Revised version of SB50 gives cities more flexibility


Daily Post Staff Writer

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, unveiled yesterday (Jan. 7) a new version of his Senate Bill 50 that’s intended to make it easier for cities to allow for more housing.

Leaders of suburban cities, such as Palo Alto, were the most vociferous critics of earlier versions of SB50.

The most significant change to SB50 would let cities to escape the requirements of the bill for up to two years if they are able to meet the state’s housing goals on their own.

The bill already gave cities a five-year grace period if they were at the risk of being gentrified. However, Wiener unveiled that other cities can get a two-year grace period before the bill kicks in.

Those cities will have to come up with their own plans to add housing that would be equal or greater to what SB50 would add.

Cities that decide to go their own way in terms of zoning for more housing must have their work checked by the state, according to the bill. Cities will have to submit their plans for review and approval by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

There are no specific guidelines on how a city should create such a plan, or what should the plan cover, except that:

• Low and middle income homes need to be added,

• The new housing cannot be concentrated in low-income areas or just in one part of the city, per the state’s fair housing laws,

• The city’s plans must create equal or less car trips than would be created if SB50 went into full effect.

If no plan is submitted, or is not up to snuff, Wiener’s bill will go into effect.

Bypassing city ordinances

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 or density limits. Such housing projects could be as tall as 55 feet, which is taller than Palo Alto’s 50-foot limit.

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.

SB50 would apply to all of Palo Alto

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

The bill also requires for low income housing to be built as part of projects that come forward as a result of SB50. Buildings with 21 to 200 homes would have to set aside 15% of their units for people with low incomes. The larger the building, the more units that would have to be set aside.

One change in the bill is that residents who live within a half-mile of the development will get priority for a portion of the low-income housing in the new project.

SB50 must be passed by the Senate by Jan. 31. However, no hearing is currently scheduled before the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which held the bill last year. Before the full Senate can vote on the bill, it must be approved by the appropriations committee.

Chairman of the appropriations committee, Sen, Anthony Portantino, D-San Fernando Valley, said yesterday that the bill would “be in a better place today” had Wiener revealed his changes during the legislative break.

“Given that the criteria in the latest amendments create a nearly impossible threshold for cities to meet, the amendments seem like more theater than an implementable plan to truly engender broad support,” Portantino said.

Millbrae Councilwoman Annie Oliva, who is running for Peninsula state Sen. Jerry Hill’s seat, said this version of SB50 is a step in the right direction because it acknowledges the need for more local control.

However, Oliva said she still opposes the lack of single family housing in the bill.

“Homeowners should be concerned about residential towers being built literally next door and we should all be concerned about new housing without adequate transit, infrastructure and other necessary improvements,” Oliva said in an email.

Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg, who is also vying for Hill’s seat, agreed that the bill is moving in the right direction in allowing local control. But he said there are other reasons why housing is not being added, such as the price of land, developer risk and owners of large swaths of land not being willing to redevelop.

Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine said the added flexibility is “laudable,” and added that cities like Palo Alto need to add housing.

“It’s pretty demonstrable that local governments have not been able or won’t, take on that task (of adding more housing,)” Fine said.


  1. SB50 would force tall towers of market rate units to be built next to your single family home in Palo Alto. Regardless of the neighborhood. As we are a jobs rich zone. And new mayor Adrian Fine is all good with it. No. This is an affordability crisis. Build affordable housing or give income subsidies. The state has a $7 billion surplus.

  2. All of this seeks to overturn the free market and place housing in expensive neighborhoods w good public schools, positing that single family home neighborhoods are racist and segregationist. How about using the state budget surplus to give housing assistance to the needy? $21 billion last year and $7 billion surplus this year.

  3. Housing in a jobs-rich zone would still be subject to local floor-area-ratio and setback requirements. The changes would be to density and parking requirements. Given these conditions, I would not expect to see “tall towers.”
    I see SB50 as fostering the free market, not overturning it–by reducing government bans on apartments, duplexes, etc.

  4. SB50 is a gift to development interests, not low or moderate income people. This revision makes it no less draconian, it only delays the timeline when cities must comply with a vision that obliterates suburban living and accelerates all the problems associated with high density living – traffic, demand for services, schools, etc.

  5. The article reports that two of the half dozen candidates for state Senate in our district were asked about the latest version of SB 50 and were equivocal. Every candidate should be required to say whether he or she is FOR or AGAINST the bill. Now.

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