2020 will mark the third year in a row that state Sen. Scott Wiener will attempt to push through his bold and controversial housing bill. The plan, dubbed Senate Bill 50, was initially proposed as SB 827 in 2018 and then as SB 50, or the More HOMES (Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability) Act in 2019.
This year, Wiener is facing a quick deadline: After the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to turn SB 50 into a two-year bill, it forced the bill to undergo a 2020 vote. It now has until Jan. 31 to make it out of the committee and pass a Senate floor vote. If it succeeds, it will move on to the Assembly.
With a formal announcement planned for tomorrow in Oakland, Wiener will not only outline specific changes for the bill but reaffirm one thing he has said all along: The state must continue to build more housing. And SB 50 mainly encourages that by eliminating low-density zoning laws that are in place near transit.
And though not necessarily endorsing SB 50 itself, Gov. Gavin Newsom called out Wiener by name at the signing of AB 68 last year, stating that California “needs to continue this kind of energy to focus on increasing that supply, continuing to do the good work that Scott Wiener has been doing raising the issue of production in this state, and trying to do what he can to help his colleagues be convinced that they’re going to survive if they just come on over and help support, a little bit more, an indulgence in the construction side of things.”
But what does SB 50 mean for local control in Long Beach, where the City Council opposed the bill last year?
What SB 50 was…
Here’s a breakdown of how SB 50 originally worked:
- SB 50 would apply to sites within a half-mile of fixed rail and a quarter-mile of high-frequency bus stops. Within these boundaries, no city could limit density (e.g., ban apartment building construction). Additionally, a city could not impose certain maximum height limits within a half-mile of fixed rail.
- SB 50 also defers to local design standards, inclusionary housing requirements, setback rules, demolition standards (unless they are too weak), and height limits (except near fixed rail stops).
- SB 50 also includes the following provisions to protect renters and low-income communities and create more access to publicly funded services:
- Tenant protections: Establishes strict tenant protections to ensure long-time residents will not be displaced from their communities, including a prohibition on demolishing buildings currently or recently occupied by renters or where Ellis Act evictions have occurred.
- Affordable housing: Establishes affordability standards to ensure that projects are mixed income.
- Sensitive communities: Allows for delayed implementation in sensitive communities at risk of gentrification and displacement in order to allow for local planning to reduce displacement.
- Job-rich communities: Proposes a new “job-rich housing project” incentive to ensure that communities with easy access to jobs and in neighborhoods with high-performing public schools allow a broader range of housing choices for people of all income levels, even in the absence of high-quality transit.
…and what SB 50 could look like in 2020
However, one of the far more controversial aspects of SB 50—allowing owners of single-family dwellings to create four-plexes on their lots, overriding local zoning—no longer need to be written into the bill. That type of policy action has already been achieved: AB 68, authored by Assembly member Phil Ting, was passed last year and allows for homeowners of single-family homes to essentially turn their properties into triplexes.
What this means for SB 50 is a likely removal of language regarding single-family zoning and, tacked onto this, a bit of language expanding local control.
Many municipalities, including Long Beach, felt their ability to control their own city’s development was being threatened by SB 50. And it is likely that Wiener will lessen the unilateral state control of the bill’s ability to increase density, instead providing some small, positive steps toward increasing local control. These could include measures that allow municipalities to control height in certain areas.
SB 50 needs more equity measures in place if it wants to reach housing advocates
But perhaps SB 50’s biggest hurdle is the fact that, two years running, the bill has seen support from lower-income and communities of color dissipate because the bill largely eschews both the work of those communities and those dependent on transit.
For example, in terms of the Los Angeles landscape when the bill was first introduced as SB 82, it ultimately failed to gain support because many of the communities “rich in transit” were those that had long been disinvested, like Inglewood and South Los Angeles—and that meant most of the development would fall directly into their neighborhoods. These communities had spent the better part of the past 20 years crafting a development plan that fit their needs—and SB 827 ultimately gave unilateral control to the state over possible developments in the heart of these communities.
Many also feel there are not strong enough inclusionary incentives or requirements, meaning that market-rate housing is likely to line the corridors of transit that many low-income Californians depend on—something that Wiener has worked on to include more of with each adaptation of the bill but without garnering much support from the housing equity lobby.
Jackie Fielder, a housing advocate who has largely led support against SB 50 for its lack of equity, said that she and her allies “of course support transit-oriented housing” but “we cannot simply rezone for transit-oriented development while ignoring the fact that low-income Californians rely on transit the most. Urbanist pro-housing allies need to do a better job of listening to low income people and people of color before legislating or advocating on their behalf.”
In other words, Wiener will have to find a way to mend the gap between his urbanist vision and what that means for marginalized communities on the brink of or already experiencing displacement.
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