progress amending the Shelter to Housing Continuum package (S2HC) that addresses issues prohibiting shelters from being built. Commissioner Carmen Rubio said the need for these changes was identified by the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Safe Rest Village staff as they began to develop shelters and work with operators. 

The original product that re-wrote shelter rules in 2021 was S2HC. It expanded housing and shelter options for individuals and households with low incomes. It also created flexibility with all types of shelters and expanded how shelters could operate for permanent use.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) is dubbing these new, proposed amendments as “Part 2.” The “primary intent” in Part 2, as Rubio noted, is to reduce barriers to building permanent shelters that do not rely on temporary rules or a declared housing emergency.

Sandra Wood, Principal Planner with BPS, reminded people that shelters can be operated by a variety of providers–the city, county, nonprofits, religious organizations and more. And there are three ways shelters can be allowed–long-term/permanent, temporarily during a designated emergency and temporarily without a designated emergency (around 180 days). She said that prior to S2HC, most shelters could only be temporary under the zoning code. While S2HC is a step in the right direction, she said, “The new code presented some unexpected technical barriers to implementation. The purpose of this project is to make some of those technical fixes.” 

JP McNiel, a city planner with BPS, went into detail on Part 2’s four proposals. The key change is for outdoor shelter standards. The amendment would exempt outdoor shelters from the base zone, overlay zone and planned district development standards while allowing a limited set of development standards that would apply just to outdoor shelters. First is a structure cannot be more than 20 feet tall (there was no prior standard for this). 

One of the biggest and most desired changes is setback standards requiring shelters to be five feet from all adjacent properties, as opposed to the former rule of 25 feet. Commissioner Dan Ryan said, “I can’t tell you how many times that (the old rule) was making design nearly impossible.” 

Lastly, modifying screening standards to allow partially sight-obscuring six-foot fences. Prior rules only allowed for a totally obscuring fence. McNiel noted that people generally prefer totally sight-obscuring fences, but this provides some flexibility. For example, operators could find a site with an existing chain-link fence. It’s far less costly and wasteful to allow them to keep that existing fence and modify it rather than removing the fence and fully installing a new one, he said. 

One of the other more “technical” amendments is making it clear outdoor shelters are limited to being two acres in size in an industrial zone, but the industrial zone itself can be larger than two acres.

Amongst many questions, Commissioner Rene Gonzalez asked why shelters couldn’t be larger than two acres in industrial zones. Wood said that, partially, “it’s because we have an industrial sanctuary policy in the city and in the comprehensive plan that protects our industrial land for industrial jobs.” She went on to explain rules like this ensure undue burdens aren’t placed on the industrial base. Woods and McNiel mentioned other potential statewide codes and regulations influencing this that they wanted to refresh themselves on and get back to the council at a later time. 

Rubio also introduced an additional amendment that ensures greenways and environmental and archaeological resources are protected while still allowing for outdoor shelters to be established. Commissioner Mingus Mapps said these were “common sense” amendments. Despite some questions and clarifications from the council, they were met with unanimous approval. 

The plan is to adopt these amendments into a draft and amend the new zoning code in Part 2 of S2HC following the approval. 

City Council Amends Zoning Laws to Support Building Shelters

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