With political battle lines forming over the best ways to solve California's persistent housing crisis, opponents of the most ambitious state proposal — Senate Bill 50 — came to Palo Alto on St. Patrick's Day in search of recruits.
The gathering at Lucie Stern Community Center — sponsored by the local residentialist-leaning group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning and Palo Alto Neighborhoods, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations — was part seminar, part pep rally, with more than 200 people crowding into the center's ballroom to cheer for local control and jeer Sacramento mandates. The event brought together a Who's Who of SB 50 critics: Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, who is trying to amend the state constitution to ensure zoning remains the purview of municipalities; Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf, who cheekily proposed in his "State of the City Speech" to build a wall around Cupertino and make San Jose pay for it; and Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth, who devoted the lion's share of his own "State of the City" speech in March to criticizing SB 50, a bill that he said "has the potential to arouse passions in people."
That passion was on display in featured speaker Susan Kirsch, a Mill Valley resident whose nascent group, Livable California, is leading the resistance to SB 50. Kirsch founded Livable California a year ago, when state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, was trying to advance SB 827 to encourage dense housing near public transit corridors. (The bill ultimately died in committee last year.) She said she saw SB 827 as the latest example of cities and neighborhoods "getting clobbered" by Sacramento mandates that diminish local authority.
Over the ensuing months, she reached out to similarly concerned residents and elected officials and cobbled together a coalition to oppose Wiener's bills and other regional efforts that would require cities to allow more housing.
"The process we're having to contend with is adversarial," Kirsch told the Palo Alto crowd. "It's top-down mandates. It's one-size-fits-all instead of uniqueness. It's putting economic measurements and profits at the top of the priority list, using sticks and threats — like the governor suing Huntington Beach.
"It is the unelected regional bodies pushing much of this and moving us toward being an autocracy," she said, referring to a new group, Casa (The Committee to House the Bay Area), which has proposed a sweeping plan to preserve and expand the Bay Area's housing stock by passing new renter protections, loosening zoning restrictions and expediting the approval process for residential developments.
Her view largely resonated with her audience, who booed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which convened Casa, and applauded Kirsch's efforts to push back against Sacramento.
While the meeting attracted a few supporters of SB 50, most kept a low profile. When Dennis Richards, a San Francisco planning commissioner, kicked off his presentation by asking, "How many feel that Scott Wiener and the politicians in Sacramento actually know what's best for you more than you?" one hand shot up in the back of the room.
"One? OK, we have a YIMBY in the back," Richards said, using the acronym for "Yes, In My Back Yard."
A second hand shot up.
"Two," said Diane Morin, a board member of the pro-housing group Palo Alto Forward, who objected to what she called a "loaded question."
Richards told the crowd that SB 50 would "fundamentally change your lives" and "fundamentally change what say you have in your life on what your neighborhood looks like." He also framed it as part of a larger effort by Sacramento to inundate local communities with housing bills faster than cities can respond to these proposals.
"We've been carpet-bombed with bills from Sacramento! Carpet-bombed! ... It's almost like they throw so much s--- at us, we can't duck. We get hit with it," he said.
What SB 50 would do
To spur rapid housing production, SB 50 would relax development standards for certain residential projects, overriding local zoning regulations in "transit rich" zones — those near rail and ferry stops and "high-quality bus corridors." For projects with a portion of affordable housing and located within half a mile of transit, SB 50 would waive all local height limitations set below 45 feet, enabling three- and four-story buildings with a density of 2.5. (This density, measured in floor-area-ratio (FAR), would allow a 25,000-square-foot building, for example, on a 10,000-square-foot lot.)
Within a quarter mile of transit, a city's height limit could be no lower than 55 feet, and FAR would have to be at least 3.25. In both cases, cities would also need to waive their parking requirements for these housing developments.
The bill also calls for loosening development standards in "jobs rich" areas, a concept that remains fuzzy but that could potentially capture the entire city of Palo Alto. The bill defines "jobs rich" as having "positive educational and economic outcomes for households of all income levels residing in the tract." Put more plainly, Palo Alto would qualify given that its jobs-to-housing ratio of 3 to 1 is the highest in the county.
SB 50 would not affect the height limits in "jobs rich" areas but would remove all density limits and bar cities from requiring more than a half of a parking space per housing unit. (See table: "How Palo Alto zoning could change," based on information from SB 50 and Embarcadero Institute.)
While Kirsch, Richards and others denounce SB 50 as an assault on local governments, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, views it as a way to address past wrongs that these governments enabled — like housing discrimination. Low-density zones such as single-family neighborhoods, which SB 50 proponents see as a barrier to diversity, would be opened up for multifamily developments under SB 50. The bill also includes a temporary waiver for "sensitive communities" — those in which residents are deemed particularly vulnerable to displacement through gentrification. The bill gives sensitive communities an opportunity to create their own community-led plans, which would include zone changes and other policies to encourage development of multifamily housing for various income levels. Communities that choose this path will have until Jan. 1, 2020, to opt for such a process and will have until January 2025 to formulate that plan.
To promote a diverse housing market, SB 50 requires qualifying projects to meet cities' "inclusionary housing" standards, under which developers of market-rate housing must offer a percentage of their units at below-market-rate (in Palo Alto, this is 15 percent). In cities where such requirements don't exist, residential developments of 20 units or more would have to designate between 15 and 25 percent as below market rate, with the exact ratio determined by the project size and income levels being targeted.
While mayors up and down the Peninsula have characterized SB 50 as an affront to local control, Wiener strongly rejects that characterization and called it "a common misunderstanding of the bill." The bill, he told the Weekly, would only apply to land that local communities have already zoned for residential use (commercial and industrial zones would be exempt). And cities, he noted, would still have a chance to review multiunit developments proposed under SB 50 under their regular approval processes. It does not exempt proposed residential developments from having to seek conditional-use permits through the normal environmental-review process, he said. And it fully retains local design-review processes, demolition restrictions and inclusionary-zoning policies.
"If a community has previously made a decision that a certain area is not appropriate for residential, industrial or public lands, then the bill doesn't apply to it," Wiener told the Weekly. "It will only apply to parcels that the community decided is appropriate for housing. SB 50 does not change the process for approving or rejecting individual projects."
"What the bill does do is help address our (state's) 3.5-million home deficit that is driving the middle class out of our state, forcing people into two-hour commutes and that has driven people into poverty and homelessness," Wiener said. "We have to decide as a state whether having enough housing for everyone is a priority or not a priority."
But what would the impact be?
Given that SB 50 remains a work in progress, its local impacts are impossible to accurately gauge. But according to a recent analysis by Embarcadero Institute — a recently formed Palo Alto nonprofit that surveyed the city's "transit rich" and "high-quality bus corridor" areas — SB 50 could enable the construction of 46,000 new units. (Contrast that amount with the 27,577 housing units in Palo Alto as of 2017.) That number does not include those potentially constructed in "jobs rich" areas of town. Nor does it consider the density bonuses and other waivers that residential developers could potentially take advantage of under the bill.
SB 50, the report predicted, "would almost triple Palo Alto's population and conservatively add 90,000 vehicles and 30,000 school-age children."
(Gab Layton, the Institute's co-founder and president, told the Weekly the group never actually predicted that Palo Alto would triple in size because of SB 50 but merely demonstrated the type of growth the legislation enables.)
Also known as the More HOMES (Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, Stability) Act of 2019, SB 50 is one of dozens of pro-housing proposals that are now advancing through the Legislature's committee process. Others include AB 1482, a proposal by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, to cap rent increases, and Senate Bill 330, a proposal by Skinner of Berkeley that would prohibit cities from "downzoning" neighborhoods (making them less dense), ban the establishment of caps on residential development and streamline the housing approval process. A recent report on SB 50 by the San Francisco Planning Department noted that there are more than 200 housing-related state bills being introduced in the current legislative session. Many are expected to win the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has set a goal for the state to build 3.5 million housing units by 2025.
Collectively, the legislative proposals are trying to address what the bills' proponents refer to as the state's "housing crisis" (a term that Kirsch rejects, preferring the milder "housing problem." She reserves the term "crisis" for describing unregulated commercial development). At a March 5 joint meeting of the Senate Housing Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, Wiener said that California's "housing deficit" is approximately equal to the deficit of the other 49 states combined. The impacts of the underproduction are "tragic," said Wiener, who now chairs the Senate Housing Committee.
"Our housing shortage is driving people into homelessness; it is perhaps the primary driver of poverty in the state of California. It is pushing families out of communities, creating supercommuters who drive and hour and a half to two hours to work, undermining our climate goals and clogging our freeways," Wiener said at the meeting.
But while SB 50 has already secured the endorsement of several big-city mayors, including San Francisco's London Breed, San Jose's Sam Liccardo and Oakland's Libby Schaff, it is proving a much harder sell on the Peninsula, where mayors, council members and grassroots groups are gearing up for a political battle.
On March 15, mayors and city managers from throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties gathered at the Redwood City Public Library to sound off on SB 50 and Casa at a meeting with state Sen. Jerry Hill. Though the meeting was closed to the public and the media, a reporter standing outside the closed door could occasionally hear, over the sound of children playing "Dance Dance Revolution" across the hall, mayors complaining about Sacramento's "one-size-fits-all" approach and assuring others in the room that their community "really does support housing, however ..."
While Palo Alto's city planners haven't studied SB 50's potential local impacts, some former and current officials are already warning of dire consequences. Earlier this month, former Mayor Pat Burt and Greer Stone, vice-chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, wrote an op-ed in which they referred to SB 50 as a plan "to usurp local democracy and eliminate single-family neighborhoods in Palo Alto and throughout much of the state." The bill, they argued, would actually make housing less affordable by encouraging the redevelopment of existing homes, some of which are modest and (relatively) affordable, with dense apartment buildings that would only be affordable to the very wealthy. They point, for example, to new one-bedroom apartments at the San Antonio Center in Mountain View, where rents range from $3,750 to $6,675 a month.
The bill, they argued, "encourages redevelopment of what little more-affordable housing we have with new, high-end units, displacing current residents and diminishing diversity."
"Rather than being a panacea for our housing crisis, it is a Trojan horse for big developers' profits," Burt and Stone wrote.
Filseth took a different tack in his March 5 speech, making the case that SB 50 would have a relatively meager effect on the state's housing shortage. He argued the crisis should be addressed by investing state funding into affordable housing and requiring greater contributions from job-creating tech titans such as Apple, Google and Facebook. Building housing — particularly below-market-rate housing — is expensive, he argued, and the current crop of state bills would likely do little more than "extend the existing process for a few more turns."
Others believe SB 50 would go too far. At the Lucie Stern meeting, Doria Summa, who serves on the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, said that SB 50 would come "at a great cost to our community." She cited the Embarcadero Institute report's maps showing circles of transit-proximate zones that would be subject to the relaxed development standards. Many parcels along El Camino Real still are governed by a height limit of 35 feet and, as such, are candidates for increased density through "upzoning."
The report also showed renderings of brightly colored, hypothetical three- and four-story buildings standing next to existing single-story Eichlers and two-story Spanish Colonials in single-family (R-1) neighborhoods.
In Palo Alto, the most dramatic impact of SB 50 would be on those R-1 neighborhoods, which make up 23.3 percent of the city's geography (multifamily residential zones make up just 3.5 percent, and 58.6 percent of Palo Alto is open space). This would be particularly true if the city is designated as a "jobs rich" zone and if areas nowhere near bus routes and rail stations become eligible for higher density.
Many SB 50 opponents see it as an attack on the city's suburban character. Summa (who, like Richards, was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of her commission) argued that SB 50 "will worsen parking and traffic problems; it will strain resources like our schools, parks and streets; and it will likely make rents go up not down."
"The upshot is that over time, there would essentially be no R-1 zones left in Palo Alto," Summa warned.
An analysis disputed
Supporters of SB 50 dismiss such analyses as scare tactics. Development, they note, takes place gradually and over decades. It is inconceivable, they say, that all (or even most) single-family homes will be demolished to make way for three-to-five story structures just because of changing development standards.
Wiener called the Embarcadero Institute report a "real hatchet job" that was funded by people who hate the bill, and that is based on the faulty assumption that the entire city of Palo Alto would be demolished and rebuilt — a scenario that he said is both inconceivable and not desirable.
Wiener, who grew up in a single-family home, said he is not trying to discourage such homes or to prevent people from building them. All that the bill is saying is, "If you're in a job center or near public transportation, it's not OK to mandate single-family homes because we want more housing and we need more housing near transit and jobs."
"It is not sustainable to mandate single-family homes near good transit," Wiener said. "That makes it impossible for us to eliminate our massive housing deficit and ensures that housing will always be out of reach."
Palo Alto Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, who supports SB 50, dismissed the Embarcadero Institute study and Stone's and Burt's criticisms as "cherry-picking" and "scaremongering" by people who are committed to resisting new housing. Opponents of the bill, he noted, tend to ignore its provisions relating to tenant protection, inclusionary housing or accommodations for "sensitive areas." Given the magnitude of California's housing crisis, resisting bills like SB 50 just isn't an option anymore, Fine said.
"Upzoning does increase supply and that affects both home prices and the diversity of the community in the long term," Fine told the Weekly. "When people fail to solve problems locally that's exactly when the state should step in."
Morin told the Weekly she was put off by the tone of the St. Patrick's Day meeting, which she'd attended to learn about the bill. The meeting, she said, was "hijacked by people who have a political goal, as opposed to talking calmly and dispassionately about what SB 50 was about.
"People are easily afraid now that they can lose something valuable that they invested in, like a house," Morin said. "So they are susceptible to fear-mongering. Instead of thinking about balancing community needs, they focus on fear."
Wiener's supporters can also point to the fact that Embarcadero Institute isn't exactly a dispassionate analyst. Stone is the group's secretary. Planning Commissioner Asher Waldfogel, who tends to be cautious on city-growth issues and who has supported Palo Alto's "residentialist" candidates in their council campaigns, is the group's co-founder and treasurer. Its other co-founder and president is Layton, an engineer who also contributed thousands of campaign dollars to Palo Alto's slow-growth candidates, including Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Filseth.
In an interview with the Weekly, Layton emphasized that while group members certainly have their own opinions, they "went to great lengths to keep it neutral." The goal, she said, was to get away from the usual "YIMBY vs. NIMBY" debates, which she called "incredibly divisive" and "intellectually lazy." She also noted that she herself had supported Wiener because she agrees with his positions on education.
"We deliberately didn't overstate things. We really wanted to inform people. We wanted to start a conversation and empower people to weigh in."
Embarcadero Institute's report isn't the only one analyzing the impact of the bill. The San Francisco Planning Department recently released its own analysis of SB 50. Because the city has already zoned its transit-oriented areas for higher density, SB 50 isn't expected to have a major impact on these parts of the city. However, planners concluded that the city's low-density districts, RH-1 and RH-2 (the zoning designations that stand for residential lots with just one (or two) units on them) would be affected significantly, though probably gradually.
The report notes that there is "little precedent in recent history of this level of upzoning on RH-1 and RH-2 parcels, so it is difficult to predict how many qualifying parcels would be proposed for full redevelopment (i.e. demo/replacement) or proposed to add units to existing structures through additions or subdivisions of existing buildings."
But, the report states, San Francisco's passage in 2016 of legislation allowing accessory-dwelling units in residential buildings led to changes in "less than one tenth of a percent of potentially eligible properties each year."
Still, the San Francisco report concludes, even in higher density districts, SB 50 would "generally offer greater development capacity than current zoning."
"By setting a new, higher base density in qualifying areas (and allowing a State Density Bonus on top...), SB 50 is likely to result in significantly greater housing production across all density controlled districts, and thus would also produce more affordable housing through the on-site inclusionary requirement."
More housing, more diversity?
For some, a time when housing is produced in significant volume can't come soon enough.
Evan Goldin, a 34-year-old Palo Alto native, said he found the conversations at the March 17 meeting frustrating. Many residents, he said, seem reluctant to make room for newcomers.
"That makes me quite sad, as someone who grew up here and still lives here and wants to have strong bonds to the community," Goldin told the Weekly. "I want my friends to be able to afford to live here. I want my teachers and janitors and baristas to afford a chance to live where they work."
Goldin said he grew up in Crescent Park, in a single-family home on a 9,000-square foot R-1 lot, Now, he lives in an eight-unit complex on a 7,000-square-foot lot. Everyone in his building seems to be enjoying a pleasant existence.
"The world will be OK if a few more families live on your block," Goldin said.
Goldin is hardly alone in his support for more housing density. On March 14, about 100 people attended a workshop by the local nonprofit Palo Alto Forward entitled "Home Sweet CASA," a reference to the Casa Compact, an ambitious set of policies for addressing the Bay Area's housing crisis over the next 15 years, crafted by the group comprised of cities' council members, developers, housing advocates, labor leaders and representatives of large employers.
The featured speaker at the event was Michael Lane, deputy director at Silicon Valley at Home ([email protected]), a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing (its executive director was one of the three co-chairs of the Casa steering committee). [email protected] is one of a number of new organizations now pushing for more housing, such as Menlo Together, One San Mateo and Redwood City Forward.
After his presentation, Lane made a case for allowing higher residential density to meet growing housing demand.
"We love our open space and we all want to protect it, but that means we need to do infill development," Lane said. "So if you're a true environmentalist ... you need to do the infill, you need to do more density, you need to do ADUs," Lane said, referring to accessory dwelling units, or in-law units.
"Unless you're just anti-human and don't want the population to grow, which could be possible too," he added. "Misanthropy solves a lot."
Many housing advocates vehemently reject the notion that the bill is an affront to either democracy (Oakland resident Cody Hill responded to Richards' complaint about the onslaught of Sacramento legislation with a tweet: "Keep it up, s——throwing legislators of the housing caucus, this is why I voted for you!") or to local control ("Almost every decision made by a local government on housing will continue to be made at the local level. ... SB 50 simply relaxes zoning density near transit and jobs," Wiener wrote in a March 15 post on Medium).
And even if SB 50 does take away some land-use power from local jurisdictions, there's a good reason for that, proponents say. It was local control, they argue, that got California into the housing mess in the first place.
In a March 25 opinion piece that he co-authored with Daniel Kammen, a UC Berkeley professor of energy, for the New York Times, Wiener called low-density, single-family-home zoning "effectively a ban on economically diverse communities." The preamble to SB 50 notes that many local governments "do not give adequate attention to the economic, environmental and social costs of decisions that result in disapproval of housing development projects, reduction in density of housing projects, and excessive standards for housing development projects.
"Among the consequences of those actions are discrimination against low-income and minority households, lack of housing to support employment growth, imbalance in jobs and housing, reduced mobility, urban sprawl, excessive commuting, and air quality deterioration," the bill states.
Supporters of SB 50 also see the basic philosophy behind SB 50 — concentrating housing near transit — as largely consistent with cities' own land-use plans.
Elaine Uang, president of Palo Alto Forward, noted that Palo Alto's recently amended Comprehensive Plan, which sets a goal of producing about 300 housing units per year, largely targets transit-oriented areas around downtown and California Avenue.
Uang noted that despite adopting these policies in November 2017, the city has only approved a few developments since: 59 below-market-rate apartments on Wilton Court and a 57-apartment complex at the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road.
"That's not a picture of success," Uang told the Weekly. "I think we need some incentives, and these take different shapes and forms — some are financial, some are regulatory."
The debate over cities' accomplishments
The notion that cities, when left to their own devices, aren't doing their fair share is also reflected in the July 2018 report from the Santa Clara County civil grand jury, which issued 39 findings and recommendations for incentivizing production of affordable housing. A city, the report stated, "marches to the beat of its populace, and with citizen resistance, the affordable-housing crisis continues."
When it came to meeting its housing allocation in the state's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle for the years 2007-14, Palo Alto was 14th out of 15 cities in the county, the report stated. During this period, the city issued permits for 1,080 units, which comprised 38 percent of its 2,860-unit allocation. The city's record on affordable housing was even worse: Permits were issued for 293 below-market-rate units, or 16 percent of its allocation of 1,874 units.
But mayors point to recent actions that they have taken to spur the development of housing as evidence that they're working to solve the problem. Palo Alto, for example, recently eased rules for the addition of accessory-dwelling units to residential properties and created a "housing incentive program" that allowed residential developments in the downtown area to be roughly three times as dense as before.
(While these policies have been instituted, it's worth remembering that both directly resulted from Sacramento legislation. The incentive program was created explicitly to give builders an alternative to SB 35, a Wiener-authored law that created a streamlined approval process that bypassed local authority for qualified residential projects.)
Beyond Palo Alto, Peninsula mayors voiced similar sentiments regarding their efforts and the dangers of SB 50. At the March 15 meeting in Redwood City, Hill told the Weekly he heard several consistent themes. Everyone felt housing was a major problem and that all cities share the goal of trying to fix the problem, Hill said. Mayors were also very vocal about the good work that they had already accomplished, whether it be the housing that they had permitted or the projects that are now in the pipeline.
But the mayors also shared what Hill called a "real sense of injustice."
"They felt they were representing their communities in the best way they could, kind of preserving the community standards and culture that they had, and the state was coming in and proscribing exactly where they should construct higher density housing," Hill said.
Many felt that SB 50 fails to recognize both the cities' accomplishments and the city leaders' ability to decide what parts of their communities are best suited for density, he said.
Burlingame Mayor Donna Colson called SB 50 an "overreach from Sacramento" and pointed to her city's recent actions to promote housing, which include upzoning sites near the BART station to allow 20 percent growth. The city also has 1,200 housing units currently in production, she said.
"Here we are, moving the ball forward and getting things done in a little town like Burlingame," Colson said. "We've managed to pass a general plan after four years with a lot of community conversation. ... Now, we're being shamed and called out by Sacramento and Senator Wiener and Assemblyman Chiu like somehow we're an obstructionist city.
"Goes to show a lack of understanding in Sacramento about what's going on on the Peninsula."
Filseth shares that view. He told the Weekly that he believes the state has an important role to play, particularly in preventing "bad behavior" by cities, which to him means allowing massive commercial developments without requiring a commensurate amount of housing. Such actions effectively shove housing and traffic problems onto neighboring communities.
At the same time, he said he believes that Sacramento should not be "micromanaging zoning in neighborhoods" (a characterization that Wiener strongly disputes).
"I think it would be very difficult for the state to get it right, and it's improper to take (that right) away from the people who live there," Filseth told the Weekly during a "Behind the Headlines" webcast.
He acknowledged that many people in Palo Alto believe the city should place more apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods, including Eichler communities where single-story buildings with large glass windows are the norm. It would be perfectly proper for the city to have that debate and, if the majority prevails, to go in that direction, he said.
"It's one thing if we decide to do it ourselves in town and say, 'Yes, the majority of our people want to go that way,' and we do it," Filseth said. "A few years later, if we like it, we do more. If we don't like it, we say, 'We've got to revisit that and not do that anymore.' But if Sacramento does it, it's done.
"I think the importance of the local ability to balance those kinds of needs is very important. Essentially, what some of those mandates do is basically take away voters' ability to decide what their community looks like. I think that's a direction we shouldn't go in this country, let alone in the state."
Looking to the Legislature
In the three months since Wiener unveiled SB 50, both sides have gathered growing momentum. During the March 17 meeting, Kirsch of Livable California cited the group's recent inroads in Los Angeles and San Diego and announced her group's plans to organize trips to Sacramento in April to speak out against SB 50 and other housing bills that diminish local control.
Kirsch also talked about the need to "change the narrative" from the "housing crisis" that Wiener is talking about to the "real crisis" of unregulated commercial development, which is exacerbating the challenge of affording a home. In her call to action, Kirsch encouraged residents to contact their elected representatives, write editorials and host town-hall meetings to spread the word about pending state legislation. She also invited residents to a "lobby day" in Sacramento on March 26.
One of her organization's goals, she said, is to foster more citizen engagement.
"This is looking like a reinvigorated citizenry, and we're just in time," Kirsch told the Palo Alto crowd, drawing cheers.
Brand of Redondo Beach also earned applause after he informed the attendees about his push to change the California constitution through a citizen initiative to protect communities' rights to set their own zoning policies. He called the proposed amendment "a bombshell."
"That is going to undercut, undermine all of Sacramento's effort and they're nervous about that. ... I think the initiative is really the neutron bomb for them."
Housing advocates, meanwhile, can point to SB 50's growing list of endorsers, including AARP, the National Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters and, most recently, the BART board of directors. Despite some reservations about the loss of local control and concerns about what the final bill will actually include, the board voted 5-3 at its March 14 meeting to support SB 50.
In explaining his aye vote, BART Director Robert Raburn pointed to the recent period of job growth, which has outpaced housing production.
"Our own policy on transit-oriented development essentially lit the fuse, and that's helped to rocket this development around our stations. And now Senate Bill 50 gives us additional tools for our property and extends the development priorities up to half a mile from our stations," Raburn said. "This is incredibly positive."
Buoyed by the endorsement, Wiener tweeted on March 19 that his bill is "gaining momentum."
"It's still a hard road — challenging the status quo is never easy — but we have a growing support coalition," Wiener tweeted.
The challenge for Wiener and other proponents is maintaining that momentum over the coming months, as the bill moves through the various committees en route to the full Senate (the first Housing Committee meeting on SB50 is scheduled to take place on April 2). This will entail convincing some of his currently skeptical colleagues in the Legislature to back the effort.
While the bill is still getting hashed out, Wiener has some reasons to feel optimistic. Both of Palo Alto's representatives in Sacramento have praised Wiener's efforts to address the state's housing crisis, even if they have yet to take an official stand on the bill.
Assemblyman Marc Berman, a former Palo Alto councilman, told the Weekly that he shares the bill's goals and commended Wiener "for his determined pursuit of solutions that will increase the supply of housing throughout California."
"If we all truly cared about the housing crisis and the impact it is having on our most vulnerable neighbors as much as Senator Wiener does, we never would have found ourselves in such a deep crisis in the first place," Berman told the Weekly in an emailed statement. "The status quo that has led to the housing crisis is unacceptable, and therefore we must identify the policy changes needed to fix the problem."
Hill, for his part, said he is sensitive to the concerns of the communities he represents about losing discretion on designating housing sites. But he also praised Wiener for being responsive to input and noted that the bill continues to evolve. Hill said that he learned last Friday about some new amendments in the works that would give the cities more discretion on zoning, a change that may address some of his (and his constituents') most significant concerns.
"The best use of my efforts at this point is to work with the author and to work with communities and legislators and mold it in a way that works best for all the communities," Hill said.
Wiener called SB 50 a "hard and controversial bill" and said it will "no doubt have additional amendments" before it could be ready for passage.
"It has been — and will continue to be — on a journey, and we continue to welcome constructive feedback from cities and members of the public," Wiener said. "Some people categorically oppose it and that's their right. Others choose constructive feedback."
Wiener said he has already garnered far more support for SB 50 than he did last year for SB 827, but he acknowledged that he remains far from the finish line.
"We're not guaranteed to pass it," Wiener said. "We're working hard to build support and build momentum for it. But we have a shot."
Listen to "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on SB 50 with Palo Alto Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, Greer Stone, vice chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, and Weekly journalists. The episode is now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.
State legislators who are pushing for new laws forcing cities to allow dense, multi-family housing developments in single-family neighborhoods threaten to divide the state's Democratic voters and may open the door to political challenges of incumbents even in Democratic strongholds like the Bay Area and Peninsula.