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Opinion

Editorial: Getting serious about California’s housing crisis means moving SB 50 forward

Apartment complex near transit line
Senate Bill 50, as originally proposed, would allow mid-rise apartment buildings to be constructed near transit stops. A change in the legislation would allow local communities additional time to develop alternative plans.
(Los Angeles Times)

Senate Bill 50 is back — new, improved, still controversial and definitely worth consideration.

A bold bill that could radically reshape housing in California by, among other things, doing away with single-family zoning across the state, SB 50 was gaining traction last spring when it was shelved unceremoniously in the Senate Appropriations Committee. There was no debate. No opportunity for compromise. It was just put on ice, with the promise by legislative leaders of more discussions in the future.

Now, eight months later, its author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has returned with a revised bill that is more sensitive to local concerns and has a better chance of success — that is, if lawmakers vote to keep it alive for more discussion and compromise.

SB 50 has to pass the state Senate by Jan. 31. If it does, it can still be amended and revised, or voted down in the Assembly. If it doesn’t, it dies. Though the bill is not perfect, it deserves to be moved forward.

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It should be abundantly clear by now that California has a drastic housing shortage that is exacerbating poverty and homelessness and driving up costs for all California residents. Poll after poll shows that homelessness and the cost of housing are the most pressing issues in the state and that more and more residents are considering fleeing the state because of the housing crisis.

The roots of the shortage are simple: California has failed to construct enough housing to keep up with population growth. The state must build 180,000 units of housing each year just to keep up with demand, but it has averaged only 80,000 a year over the last decade, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. One big reason? Zoning restrictions dramatically limit the number of homes that can be built.

SB 50, as initially proposed, would override local zoning laws in certain areas, allowing mid-rise apartment buildings to be constructed within a half-mile of subway stops or within a quarter-mile of high-frequency bus stops, or in “jobs-rich” communities. This would be true even in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family housing. The bill would also allow property owners to convert single-family houses anywhere in the state into four-unit apartment houses, although they would have to work within the same general size and shape of the existing structure.

Last week, as the Legislature started work for the new year, Wiener unveiled a change in the bill designed to assuage one of the biggest concerns about the original proposal: that by overriding zoning rules, the bill usurps local authority and denies well-intentioned communities the chance to spur housing on their own terms and in their own manner.

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Wiener says he heard from mayors and city officials that they supported the goal of the bill — to encourage more affordable and market-rate housing near transit and jobs — but that they wanted the flexibility to decide where the density should be. The revised SB 50 allows cities two years to adopt their own plans; if they fail to, the bill’s one-size-fits-all zoning takes effect.

The local plans would have to zone for as much housing as would be allowed under the original SB 50 requirements, without increasing car travel or concentrating the new homes in low-income areas. For example, a city could allow taller apartment buildings in one neighborhood but only smaller apartment buildings in another that seemed less suited to greater density. Communities deemed to be at risk of gentrification and displacement would have five years to develop their alternative plans.

The local option is important. It’s generally preferable to have the state set housing targets and let local officials — who are closest to the people most affected by land-use decisions — figure out how to meet them.

There is still a lot more work to be done. Some community groups worry that the bill gives away too much to real estate developers and has too few protections for low-income people. Are the tenant and community protections sufficient to limit gentrification and displacement? Should the state demand more affordable housing from developers that take advantage of upzoning? Is two years enough time for cities to develop and adopt a local plan? What exactly is a “sensitive community” or a “jobs-rich” area?

Still, there has been significant progress made since last year. And the only way to make the bill better — and to get serious reform to ease the housing shortage — is to keep it moving beyond Jan. 31.

Now is the time for Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Gov. Gavin Newsom to show they’re serious about addressing California’s housing crisis by moving this bill on to the Assembly.


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