Senate Bill 50 returns — and so does Peninsula's housing debate | January 15, 2020 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - January 15, 2020

Senate Bill 50 returns — and so does Peninsula's housing debate

by Gennady Sheyner

Responding to local concerns about the top-down mandates of his contentious bill, Senate Bill 50, state Sen. Scott Wiener in early January revised the bill to allow cities to craft their own zoning laws to facilitate home construction and avoid the bill's requirements.

The proposed law, which last year caused a stir in many Bay Area 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, many local officials have characterized it as a "one-size-fits-all" solution and an affront to local control.

Under the amendments that Wiener released last 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 calls for. The local plans would have to be certified by the state. If the cities don't move ahead with this type of zoning change, the provisions of SB 50 would kick in.

In a Jan. 7 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 as 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 from placing the bulk of its new housing in low-income communities, in violation of fair-housing principles. And much like the earlier version, 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 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 from getting credit for new housing by replacing existing housing developments.

The bill retains some of the more contentious provisions of the prior version, including the removal of density limits and the 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 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.

In Menlo Park, there hasn't yet been a clear consensus in favor or against the bill from the City Council, though Councilman Ray Mueller has expressed his opposition to it in the past. He called it a "one-size-fits-all proposition" that "puts us in a precarious situation where we will be unable to negotiate for specific needs," and said it was a "a misguided precedent-setting centralization of power in the state that weakens the foundation of local representative government and devalues the voices of its electorate."

During a joint meeting held last May with the city councils of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, Palo Alto council members generally opposed it and East Palo Alto council members generally favored it. But Menlo Park's council members have held their cards close.

While Mayor Cecilia Taylor didn't take a side on the bill during the May meeting, she said she believes one of the reasons SB 50 exists is because cities have not done a good job in entering into development agreements with employers that address some of the impacts caused by commercial projects.

Each city, she said, should adopt an "all-inclusive policy" that requires local hiring and contributions toward improving transportation and education.

She noted that the constituents in her district, Belle Haven, have trouble getting out of the city and getting home because of all the traffic. Schools, she added, are underperforming.

"I believe SB 50 exists because we didn't take care of our own city," Taylor said.

The bill has been particularly divisive in Palo Alto, where last March hundreds of people attended a community meeting to rail against it. The topic even came up during the recent 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 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.

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.

Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw contributed to this report.

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