Housing bill SB50 roars back to life


This story originally appeared in the Dec. 30 print edition of the Daily Post. Most of the local news stories the Post prints don’t appear online. The only way to get all of the local news is to pick up a copy of the Post each morning at 1,000 mid-Peninsula locations.

Daily Post Correspondent

A bill that would override local zoning to allow housing in tall, dense buildings near train stations and bus corridors like El Camino Real is back in the spotlight beginning today (Jan. 6).

Senate Bill 50 by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, was shelved in May in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Wiener plans to revive SB50 next month with amendments that he says will give cities more flexibility in meeting the bill’s requirements.

“Cities should have more latitude as to how they implement the bill,” Wiener told the Daily Post on Dec. 28.

Wiener wasn’t ready to provide specifics on the flexibility he plans to add to the bill, saying the amendments are still being drafted.

Under a deadline for bills introduced in the first year of California’s two-year legislative sessions, the Senate must pass SB50 by Jan. 31 for the bill to stay alive. Wiener said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the Appropriations Committee will approve the bill and send it to the Senate floor for a vote. Then the focus can turn toward passing it in the Assembly.

SB50 is intended to take aim at the state’s housing crisis and what Wiener calls a shortage of 3.5 million homes. The idea is to eliminate cities’ “hyper-low-density zoning” near transit and job centers, according to the senator’s website.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted this month to support SB50, but asked for a handful of amendments, including allowing cities to set their own parking requirements for housing projects near train stations. Wiener said Saturday that is not a change he’s planning to make.

The Santa Clara County supervisors also want cities to have more flexibility in providing density in those developments, aside from increasing the height of buildings.

Simitian waiting for final version

Supervisor Joe Simitian of Palo Alto abstained from the vote, saying he wants to see the final version of SB50 before deciding whether to support it.

In its current form, SB50 would allow multifamily housing projects that are within a quarter mile of a train station, such as a Caltrain or BART station, to bypass city parking requirements, density limits or height limits of less than 55 feet.

If the housing project is more than a quarter mile but less than a half mile from the train station, a height limit of 45 feet or less could not be imposed.

The provisions would apply to counties with a population of 600,000 or more, which would include Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Another set of provisions would apply to housing developments within a quarter mile of a bus stop on a “high-quality” bus route or in so-called “job-rich areas.”

In those zones, a city couldn’t apply density limits to multi-family housing projects or require more than half a parking space per unit.

The bill would leave it to the state Department of Housing and Community Development to identify the job-rich areas by assessing whether an area has a “high opportunity” for residents’ educational and economic advancement plus either a high density of jobs or shorter commutes.

Palo Alto falls into a ‘jobs-rich area’

A map found at mappingopportunityca.org, which Wiener said he believes is accurate, shows most of Palo Alto as meeting the criteria for a job-rich area.

SB50 has been criticized for not better defining “job-rich areas.”

“As presently drafted, it is very difficult to determine what constitutes a ‘jobs-rich area,’” the League of California Cities said in a letter sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee in May. “Additionally, by not defining ‘jobs-rich area’ in statute, there is no way of knowing if SB50 will actually accomplish its stated goal.”

The League also questioned why the bill would allow higher density housing in the high-opportunity and job-rich areas — even if they lack public transit.

Spreading around new housing

Wiener called the job-rich areas a key piece of SB50. He said the idea behind encouraging denser housing in the job-rich areas is to help spread around the new housing. If it’s built mostly along transit lines, that could disproportionately impact lower-income communities, he said.

Also, Wiener said, even if the job-rich areas lack transit, residents would live closer to work.

“Even if they’re driving, they’re driving shorter distances,” he said.

1 Comment

  1. The higher-density would extend to single-family neighborhoods in “jobs rich” areas and include most of Palo Alto. Because SB 50 allows project applicants to choose either ownership or rental housing – or both – there would be no assurance that any apartments are built – any. Only rental housing is potentially “affordable” to no, low and middle-income people. SB 50 is really about getting high-density ownership housing in single-family neighborhoods near where the TECH GIANTS have chosen to set up shop and expand. Menlo Park with Facebook will soon be getting a middle name and become: MENLO NO-PLACE-TO PARK. It will become so crowded that most residents may need to live only ON-LINE. Facebook stands ready to help with that.

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