Sen. Wiener’s State Housing Density Law SB-50 Faces Local Opposition

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Like the phoenix on San Francisco’s city flag, a controversial bill from a former city supervisor, which had died before in the state capitol, is once again rising from the ashes of legislative defeat, but not without pushback.

On Dec. 17, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority both passed resolutions opposing California Senate Bill 50 (SB-50), unless amended.

The Transportation Authority resolution, passed unanimously, cites the impacts the bill would have on transportation service and infrastructure. This is the first such resolution by a transportation authority, which in San Francisco manages congestion, conducts long-range transportation planning and funds transportation improvement projects.

SB-50 would remove local residential population density limits within at least a quarter and possibly up to a half mile around certain transit stops and lines, as well as in areas described as “jobs rich.” It would also apply to rail and ferry stops statewide. Furthermore, the bill would prohibit municipalities from enforcing height limits and floor area ratio controls below a specified minimum on qualifying projects. 

According to a San Francisco Planning Department analysis last March, the bill would tie zoning standards to transit service and infrastructure, which could unintentionally create more reasons for jurisdictions or neighborhoods to suspend already planned transit service enhancements or avoid planning for increased transit service altogether, if they oppose the increased density that would come with the enhanced transit service.

Essentially, the measure would “up-zone” much of the land currently dedicated exclusively to single-family homes and allow construction of multi-unit dwellings like apartments or condominiums.  

This idea first came up when State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) sponsored Senate Bill 827 in January of 2018. By April of that year, however, it had died in committee, which is a common way for a committee chairperson to kill legislation without bringing it to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Wiener brought it back to life again a year ago, made some alterations and it was re-branded as SB-50; the name change did not save it from being shelved or “postponed” in another committee last May. 

Now he is at it again, hoping this time around it will rise through the new legislature and eventually land on the governor’s desk to be signed into law. 

“Nothing is guaranteed in this legislative process, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to move the bill forward,” Wiener said. 

There has been opposition all along that does not look ready to go away any time soon. 

Last April, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously for a resolution opposing the bill’s previous version, when Councilmember Paul Koretz called it a “handout to developers,” and Councilmember Mike Bonin expressed concern that it would displace low-income, mainly Latino residents along coastal areas, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and County Transportation Authority passed resolutions last month opposing the latest version unless it is significantly amended.

“Housing development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said SF District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar, who authored the resolution. “We must plan for increased housing density comprehensively – with improvements to transportation and other infrastructure, and services to go with the housing. We need to stand firm on opposing a bill that undermines our community transportation plans, unless and until our concerns are addressed.” 

District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer also supports the resolution. 

“We know that up-zoning to allow for more market-rate housing will increase land values and displacement pressures, so it’s critical that up-zoning is tied to an equitable increase in the amount of affordable housing and community benefits we get from developers who reap the additional profits,” Fewer said. “To ensure development without displacement, we must also have strong and enforceable tenant protections to prevent existing communities from being priced out.

“(SB-50) would not include any affordable inclusionary housing,” she said. “The inclusionary housing rule says that if you build more than nine units you must include one unit of inclusionary housing or below-market-rate housing. But our single-family homes, the lots, would only really allow maybe six units, so we’d never get to that threshold of 10.”

She said that, of the new housing now “in the pipeline,” only 20 percent is “affordable” and the rest is either market-rate or luxury. 

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen sees it differently.

“I understand why Sen. Wiener might want to push unwilling cities to step up and do their share to address our regional and statewide housing crisis,” Ronen said. “But we in San Francisco are not dragging our feet; on the contrary, we have a pipeline of more than 75,000 units. What we are lagging on is housing that is affordable to our workforce and low-income families. We have to be sure that SB-50 addresses those specific needs and that we are not simply adding to the profit potential of private developers.”

“It is absolutely the case that the greatest impact of this bill will be in low-density, suburban areas,” Wiener responded. “In big swaths of San Francisco it’s already zoned for high density and the bill will have little or no impact. However, in 70 percent of San Francisco it is still zoned for single family or two units and so we don’t have density equity in San Francisco. SB-50 will allow greater density in parts of the city that could use more apartments, like on the west side.”

He also addressed Fewer’s point about inclusionary affordable housing. 

“SB-50 does not override local affordability requirements,” he said. “This does not in any way take away San Francisco’s authority. San Francisco has chosen not to put affordability requirements on projects under 10 units. And I agree with that decision because, when you’re building some three-or-four-unit apartment building, it’s not realistic, financially, to require a mom and pop developer to put an affordability requirement on their building.”

To keep long-term renters from being pressured to move out, he said, his bill would disqualify from SB-50 any buildings with units that have been rented out within the previous seven years or any buildings in which tenants had been evicted by the Ellis Act during the last 15 years. 

The SF Planning Department’s analysis noted that renters inhabit 63 percent of the City’s occupied units, thus making those buildings ineligible for SB-50. Yet, there is no established process for determining whether an apartment or a single-family home has been tenant-occupied. Should SB-50 pass, one will need to be created to keep track.

The department’s report also states that San Francisco’s inclusionary housing ordinance is only triggered on projects containing 10 or more units, and on-site affordable units are “rarely produced” in parts of the city with low density zoning districts “because existing density controls do not allow projects meeting the size threshold to trigger inclusionary requirements. Should it pass, SB-50 would likely have the effect of creating more affordable housing in these districts by allowing for denser development, increasing the number of potential sites that could accommodate projects with more than nine units.

“By setting a new, higher base density in qualifying areas … SB-50 is likely to result in significantly greater housing production across all density controlled districts and thus would also produce more affordable housing through the on-site inclusionary requirement,” the report stated.

Among Mar’s proposed amendments are two that would provide funding to evaluate transportation needs and deliver additional transportation infrastructure needed to support the housing development SB-50 allows. 

But Wiener called this demand unreasonable. 

“You can’t solve every problem in one bill,” he said. “If you try to solve every problem with one bill, the bill’s going to fail, fall under its own weight, and you’re not going to solve any problem.”


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