While those who are tuned into local zoning and land use issues have been hearing about (and, we hope, discussing) the state-level SB50 housing bill for several months now, other residents may have heard of it but don’t yet know what it is…and some folks are still posting on local social media that they just this minute heard of it and sense that they and others should find out more.
As it happens, there will be a big Town Hall meeting organized by opponents of SB50 tonight (Tuesday, April 30) – 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. – so we thought this would be a good time to provide our readers with a quick (well, as quick as we can) overview of the bill and why it’s suddenly such a big topic of discussion. So…
What is SB 50…and what does it propose?
California State Senate Bill 50 (a.k.a. SB 50) is a statewide housing bill introduced in December, 2018 by San Francisco Bay-area State Senator Scott Wiener. As officially described, the bill would:
“…require that a residential development eligible for an equitable communities incentive receive waivers from maximum controls on density and minimum controls on automobile parking requirements greater than 0.5 parking spots per unit, up to 3 additional incentives or concessions under the Density Bonus Law, and specified additional waivers if the residential development is located within a 1/2-mile or 1/4-mile radius of a major transit stop, as defined.”
In slightly plainer English, that means that in areas within 1/2 or 1/4 mile of “a major transit stop” (rail or bus, running at certain intervals during peak travel hours – which could include more that 40% of urban Los Angeles), local zoning laws restricting height, density and parking requirements could be waived almost entirely, allowing much denser housing construction, even in what are now single-family (R1) or very low density multi-family (R2) neighborhoods.
Why was SB 50 proposed?
California is experiencing a statewide housing crisis, and some housing advocates – including Sen. Wiener – believe that local zoning restrictions, which vary from city to city but in general are used to control density in large swaths of our cities’ neighborhoods, are a big part of the problem. That’s because zoning, by definition, limits how much housing can be built, even in transit- and/or job-rich neighborhoods, at a time when we’re far behind on our construction needs…especially in those transit- and job-rich areas.
Also, SB 50 was introduced as a deliberate successor to SB 827, a bill introduced by Wiener a year earlier, which never made it out of its first committee hearings. SB 827 floundered because – in addition to potentially taking control of local zoning away from individual cities, which have always reserved the right to govern their own zoning and development – it didn’t address many other local concerns, including the urgent need for low-income housing, the likely displacement of tenants from older, more affordable housing units, and local historic preservation rules. SB 50 is similar to SB 827 in many ways, but it does include some new protections for current tenants and existing affordable buildings, including a new exclusion for buildings that have had rental tenants at any time in the last seven years.
What is the current status of SB 50…and what amendments were made recently?
On April 4, the State Senate’s Housing Committee voted to advance SB 50. Another hearing took place last Wednesday, April 24, at the Senate’s Governance and Finance Committee, at which several significant amendments were made. Most notable of those was combining SB 50 with another Senate bill – SB 4 – which would limit the state’s effective takeover of local zoning control to larger cities. (Cities with less than 600,000 residents would still be exempt from some provisions.) Also, SB 50 would now focus more on cities that have not made progress toward mandated housing goals, as well as limit building size in some areas to just one story more than current zoning allows. Other amendments included making construction of new four-plexes (or converting lower-density structures to up to four units) by-right in the designated areas…and exempting buildings designated historic (such as official “contributors” in Los Angeles’ HPOZs) prior to 2010. (Those designated after that date, however, including several of our local HPOZs, would not be exempt.) Also, certain “sensitive communities” in lower income areas would be exempt.
If that’s still not quite simple enough, however, here’s a good flow chart from graphic artist Alfred Twu, which illustrates the provisions of SB 50 since the recent amendments, and which has been making the rounds this week:
What does the Los Angeles City Council say about SB50?
As noted above, one challenge for any sweeping state-level bill like this is that it commandeers control of planning and zoning away from the local level where it’s traditionally been held, and creates more one-size-fits-all rules at the state level…which is rarely seen as a good thing by city-level officials and others who firmly believe that every city is different, every neighborhood is different, and local governments must maintain the ability to legislate specific solutions for specific areas. Based on that belief, both the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council have voted unanimously to oppose SB 50.
As the Buzz reported on the LA City Council’s hearing, on April 16:
[City Council Member Paul] Koretz began his remarks by saying “there are so many reasons to oppose SB 50, it’s difficult to know where to start.” First, he cautioned, SB 50 should not be mistaken for an “affordable housing bill,” and that it is really just a “handout for developers,” allowing them to build large numbers of luxury units, with no low income or workforce-priced housing. Instead, he said, the bill relies on long-disproven “trickle down” theories to eventually reduce housing costs…without any evidence so far that the approach will work. In fact, he said, citing developments in his own district, large numbers of new luxury units do not seem to do anything so far to lower the price of other housing. “If anything,” Koretz said, “it’s likely to increasing the price of housing.”
“Next, Council Member Ryu picked up where Koretz left off, noting that while SB 50 does include some new eviction protections for renters, it – like last-year’s quickly-rejected SB187 – is a one-size-fits all approach, which doesn’t differentiate between cities already building their share of housing and those that aren’t. Also, said Ryu in support of Koretz’s claims that large amounts of new construction don’t necessarily make housing more affordable, Seattle recently built more than 24,000 new units in just one year…and saw rents go down by only $2.
Finally Ryu also noted that SB 50 targets “job rich” areas for most new construction, but does not acknowledge that job densities shift up and down, and/or move over time. This is just one more reason, he said, why idividual cities should be allowed to set their own housing targets and policies instead of imposing the same rules for every city at the state level. “We need local solustions for local housing needs,” Ryu said, characterizing SB 50 as a “knee-jerk, blunt instrument that doesn’t understand the nature of our housng crisis or how to solve it” here in Los Angeles. We do need new zoning laws and community plans, Ryu continued, but we need “housing that serves our community,” and our own residents should lead the process, “not legilsaltors hundreds of miles away.”
What does the LA City Planning Department say about 5B50?
The Los Angeles City Planning Department has been studying SB 50 for several months, and released an extensive report on its analysis on April 23 (the day before the most recent committee amendments were made in Sacramento). In brief, the report concludes that:
SB 50 includes approximately 63% of the City’s developable area within its boundaries; however, when considering parcel-level eligibility requirements in the bill, it is estimated that approximately 43% of the developable area of the City would be eligible for SB 50 incentives.
SB 50 is likely to have impacts in all eligible areas, though they will differ according to a mix of factors such as current zoning, existing use, physical constraints, market factorsand allowable incentives.
The largest impacts of the bill are anticipated to occur in lower-density areas that arelocated within 1/2 mile of a rail station – or about 6% of single-family zoned parcels and 8% of R2 and RD zoned parcels. These areas would be eligible for significant increases inallowable height, mass (floor area ratio) and/or density.
By directly expanding zoned capacity for multi-family housing across the state, SB 50 isexpected to lead to a significant increase in home construction, and lead to more housing, including affordable housing, being built.
SB 50 may move development focus away from commercial corridors and high-density zoned residential areas and into lower-density zoned areas.
The legislation appears to allow for the City’s design and preservation controls to be superseded in many instances.
Special land use regulations for historic preservation, hillside areas, flood zones, very high fire hazard severity zones, non-urbanized areas and coastal properties do not appear to be specifically addressed, as they often are in other statewide legislation.
On-site affordability requirements for most SB 50 projects will often be lower than comparable density bonus and TOC requirements.
While SB 50 includes protections for rental housing and sites where rental housing has been recently converted or demolished, the bill will likely lead to an increase in demolition of owner-occupied single-family homes, particularly near rail transit.
The “sensitive communities” designation that allows for delayed implementation would apply to approximately 15% of the parcels eligible for SB 50 incentives, but would not recognize the very recent community planning efforts in South Los Angeles. Future planning efforts in sensitive communities would only be recognized if upzones match SB50 levels within the plan areas.
There remain several unknowns about the bill that could greatly affect impacts to bulk and form, particularly in lower-scale neighborhoods.
It is unclear if the City’s TOC Program or the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee (AHLF) are intended to be considered “inclusionary housing ordinances” for the purposes of alternative compliance with the bill’s affordability requirements.
Why do people support SB50?
Those in favor of SB 50 generally argue that the state of California has a huge housing crisis, and needs to build millions of new housing units as fast as it can. Also, they say, one of the biggest impediments to fast construction of new housing can be local zoning rules, which either ban or discourage dense housing in many areas near public transit, where we need it most, or slow down the approval and construction process with lengthy local reviews and permissions.
Also, some SB 50 advocates recount the history of single-family zoning laws and their relationship to historic racial covenants and “red-lining” practices, which effectively locked generations of African-Americans and other ethnic groups out of home ownership and the wealth it helped white families create. The legacy of that inequality continues today, and even now, zoning neighborhoods exclusively for single-family housing, increasingly available to only the wealthiest residents, contributes to current housing insecurity among non-white and lower income residents. Doing away with single-family zoning, say SB 50 proponents, could help to level that playing field.
Finally, SB 50 advocates also cite environmental concerns, saying the best way to fight climate change is to increase urban density, especially near transit lines, and to do all we can to build for a greener future and to encourage the use of public transportation and discourage the use of gas-powered automobiles.
Why do people oppose SB 50?
SB 50 opponents, like City Council Members Koretz and Ryu, quoted above, have generally been careful to note that they support increasing the amount of available housing, and fighting homelessness and housing insecurity as aggressively as possible. But they also contend that the issue is complex and solutions will be too — definitely not as simple as eliminating all restrictions on local development.
Also, SB 50 opponents argue that cities gain much of their character and liveability from a mix of neighborhood types and densities, and that every city and every neighborhood is different – no statewide, “one size fits all” zoning scheme can work for each of our unique and ever-evolving communities, which each have individual needs, characteristics and housing issues.
In addition (and also as noted above), opponents argue that SB 50 treats cities that are working hard to meet their individual housing and environmental targets in ways that work for them no differently from cities that are not moving forward to fight the housing and environmental crises. Cities like Los Angeles, which have a number of programs in place or in the works (such as our current Transit Oriented Communities development guidelines and proposed Transit Neighborhood Plans) could see their carefully and locally crafted programs and guidelines disappear in favor of sweeping state-level regulations.
And finally, many of those who value the local architectural heritage and character of their neighborhoods fear that SB 50, which could supercede many, if not most, local historic protections, would lead to the destruction of highly characteristic neighborhoods, unique to our city, which residents have fought for many years to preserve.
What did the New York Times say about SB 50?
“It is not, to be sure, a silver bullet. Even if the state can reduce rents and home prices by greatly increasing the amount of new housing, California still needs to find the means and will to subsidize housing for those who cannot afford market-rate units. But it would be a mistake to preserve some affordable housing by preventing the construction of more affordable housing.
The bill also is a necessary piece of the response to another crisis: climate change. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles — landscapes of tall buildings, concrete and traffic-clogged streets — are the most environmentally friendly places for human life on earth. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has calculated that the residents of California’s core cities use about one-fourth less carbon per year than the residents of the surrounding suburbs. Better yet, the residents of California’s cities use less carbon than the residents of any other large American cities because the temperate climate limits the use of air-conditioning and heating.
The paradox, as Mr. Glaeser notes, is that the California coast — the most environmentally friendly place in America for dense housing — is one of the hardest places to build such housing.
It is time to rewrite the rules: The solution to California’s housing crisis is more housing.”
What did the LA Times say about SB 50?
So far, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times does not seem to have weighed in on the issue, though the paper published an opinion piece on the topic – “Holy Cow! California May Get Rid of Single-Family Zoning” – on April 24, 2019, by guest writer Kerry Cavanaugh.
Who Else Supports and Opposes SB 50?
According to the bill’s author, Senator Wiener, SB 50 “is supported by a growing coalition of affordable housing, labor, environmental, senior, student, disability rights, and business organizations, as well as by a growing list of local elected officials.” They include half a dozen California State Senators who signed on as co-authors of the bill, a mix of both Democrats and Republicans in both houses of the state legislature, the California Labor Federation and other building and construction industry advocacy groups, the California Chamber of Commerce, the AARP, the California League of Conservation Voters, Environment California, Habitat for Humanity, a large list of YIMBY (“yes, in my back yard”) housing density advocacy groups, the California Association of Realtors, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), San Francisco Mayor London Breed, various city council members from Anaheim, Culver City, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, Stockton and other smaller cities, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Orange County Business Counncil, People for Housing – Orange County, the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, County Supervisors from several California counties…and many others.
On the other hand, SB 50’s detractors, which have created a StopSB50.net website, include many of the same types of groups, for the various reasons listed above. In addition to the LA City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, others on the record opposing SB 50 include former LA County Supervisor and Los Angeles City Council Member Zev Yaroslavsky, the LA County Democratic Party, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Coalition to PreserveLA, The Los Angeles Tenants Union, the League of California Cities, Housing is a Human Right, Liveable California, San Luis Obispo’s Save Our Downtown, Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth, and Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch.
Finally, California Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to weigh in, but several recent analyses, including this one, have speculated that he will wind up supporting SB 50 if it passes.
So what was that about a meeting tonight?
Yes, this is the first big local Town Hall meeting to discuss SB 50, organized by opponents of the bill from the Carthay Square and South Carthay neighborhoods. The meeting will be held tonight (Tuesday, April 30) at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. Scheduled speakers include:
• Jill Stewart – Executive Director – Coalition to Preserve LA
• Carmen Bordas O’Connor – Mother & Teacher – Member, LA Tenants Union, Mid-City Local
• Brad S. Kane, Esq. – President, South Carthay Neighborhood Association, President, P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council
• The Honorable John Mirisch – Mayor of Beverly Hills
• Council Member Paul Koretz – Los Angeles City Council, District 5
Representaties for several of our local State Senators and Assembly Members are also scheduled to attend.
[Note: this event opposing SB 50 will likely be just the first big discussion of the bill in our area. The Buzz will cover future events as well, on both sides of the issue, as they occur.]
[Note: this story was updated after publication to add the StopSB50 website link.]