State Senate Bill 50, a contentious bill that aimed to encourage more housing near transit and that stirred intense opposition on the Peninsula, suffered a stinging setback Thursday (May 16), when the chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee announced that he will not be bringing the bill up for a hearing until at least early 2020.
While the announcement by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, does not kill SB 50, it ensures that the Legislature will not take up the bill this year. Now a "two-year bill," SB 50 will be eligible for a vote next January.
The decision comes just weeks after SB 50 scored several victories at the committee level, with the Housing Committee and the Finance and Government Committee each voting last month to advance the legislation (in both cases, the bill passed overwhelmingly, with just one dissenting vote).
Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the bill has also undergone significant changes in recent weeks. On April 24, Wiener merged his bill with another proposed bill, Senate Bill 4, to create a two-tiered system with different requirements for counties that have fewer than 600,000 residents.
While the changes have helped Wiener pick up political support in Sacramento, the bill continued to face significant opposition at the local level in various pockets of the state. The bill would have loosened parking requirements and height regulations in areas within half a mile of transit hubs, including in single-family neighborhoods.
Under the bill, three- and four-story buildings would be allowed in these areas. In addition, the bill would loosen density regulations throughout "jobs-rich" cities like Palo Alto (though height limits would apply outside the transit-friendly areas).
Various mayors and city councils have attacked the legislation as a "one-size-fits-all approach" to tackling the housing crisis and attack on local control. The Palo Alto City Council last month took a position against the bill.
Palo Alto's letter of opposition, submitted to its Sacramento representatives, stated, "The proposal to render cities unable to regulate parking, density and height, as examples, strike at the ability of local governments to not only define the nature of their communities, but also fails to acknowledge individual situations where these regulations are necessary to avoid spillover impacts on surrounding neighborhoods."
Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth also dedicated most of his "State of the City" speech in March to criticizing SB 50.
Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller has taken a public position against the bill as well. The Menlo Park City Council hasn't formally discussed or agreed on a policy position on the bill.
In response to the news that legislative action on SB 50 has been delayed until next year, Mueller told The Almanac, "The city of Menlo Park is committed to doing its part to address the housing crisis. We already were working hard to address this issue locally with multiple housing projects in the pipeline. My personal hope is that advocates would move away from attempting to pre-empt local zoning power and weakening local government."
As an alternative, he said in a statement, "I believe the focus should be shifted to reforming the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process that allocates housing creation numbers to cities, to adequately meet housing demands, while leaving Cities the flexibility to determine how best to plan for the creation of those units. Legislation should empower cities with infrastructure and education dollars that enable cities to meet their RHNA numbers."
East Palo Alto officials, by contrast, have been more sanguine about SB 50. At a joint meeting earlier this month with Palo Alto and Menlo Park city councils, several East Palo Alto council members stressed the need to address the state housing shortage and challenged cities that oppose SB 50 to present their own alternatives to the legislation.
"It's really going to take the political will of California to pause for a second and to relinquish the concept of local control for this housing transportation crisis that we're in," East Palo Alto Councilman Larry Moody said at the May 6 meeting.
In a statement, Wiener said that while he is "deeply disappointed" that the bill will be postponed, he and other supporters of SB 50 are "one hundred percent committed to moving the legislation forward."
Wiener pointed to California's housing shortage, which is estimated at 3.5 million homes — equal to the combined housing shortage of the other 49 states. The status quo, he said, isn't working.
"We need to do things differently when it comes to housing," Wiener said in a statement. "We're either serious about solving this crisis or we aren't. At some point, we will need to make the hard political choices necessary for California to have a bright housing future."
Impacts on city fees?
At a City Council discussion on Tuesday, May 14, Mueller said that his approach to determining how steep the city's new Transportation Impact Fee -- the amount developers of new projects should have to pay to cover new infrastructure costs -- should be depends largely on the outcome of SB 50.
If passed, he argued, the bill could make it harder for cities to negotiate with developers and pressure them to provide benefits to the community to account for the impacts their projects create.
In other words, he said, if SB 50 passes, the impact fee should be as high as necessary to ensure that developers have to pay for the impacts on infrastructure that their projects would have.
If SB 50 doesn't pass, he told The Almanac on Thursday, "There is no need to push for (transportation impact fees) because we will still have development agreements to account for capital costs, as well as zoning controls, so we can control and plan for infrastructure costs."
With SB 50 in limbo, he said he plans to continue to monitor the bill and in the meantime, "focus on doing our best for the taxpayer. ... It definitely will be something to consider in the Specific Plan and General Plan reviews," he added.