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SB 50 Density Bill Merges with SB 4, Passes Committee

Josh Stephens on
Apr 26, 2019
For the past two years, the California Legislature has passed “packages” of bills aimed at alleviating California’s housing crisis. This year, it may get to vote on an entire package in one bill. 

Senate Bill 50, the controversial bill that would force localities to accept more residential density in transit- and jobs-rich areas, was approved by the Senate Senate Governance and Finance Committee, though in a radically different form from what was previously proposed. 

Committee members voted to advance SB 50, 6-1, after Sen. Scott Wiener, SB 50’s author, and committee chair Mike McGuire agreed to merge SB 50 with McGuire’s SB 4. The move was a surprise, as SB 4 has attracted little attention during this legislative season and approaches housing production in a very different way than the original SB 50 had. McGuire represents the North Bay and the North Coast, including notoriously anti-growth Marin County.

While SB 50 had been criticized for intervening too deeply into local land use, the merged bill arguably would have much more wide-ranging impacts. The bill retains many of the density requirements of SB 50. It requires cities to permit residential buildings of up to four or five stories within a half-mile of major transit stops and job centers. It retains requirements for low-income housing as well as protections against displacement, which many social justice advocates had demanded. 

The revised bill adds SB 4’s requirement that every single-family lot in California be allowed to accommodate up to four units — including accessory dwelling units, duplexes, and four-plexes, by right. In so doing, the new SB 50 would essentially re-write zoning laws in the vast majority of the state’s cities. 

Whether this move will prove to be too radical for lawmakers or a canny example of pooled strength remains to be seen. 

In agreeing to the merger, Weiner made major concessions to small counties, may of which had feared the SB 50 would introduce incompatible dense, urban style development to suburban and semi rural communities. The new bill exempts counties of less than 600,000 from some of SB 50’s density requirements, leaving 15 counties subject to SB 50’s origins provisions. Smaller counties would be required to permit structures one story taller than current regulations allow — but not necessarily up to the five stories that would be permitted by-right in more populous counties. 

“A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every community in California, and the strategy of ‘no’ no longer works,” said McGuire, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times. “No matter if you are a large city, a small city, an urban county, a rural county, everyone has to do their part to be able to combat this crisis of lack of affordable housing.”

The revised bill also excludes coastal communities from many of these requirements. This move is seen as an attempt to placate wealthy, largely residential coastal communities such as those in Marin, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Orange counties. McGuire’s district includes Marin County while Wiener represents San Francisco. Meanwhile, SB 50 has the potential to increase densities across large swaths of major cities, including up to 40 percent of Los Angeles and nearly 100 percent of certain small cities. (Of course, allowable development does not necessarily correlate with actual development.)

“What works for downtown L.A. will not work for downtown Santa Rosa,” McGuire said, as quoted in the Los Angels Times. “More housing, more affordable housing, will be built under this bill respecting the population at hand.”

Overall, the merge seems designed to increase the visibility of SB 4’s provisions while softening the impact of SB 50’s provisions. While SB 50 has support from many housing activists and YIMBY groups, it has drawn criticism from some social justice organizations and, notably, cities that object to the loss of local control. The Los Angeles City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors both voted to oppose the previous version of SB 50 (unless amended), as did the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

The new bill may attract more critics, though — 9 million of them. That’s the rough number of single-family homeowners in California, many of whom have already decried the updated SB 50 as an assault on single-family zoning and an attempt “outlaw" single-family homes. 

SB now goes to the full Senate, which must decide its fate by the end of May, after which it goes to the Assembly. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who supports an aggressive pro-housing agenda, has yet to take a position on the bill.