SB 50 Remains a Controversial Solution for Housing

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Last year one of the pieces of housing legislation that was not approved was SB 827, sponsored by Senator Scott Wiener, which among other things would have allowed developers to build highly dense apartment buildings across the state, so long as they were near public transit.

As CalMatters wrote last December, “The goals were laudable: Ease regulations on the construction of desperately needed new housing (the state acknowledges it is short 3.5 million units), and reduce commuters’ greenhouse gas emissions by placing more homes near greener transportation such as subways, light rail and bus stops.”

The problem of course is that the “method was radical,” the bill literally took away the power of cities to zone their land and thus, despite support from many urbanists and environmentalists across the nation, the bill died.

The bill is back and, in most cases, cities would not be able to block new apartment developments within a half-mile of public transit, and it would ease parking requirements, thus reducing costs.

Changes to the bill have added some new allies, including the mayors of California’s biggest cities.  CalMatters notes, “Certain communities that already created effective transit-oriented development plans would be exempt—which is why Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a foe of last year’s bill, supports this one..”

In March he made further changes, including 15 to 25 percent mandatory inclusionary housing which will depend on the size of the project – it would also change the way parcels near transit are zoned, trying to push for people to live close to where they work.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, and Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs have all endorsed SB 50, along with groups like the California Apartment Association and AARP.

But many housing and environmental groups continue to oppose the measure.

Livable California concludes: “SB 50 is a Real Estate not a Housing Bill for the Affordable Housing that California needs.”  They write: “Senate Bill 50 Rewards Unchecked Speculation, Will Kill Cherished  Neighborhoods, Severely Gentrify Working-Class Areas and Significantly Worsen Housing Affordability. SB 50 Will Displace Tens of Thousands of People.”

The Bee in February reported that new research, published by Urban Affairs Review in January, “suggests that the approach known as ‘upzoning’ isn’t necessarily a magic bullet.”

Yonah Freemark, the study’s author and a doctoral candidate at MIT, found “no evidence for short- or medium-term increases in housing-unit construction.”

The Bee reported that Senator Wiener expressed doubts “the study can lend many insights to the conversation around his bill given that the research concerns zoning changes in Chicago.

“I appreciate the study, but you also have to take it for what is,” he says. “Chicago is not a good comparison for California.” The Bee notes, “He pointed to the city’s declining population and struggling real estate market as two reasons why the research isn’t easily applicable to California.”

The big blow perhaps comes in the form of a letter dated March 27, 2019, signed by 35 organizations across California and submitted to Senator Scott Wiener, expressing significant concerns with the current version of SB 50.  Among others, the letter is signed by Organize Sacramento Chair Tamie Dramer and Housing California Policy Director Tyrone Buckley.

What becomes clear is that they are not opposed to the bill on concept, but rather believe it has inadequate protections on several key fronts.  In particularly they note: “Despite these serious concerns, we are encouraged that your office has re-engaged with us on this important issue in the last week. We sincerely hope that these conversations lead to amendments to SB 50 that address our concerns prior to its next committee hearing.”

The letter identifies three key areas of concern.

They write that “we write to express our significant concerns with SB 50, as currently drafted. Our organizations are dedicated to ensuring that all Californians have a healthy and stable home that they can afford. Over the last several months we have valued your work to solicit our input and review the detailed feedback we have provided.

“However, SB 50, as drafted, does not yet address our most serious concerns and will further exacerbate the housing challenges experienced by low income people, people of color, and other vulnerable people, the very populations being hit hardest by California’s affordability crisis.”

First they argue that SB 50 “generates affordable housing at a level commensurate with the incentives it provides.”

SB 50 developments, they write, “must include meaningful on-site affordable housing to mitigate indirect displacement pressures, advance environmental objectives by creating affordable housing near transit, and ensure inclusive housing opportunities for all Californians. SB 50 falls short of this important standard. The bill includes a provision making sites ineligible for ‘equitable communities incentives’ if they have been occupied by tenants in the past 7 years or had Ellis Act evictions in the last 15 years, and this is essential to decrease direct displacement.

“However, this single provision on its own is insufficient to address the harm that the bill could cause. SB 50 must go further to protect vulnerable communities and increase affordable housing opportunities.”

Importantly they argue: “SB 50 undermines the state’s density bonus law by awarding triple the density increase (or more) of state density bonus law, without any increase in affordability for most projects. It also remains unclear whether the bill would offer additional incentives to SB50 projects under density bonus law that could further dilute the already inadequate affordable housing provisions.”

Second, they argue that it “provides inadequate protections for sensitive communities at risk of displacement.”  They note: “SB 50’s preemption of local zoning and planning must not repeat and exacerbate the deliberate harms of the past.”

They argue: “To protect sensitive communities, SB 50 must accurately identify all sensitive communities and preserve meaningful self-determination in those communities so that they can plan for an inclusive future.”

Finally they argue that SB 50 “must fully protect local affordable housing policies and strong local plans.”

They argue: “SB 50 does not include clear guidance as to how these local policies and plans will be treated. The bill should be amended to fully protect and build on these local initiatives – including authorizing local governments to modify or adopt new programs after bill enactment – and ensure that it does not supplant them.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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