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State Sen. Scott Wiener revisits transit housing bill

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New proposal of old effort to allow density around transportation stops is back

An L Taraval train passing some low-rise buildings. Photo by Pi.1415926535

After a single committee hearing earlier this year, the California State Senate smothered San Francisco-based Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 827, which would have radically changed how cities zone for housing height and density by barring certain height limits near major transit routes.

Wiener promised to revive the proposal shortly after its defeat. And on Tuesday, Wiener did just that, introducing a similar, albeit new, measure dubbed SB 50—the More Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability (More HOMES) Act.

According to Wiener’s office, “SB 50 is modeled on SB 827” and “eliminates hyper-low-density zoning near transit and job centers, thus legalizing apartment buildings in these locations so that more people can live near transit and near where they work.”

The preliminary version of the bill reads in part:

It applies these standards to sites within one-half mile of fixed rail and one-quarter mile of high-frequency bus stops and in job-rich areas. Within these geographies, a city may not limit density (e.g., banning apartment buildings).

Within one-half mile of fixed rail, a city may not impose maximum height limits lower than either 55 feet or 45 feet. (Bus stops and job-rich areas will not trigger height increases; rather local height limits will apply.)

SB 50 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).

The bill would also “reduce or [eliminate] minimum parking requirements for new developments,” something San Francisco is poised to do anyway.

The California lawmaker again framed his legislation as a one-two approach that creates new housing while also diminishing environmental harm.

“For too long we have created sprawl by artificially limiting the number of homes that are built near transit and job centers,” said Wiener via email. “As a result of this restrictive zoning in urbanized areas, people are forced into crushing commutes, which undermines our climate goals,

San Francisco Mayor London Breed already endorsed the bill (along with the mayors of Oakland, Emeryville, Sacramento, and Los Angeles), saying, “I have seen too many people I grew up with pushed out of San Francisco because we have not built enough housing, especially affordable housing, throughout our entire city.”

Affordable housing was the Achilles Heel that tripped up Wiener’s last bill; several senators who professed to like its merits said they couldn’t vote for it unless it did more to provide affordability.

The April hearing that halted that bill also echoed anxiety about diminishing local control over development, something that’s sure to come up again as SB 50 moves forward.

While the gritty details of the new bill are not yet known, its previous incarnation was particularly notable for San Franciscans, as nearly the entire city is considered transit-adjacent under the most commonly employed standards.