Opinion: A practical way to respond to SB50


Daily Post Editor

State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50 — which would pre-empt local zoning to allow for more housing near transit and in “job rich” communities like Palo Alto — has just overcome a major obstacle and appears closer to passage.

Wiener’s last attempt at a pro-housing bill died in committee last year.

But this year, when it arrived at the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, it survived and moved on to the next step after Wiener was forced to make a big compromise.

The compromise was demanded by state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents Sonoma and Marin counties. McGuire wanted Wiener to exempt smaller counties.

So now the requirements for more housing in SB50 won’t apply to counties under 600,000, such as Marin and Sonoma.

But SB50 will still apply to Los Angeles, San Francisco and, locally, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

I bring up this compromise to show that SB50 isn’t final and Wiener might be open to a compromise.

The goal for Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos and other cities that will be hit hard by SB50 is to fight for a compromise that shields the mid-Peninsula from the worst aspects of the bill.

Not enough housing

Local residents who oppose SB50 need to acknowledge that we haven’t been allowing for the construction of enough housing. Mountain View and Redwood City have a good record of building new housing, but Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Altos have lagged.

We have places where it can be built that won’t infringe on existing neighborhoods of single-family homes. But our zoning process is slow, perhaps deliberately so, and little gets done.

This lack of housing production has made the mid-Peninsula vulnerable to an attack like the one from Weiner and his backers, which include big developers, organized labor and social justice groups.

There’s a lot of momentum behind SB50. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for instance, has said he wants the state to build 3.5 million homes in the next 10 years. It would seem that SB50 is the kind of pro-housing bill Newsom would like to sign.

City leaders need to sit down with their lobbyists in Sacramento and decide what parts of SB50 we can live with and what do we want to change.

Instead of resorting to hysterics and demonization, let’s be practical and realistic. Let’s suggest to Wiener compromises that both sides can live with.

A suggested compromise

Right now, all California cities are required to zone for a certain amount of housing every seven years under a program called the Regional Housing Need Allocation or RHNA. The amount of housing required under RHNA often called a quota.

Instead of upending local zoning laws and forcing cities to increase density near transit, how about we say that SB50 will be suspended for any city that meets its RHNA quota?

That would create the kind of housing Wiener is seeking but give cities the ability to decide where that housing should go. In other words, this compromise would produce housing and maintain local control.

I’m not saying that’s a perfect idea. But it’s the kind of compromise that ought to be suggested to see if it gets any traction in Sacramento.

Our attitude needs to be: Yes, we know we need to allow for more housing, but we shouldn’t destroy single-family neighborhoods to reach that goal. We may not be able to stop SB50. But lets be realistic and pragmatic, and push for a compromise that we can live with.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].


  1. >Mountain View and Redwood City have a good record of building new housing,
    >but Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Altos have lagged.

    This doesn’t make sense to me for the following reason: using that same reasoning, Atherton, Hillsborough, Tiburon, etc. would be found to have lagged even more than Palo Alto, Los Altos. Would they too be required to adopt high-density housing? If not, why are they exempted from what Palo Alto etc are required?

    The metric also implies Mtn View and Menlo Park added a lot of jobs and disproportionately fewer housing….and thereby produced negative externalities whose costs neighboring cities (Palo Alto, Los Altos) were expected to pay…failing which they are put in the penalty box for having “lagged.”

    Why should cities that decided to maintain their residential character (e.g., Los Altos, Saratoga, etc.) give up what’s important to them–their residential character–and bear the costs of those cities that decided to be “jobs-rich” but didn’t provide equivalent housing?

  2. We need to build more housing, no more excuses or delays. The cities that fail to do this should be punished. I’m embarrassed by Palo Alto’s foot dragging and “let them eat cake” attitude.

  3. Forget that, no compromise in the fight against SB50. Local Control is the closest form of democracy we have and is practically all we have left. Weiner’s law goes way too far in usurping our right to determine the character and future of our cities and towns. It’s a San Francisco solution for a San Francisco problem. Do they actually believe people are going to get out of their cars?

  4. There is another compromise – get rid of jobs and send the population elsewhere. Put a tax on employees and rezone for less commercial land (you can turn it into parks). Let the big companies relocate to other parts of the state where land in cheaper and less crowded. Why is this never explored?

  5. > get rid of jobs and send the population elsewhere
    I’d rephrase it as “if job growth threatens jobs-housing balance, limit job growth”.

    >Why is this never explored?
    For the simple reason the realtors and developers and politicians (city council all the way to State legislature) work together, are better organized, have more money to lobby the politicians to push for what is advantageous for them: more development, more people (resulting in more real estate transactions and thereby more commissions for realtors), more votes for the politicians.
    This is also confirmed by those that backed the SB 229, SB 50 and other such bills: the CA Association of Realtors, etc.

    Unless the rest of us get our act together we are at risk of turning this area into yet another sprawl…and we are half-way or more there already.

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