The divisive California housing legislation Senate Bill 50 has won the tentative support of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, albeit with conditions.
In a 4-0 vote on Tuesday, the county supervisors endorsed state Sen. Scott Wiener's high-profile bill that would make local housing project approvals mandatory in areas near transit stops or large employers. The lone dissenter was North County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who pointedly abstained from the vote, saying he lacked confidence in the bill and how it could be rewritten as it returns to the state Legislature.
"Frankly, I'm skeptical of a top-down solution from the state," Simitian said. "Just because people are saying something has got to be done, that doesn't mean that something doesn't work, or that something that doesn't make sense should be done."
More than any other recent legislation, SB 50 has become a lightning rod of controversy, driving a wedge between the typical alliances of community and advocacy groups across California. The bill was first introduced nearly two years ago under a different name, but it faced mounting pressure from stakeholders as it worked through the state Legislature. In May, the bill was abruptly shelved before it could go to the state Senate for a full vote.
With the bill due to come back in 2020, Santa Clara County supervisors argued the time was right for them to demonstrate local support. By taking a side now, they said that Santa Clara County would get a seat at the table when it came to suggesting amendments to the bill.
Supervisor Dave Cortese, who brought SB 50 to the county board for endorsement, said the legislation is a needed fix to state housing standards that lack any enforcement. Housing advocates have blamed this so-called "local control" for decades of stymied housing growth. While local cities are required to plan ahead for residential growth, they have no obligation to actually grant the building permits allowing it to happen.
While many details still need to be determined, SB 50 is the best solution to date for adding "teeth" to state housing requirements, Cortese said.
"The devil's in the details, but I want to be on board saying, 'Yes, continue to be bold,'" Cortese said. "The closer we get to introducing this bill and hitting the nail on the head, the better off we all are."
But even supporters acknowledged that the bill could be improved. County staff drafted a list of proposed amendments that would add flexibility to parking requirements and height limits on housing built near transit stops.
Also in the proposed changes, county staff urged stronger guidelines to track "jobs-rich" areas with high employment where housing would be nurtured by the bill. Prior versions of the bill left it unclear how job-rich areas would be defined, leaving it up to state officials to figure this out.
Santa Clara County supervisors indicated they had plenty of misgivings about the bill, and they acknowledged concerns that circumventing local development review could result in gentrification. But given the depth of the housing crisis, they supported SB 50 as a general idea.
"The concept of the bill makes sense," said Supervisor Cindy Chavez. "We're not committing to a bill we haven't seen; we're committing to leadership that we can support."
The county supervisors' conditional support was a rare vote of confidence from a local municipality for the controversial housing bill.
In contrast, Wiener's bill received an icy reception in his home district earlier this week when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to oppose it. It was the third time San Francisco elected leaders took a public vote to oppose the bill since it was introduced last year. Several other cities, including Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Cupertino, have also come out against SB 50.