Responding to local concerns about the top-down mandates of his contentious bill, Senate Bill 50, state Sen. Scott Wiener this week revised the bill to allow cities to craft their own zoning laws to facilitate home construction and avoid the bill's requirements.
The bill, which last year caused a stir in Palo Alto and other cities, targets areas near transit and "jobs-rich" sites for housing, effectively allowing residential developments of up to four stories in these areas. While SB 50 has generated great support from housing advocates and public officials — including a recent endorsement from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors — many local officials have characterized it as "one-size-fits-all" solution and an affront to local control.
Under the amendments that Wiener released this week, cities will have up to two years to craft their own zoning laws that would allow as much — or more — housing production as SB 50. The local plans would have to be certified by the state. If the cities don't move ahead with this type of rezoning rules, the provisions of SB 50 would kick in.
In a Monday post on Medium, Wiener wrote that the bill's new provisions "seek to ensure that local governments can implement SB 50 in a way that works best for their communities ..."
"In other words, a city could decide to go taller in some areas and shorter in other areas or to focus density in some areas but not other areas," Wiener wrote. "As long as the city's alternative approach zones for at least the same amount of additional housing at SB 50 would, then the plan qualifies."
The additional zoning would have to be implemented in a way that does not place new housing far from jobs and transit, thus promoting sprawl development. It also prohibits cities for placing the bulk of its new housing in low-income communities, in violation of fair-housing principles. And much like the prior version SB 50, the bill would give "sensitive communities" — which are made up predominantly of low-income residents and communities of color — five years to come up with housing plans before SB 50 kicks in.
The new version of SB 50 also proposes to give cities credit for zone changes that they had made in the prior 20 years to allow more housing — a provision designed to "reward good behavior," according to Wiener. And much like the prior version, it requires 25% of the new units to be affordable to low-income residents and prohibits cities for getting credit for new housing by replacing existing housing developments.
The bill still retains some of the more contentious provisions of the prior version, including the removal of density limits and relaxing of parking standards within a quarter mile of transit and high-frequency bus lines. It also makes a distinction between counties with more than 600,000 residents (including Santa Clara County) and smaller counties, where cities would have to allow up to 15 feet of additional height for new buildings near transit stops.
With the new amendments, Wiener hopes the bill would overcome the hurdles that stymied it last May, when the chair of the state Senate Appropriation Committee, Sen. Anthony Portantino, decided to turn SB 50 into a "two-year bill," making it eligible for a vote in January 2020. The decision came after both the Housing Committee and the Finance and Government Committee voted to advance the bill, which was widely seen as the most ambitious and contentious of the dozens of housing bills under consideration.
The bill has been particularly divisive in Palo Alto, where last March hundreds of people attended a community meeting to rail against the bill. The topic even came up during Monday's mayoral election, where Councilwoman Lydia Kou refused to vote for new Mayor Adrian Fine — a proponent of SB 50 — on the grounds of his support for the proposed legislation. Reiterating earlier criticisms, Kou called the bill "one-size-fits-all" and said any amendments would be "lipstick on a pig."
In speaking against SB 50, Kou quoted former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson's dictum that "the government closest to the people serves the people best."
"As an immigrant I can never understand why a government of the people, by the people for the people would abdicate its local control of our government," Kou said.
But for proponents of the bill, the legislation is sorely needed at a time when the state has a housing shortage estimated at 3.5 million homes and when many cities, including Palo Alto, are struggling to meet their housing targets, particularly for below-market-rate homes. While the city has a goal of building 300 housing units per year, it has fallen well short of the target in each of the last two years. On Monday, Fine said he plans to make housing one of his top priorities a mayor.
"We've been averaging about 50 to 60 (new homes) per year," Fine said Monday. "In my opinion, that's not good enough."
In his post, Wiener called SB 50 "an equity bill, an affordability bill and a climate bill" — one that overrides "local restrictive zoning — zoning that bans apartment buildings and affordable housing by only allowing single-family homes."
"SB 50 ensures that as we build these millions of homes, we do so not just in low income areas but in wealthy communities as well," Wiener wrote.