An article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday looks at the impact of Senator Scott Wiener’s sweeping bill, SB 50.
As noted in the article, a group called “Walnut Creek for Controlled Growth” has helped to lobby to “preserve that quality of life as the city has grown in recent years to accommodate the Bay Area’s economic boom.”
Now they worry that such decisions could be taken out of their hands by SB 50.
The article notes SB 50 “would loosen local control over housing development” and “has generated controversy for its aggressive approach to tackling California’s housing shortage by promoting taller and denser construction, especially around public transit.”
However, it also warns that “it’s not just neighborhoods near major transit stops that could be transformed.”
As we noted a few weeks ago, “Provisions in the bill that have gotten far less attention would essentially eliminate single-family zoning in the state by allowing any home or vacant lot in a residential area to be converted to up to four units.”
Paul Wickboldt, a member of the group Walnut Creek for Controlled Growth, told the Chronicle, “Many of us still consider this a suburb… And there’s a concern that we would grow in density in areas where we would lose that.”
In more populous counties, SB 50 would direct the state to create “jobs—rich areas” where density restrictions would be removed. The Chronicle notes: “That would open the door for the construction of apartment buildings in places that have traditionally been limited to single-family homes, provided they met other local design standards such as height limits.”
Such policies could lead to significant change for many of the more suburban areas of the East Bay, for starters.
The article lists a number of more suburban cities in central Contra Costa and Eastern Alameda: Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and Lafayette down through Alamo, Danville and San Ramon, to Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore.
They note an analysis by Berkeley researchers, which finds that “nearly all the land in these cities is in a ‘jobs-rich area.’” Worse yet, unlike areas in San Francisco that are more urban, “mass transit options beyond the East Bay hills tend to be limited — especially in communities not connected to BART.”
That would seem to go against the notion of transit-oriented development, but as the Chronicle explains, “this part of SB50 is intended to ensure that well-to-do suburbs contribute to solving the state’s housing shortage.”
Part of this is in response to criticism which Senator Wiener received that the bill would “have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities.”
On the other hand, the argument goes, “Allowing denser housing in ‘jobs-rich areas’ will mean shorter commutes because people will be able to live closer to where they work.” He argued, “It will also increase access to wealthy cities that have historically been unavailable to poor people and people of color, in part because of single-family zoning laws.”
But this idea itself is causing pushback, alarming many that “enabling denser development will overwhelm the infrastructure and change the character of their cities.”
The Mayor of Walnut Creek, Cindy Silva, for instance, “defended single-family homes as intrinsic to the personality of the state.”
These communities now feel that Sacramento is “picking on them” and they believe “that the cause of the Bay Area’s housing crisis is not their zoning laws, but a failure by San Francisco and Silicon Valley to allow nearly enough new homes for the workers at the tech firms they have been happy to welcome.”
Mayor Silva went so far as to compare this to “colonization, where the East Bay is the housing for the three big cities” of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
“The Legislature is hell-bent on solving the problems of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara (counties) on the back of everybody else,” said Newell Arnerich, a city councilman in Danville.
They also argue that they have already been meeting state mandates for new units in recent years. And they wish to preserve “their suburban flavor” and “concentrate the expansion around BART stations, leaving the rest of their cities mostly untouched.”
This has led many local government across the state to line up against SB 50, especially in suburbs that “could see their zoning rules upended because of their designation as ‘jobs-rich areas.’”
But not everyone, of course, agrees with this view. Some believe that “overhauling decades-old zoning rules is exactly what’s needed.” Many point out that “only top executives can afford to live in such exclusive cities, while their employees are forced to find housing far away.”
One organizer said, “The character of a neighborhood isn’t its buildings. The character of a neighborhood is the people who live there… And a lot of the people who make it interesting to live in the Bay Area are being priced out.”
Some like Senator Steve Glazer from Orinda argue that “the measure should focus on the ‘big urban cities’ where the problem is concentrated. He has not taken a position on SB50 but suggested a better solution would be to bring jobs to the suburbs.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting