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Amended SB 50 Housing Bill Allows More Local Control

Josh Stephens on
Jan 7, 2020
Sen. Scott Wiener has waited eight long months to reintroduce his controversial transit-oriented housing bill, Senate Bill 50 — the “More HOMES Act” — after it got abruptly continued in Appropriations Committee in April of last year. He wasted not a day. 

Yesterday, in the first day of the new legislative session, Wiener announced a revised version of SB 50 (which itself was a revised version of 2018’s SB 827). The bill still seeks to increase housing density near high-frequency transit stops and “jobs-rich” areas. It also still effectively outlaws single-family zoning across the state, replacing it with zoning to allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes. 

The major change is a less prescriptive mandate for increased densities. Whereas previous versions of the bill required cities to adopt certain height requirements within certain radii from transit stops and job areas, the amended bill gives cities the freedom to spread out densities in more flexible ways. Local plans would have to meet with approval of the Department of Housing and Community Development. Cities that failed to submit approved plans would then be subject to more prescriptive requirements under SB 50. 

The change was designed to appeal to cities that decried SB 50’s purported infringement on local control. 

Under the new provisions added to SB 50, all will have two years after the bill is signed to develop a housing plan that works for their specific needs. Local governments will take the lead in creating housing plans, including the prerogative to protect renters and sensitive communities against displacement as they see fit. Certain communities that are under-resourced and need to pair zoning reform with anti-displacement policy will not experience any zoning changes until five years after the bill is signed.

“The amendments allow cities this flexibility while ensuring that any local alternative plan meets SB 50’s goals to increase housing supply, promote environmental sustainability, and fight for fair, non-discriminatory housing policy,” Wiener said in a statement. 

The bill still includes a provision to exempt smaller counties — including wealthy coastal counties like Marin and Santa Barbara — from many of the density requirements. 

The question is, is it enough of a change? Perhaps more importantly, has statewide demand for housing increased? Or have two years’ worth of defeats sapped Wiener’s political capital? 

Backers of SB 50 clearly believe the former. 

“The changes we’ve made to SB 50 give cities a broader menu of options that help them take a leadership role in solving the housing shortage,” said Brian Hanlon, President and CEO of California YIMBY, in a statement; his group sponsored the bill. “Cities that want to stay ahead on this issue can make their own plans for how they add homes to their communities, while cities that fall behind will be subjected to the bill’s specific requirements. This gives cities all the flexibility they need to be a part of the solution.”

Opposition to the new SB 50 will likely center on its affordable housing requirements—or lack thereof. Critics, including vocal protestors who reportedly shouted down Wiener at a press conference yesterday, criticize the bill for failing to mandate or fund sufficient amounts of affordable housing and for potentially threatening incumbent low-income tenants. Wiener has countered that the bill in no way prevents cities from imposing their own affordable housing requirements or anti-displacement measures. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom did not take a position on SB 50 last year and has not yet indicated a position this year.

“The governor remains focused as a top priority on getting more housing built all across the state, for people at all income levels,” Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar said in a statement, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.
Because SB 50 is a reintroduced bill, it must pass out of committee by Jan. 24 and be passed by each house by Jan. 31.

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