image-Scott Wiener
San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener has been pushing for Bill 50, which he feels will help address California's housing crisis. Photo courtesy CalMatters

For the third year in a row, California lawmakers will consider a controversial housing proposal that would force neighborhoods to allow taller, denser housing near public transportation and job centers. 

San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener — whose Senate Bill 50 has twice been beaten back, in different forms, by an assortment of constituencies focused on California’s housing crisis — on Monday announced revised legislation aimed at satisfying concerns over local control, among other issues, that blocked the bill last year.

Wiener has argued that the best way for California to address its crushing housing shortage is to permit the construction of more apartments near public transit. Increasing the housing supply and density, he contends, will lower rents, reduce traffic and cut emissions from greenhouse gas. 

That approach has been supported by a broad political coalition including developers, environmentalists and “Yes In My Backyard” urbanist organizations. But the Legislature and governor have been less persuaded. Wiener’s proposal was blocked last year and the year before by an alliance of suburban homeowners, local governments, and anti-displacement groups who contended the bill invited developers to kill neighborhood character and gentrify lower-income communities. 

Chief among the concerns was the fear that local government might lose control over housing decisions, a prerogative cherished not only in city halls across the state but also by many lawmakers in Sacramento. Whether this third iteration of the bill will be the charm politically remains an open question, as does whether Wiener’s softened approach will actually make housing more affordable in California.

“More and more people understand that while SB 50 is not a silver bullet — there’s no such thing — this bill is a big part of addressing the housing crisis,” said Wiener. 

The new plan would let cities craft their own housing plans — but wield a big stick against those that don’t comply.

Last year’s bill would have forced cities in counties with more than 600,000 people to allow 4- and 5-story apartment buildings near rail stations and ferry lines. No longer could cities restrict housing around Bay Area BART lines and L.A. Metro lines to single family homes.

The changes unveiled by Wiener today go softer on local governments. Cities will now get two years to develop an alternative housing plan, which they’ll be able to submit to the state housing department. The plans will have to zone for the same amount of housing required by Wiener’s measure, and won’t be able to increase traffic or sprawl. If local governments don’t submit an acceptable alternative, the revised Wiener measure would kick in. 

Untouched from last year’s bill is a provision that would let the vast majority of California homeowners convert an existing single family home to a duplex, triplex, or fourplex, regardless of where they live. 

The proposal takes its cue from a growing national movement toward density as a solution to sky-high housing prices. Oregon and Minneapolis passed similar measures last year, drawing  national media attention and the

scorn of antidevelopment activists. 

While a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 allowed granny flats to be built on most single-family-home lots in California, this new iteration of Wiener’s bill would go further. That doesn’t necessarily mean residential neighborhoods will become denser overnight, says David Garcia, policy director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. 

That’s because the bill allows single family homes only to be converted to denser housing arrangements — you won’t be able to demolish a home and rebuild multifamily housing on it. 

“It really won’t lead to the construction of new fourplexes,” said Garcia, who applauded the spirit of the bill. “It just doesn’t go as far as Oregon or Minneapolis.” 

Wiener has assembled an impressive coalition of supporters, but to get the bill through the Legislature he’ll likely need the aid of Newsom, who has called for legislation making it easier to build housing, but has so far resisted explicitly backing Wiener’s bill.

When asked if Newsom now supported the bill in light of the new changes, a spokesman responded via email: “The Governor remains focused as a top priority on getting more housing built all across the state, for people at all income levels. The Governor looks forward to working with the Legislature again this year on housing production, building on last year’s legislative and budget successes.” 

“We of course work closely with the governor and his staff … and we keep them apprised of everything that’s happening,” said Wiener.  “These were not amendments that the governor asked us to put into the bill.”

 

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

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