After seeing his contentious housing legislation, Senate Bill 50, flounder at the finish line last year, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is taking a more delicate approach with his latest proposal to encourage residential density near jobs and transit.
Rather than requiring cities to approve dense developments near transit hubs and bus stops, Wiener's new proposal, SB 10, operates on a strictly voluntary basis. At a hearing of the Senate's Governance and Finance Committee last week, Wiener called SB 10, which creates a streamlined process for cities and counties to increase density in infill areas, a "pure local control bill."
Specifically, the bill would allow city and county governments to override local zoning restrictions and establish zones that allow up to 10 residential units per parcel if the parcel is located in a transit-rich area, a jobs-rich area or an urban infill site.
"No city is required to use or participate in SB 10," Wiener said at the April 22 hearing. "A city can ignore SB 10, do nothing and the bill will do nothing in that city."
Yet despite the sharp differences between his prior effort and the current one, the same criticisms that he had faced around SB 50 continue to follow him on SB 10. And much like in the past, Palo Alto is allying itself with other cities throughout the state that are actively opposing the legislation. In a letter that the city submitted to Wiener's office last month, Mayor Tom DuBois argued that the legislation will give local councils the power to overrule citizen initiatives, potentially disenfranchising the voters who adopted these initiatives.
"It is an anti-democratic power that no Legislative branch of government should have, and which we — a City Council, and therefore such a branch — do not want," the letter states. "Such legislation echoes more of Russia than of California."
Much like with SB 50, local officials from Palo Alto and activists from groups such as Livable California and United Neighbors have characterized SB 10 as misguided legislation that does not address the issue at the crux of the state's housing crisis: affordability. Rather, DuBois wrote, such legislation would only increase land prices and "any housing that does emerge ends up housing only the highest wage-earners, not those who need it most."
Notwithstanding the voluntary nature of SB 10, Palo Alto's adversarial position to the bill reflects its broader stance against recent state legislation that enables more height and density for residential developments. In February, the council approved a resolution penned by council members Lydia Kou and Greer Stone that claims these bills "usurp the authority of local jurisdictions to determine its own land use policies and best practices that best suit their cities and residents and instead impose mandates that exacerbate the impacts to the city's budget, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, traffic congestion, parking and parkland."
Kou, who has been leading the council's opposition to the state legislation, argued at the Feb. 1 council meeting that this kind of legislation "does not give homeowners — people who have invested in their community a sense of confidence, not knowing what's going to be coming up next to them and what kind of cumulative negative impacts there will be."
Some in the state Legislature share that view. Even though the Governance and Finance Committee voted 4-1 on April 22 to advance SB 10, state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, echoed many of the bill's opponents when he characterized the legislation as an attack on single-family zoning.
"Whether it has teeth or is voluntary or not, it's indicative of a philosophy that I can't embrace — and that basically says that we're going to, as a government, create and incentivize and expedite a way to destroy single-family neighborhoods, which I think are critical," said Hertzberg, the lone dissenter, at the April 22 hearing.
But for the bill's many supporters, including the advocacy group California Yimby and its many local chapters, SB 10 and other proposed bills in the current legislative package are critical to address the state's housing shortage. SB 10 is among the bills that a group of Democratic senators introduced in December as part of a housing package that they've dubbed "Building Opportunities for All." The package also includes SB 9, legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, that would allow homeowners to subdivide their lots to create duplexes. The bill is a follow-up to SB 1120, a similar proposal from Atkins that faltered on the final day of the 2020 legislative season when lawmakers failed to take the final vote on it by the midnight deadline.
To placate those who have argued that the bill would allow homeowners to build up to six residences per parcel — given that each lot is now allowed to also build an accessory dwelling unit and a junior accessory dwelling unit — SB 9 specifies that cities will not be required to issue permits for accessory dwelling units or junior accessory dwelling units for the new homes that are constructed as part of the parcel split.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, a member of the Democratic group that is spearheading on the housing package, argued at the April 22 meeting of the Governance and Finance Committee that the legislation "really strikes an appropriate balance between respecting local control and creating the environment and opportunity for production of small-scale development that we so badly need to combat this acute housing crisis that exists in California." The bill, he said, effectively expands the number of units allowed on a lot from three to four.
"SB 9 promotes small-scale, neighborhood-driven residential development by streamlining the process for a homeowner to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot in residential areas, up to four units," McGuire said at the hearing, shortly before the committee voted 5-0 to advance the legislation.