A bill sailing through the state Legislature could help build more homes across San Jose and the rest of California, but safety concerns are being raised.
Assembly Bill 835, spearheaded by San Jose Assemblymember Alex Lee, would enable developers of new apartment buildings higher than three stories to build only one stairway—eliminating the two stairway requirement currently in place. The goal is to make it easier to build multi-family housing on smaller parcels of land as San Jose continues to grapple with a housing shortage.
Lee said the two staircase requirement dates back to the 1860s and was put in place for fire safety reasons. He said modern strategies focus on containing fires with sprinkler systems, fire alarms, pressured stairwells and fire-treated lumber—thus erasing the need for a second stairwell for people in case of an emergency.
“I see this bill as a first step to potentially unlocking more housing of greater unit variety, maximizing space on smaller parcels, more access to open space and faster construction,” Lee told San José Spotlight.
AB 835 has passed the state Assembly and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate.
James Dobson, fire marshal with the San Jose Fire Department, said he is concerned that eliminating the two stairwell requirement would put people in harm’s way, since typically one stairwell is used for evacuation and the other is used for firefighting operations.
“Limiting occupancies to one stairwell is something that we’re really going to have to look at,” Dobson told San José Spotlight. “Our goal is always to provide the highest level of safety for our residents, and just want to make sure that whatever is proposed in the rules, is taking into account safety and not just cost.”
Erik Schoennauer, a prolific San Jose land use consultant, told San José Spotlight the elimination of the two staircase requirement will make projects more cost-efficient, feasible to complete and help yield more housing. He said one staircase costs between $75,000 to $90,000 per floor to construct.
“We must find ways to reduce the construction costs for housing, if we are ever going to build enough housing to satisfy the demand in the Bay Area,” Schoennauer told San José Spotlight. “The cost of construction is the big hurdle.”
This bill also comes as San Jose and the state continue to deal with low housing supply. According to a 2022 study, the San Jose metro area—which includes San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara—fares worse than other major metro cities like Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston in terms of available housing. The study employed several factors, including listing rates for new housing on the market, amount of residents moving in and out of the area and changes in housing prices.
Building material shortages and construction delays have also contributed to housing shortages, the study noted. Construction costs including materials, equipment and wages make up 71% of all costs which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction costs have long been barriers to affordable housing in San Jose.
Schoennauer said development costs in the Bay Area are simply too high.
“It makes projects difficult to pursue,” he said. “So anything that reduces costs, makes the process simpler, makes the process quicker, that’s all important to accelerating the pace of housing development.”
Contact Julia Forrest at [email protected] or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.