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Everything you need to know about California’s other big transit-housing bill

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Sonoma County senator’s bill competes with State Sen. Wiener’s housing plan

Healdsburg would stay quiet under McGuire’s law.
Photo by Bjorn Bakstad

San Francisco-based State Sen. Scott Wiener’s transit-housing bill SB 50—which would eliminate low-density zoning within a quarter mile to half mile of major transit hubs in California—cleared its first big committee hurdle last week.

Wiener now faces an even more difficult challenge in the former of a fellow Bay Area lawmaker from the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Healdsburg-based State Sen. Mike McGuire (D) has a housing bill of his own, Senate Bill 4, which, like Wiener’s legislation, aims to boost housing near mass transit but would take a more sparing approach to certain communities.

McGuire’s bill (which he coauthored with San Jose’s State Sen. Jim Beall) also advanced out of the same committee as SB 50 last week. McGuire chairs the State Senate Governance and Finance Committee, where both pieces of legislation will next appear on April 24.

The current version of SB 4 somewhat resembles Wiener’s bill, as it too focuses on new housing near mass transit:

This bill would authorize a development proponent of a neighborhood multifamily project or eligible TOD project located on an eligible parcel to submit an application for a streamlined, ministerial approval process that is not subject to a conditional use permit.

[...] The bill would define an “eligible TOD project” as a project located in an urban community, as defined, that meets specified height requirements, is located within 1/2 mile of an existing or planned transit station parcel or entrance, and meets other floor area ratio, density, parking, and zoning requirements.

However, the difference is that McGuire’s bill applies chiefly to “a city with a population of 50,000 or greater that is located in a county with a population of less than 1,000,000.”

That means smaller towns—like McGuire’s own Healdsburg, which according to the U.S. Census had a 2018 population of fewer than 12,000 people—would be exempt from the effective zoning changes.

In past public statements about housing, McGuire emphasized “programs that won’t rely on one-size-fits-all approaches.”

The “one-size-fits-all” label has bedeviled Wiener’s attempts at remaking zoning rules across the state, as smaller towns and cities chafe at being held to the same standard as major metros, particularly those in Marin County and Orange County.

But sparing small towns can provoke larger communities who already build more per capita. At last week’s emotional SF City Hall debate about SB 50, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer declared, “We are building and we have been building,” resenting the suggestion that the city isn’t pulling its weight on development.

McGuire’s bill passed through last week’s housing committee on an 8-1 vote; Wiener’s bill passed by a margin of 9-1. The two senators voted in favor of their own legislation but recorded no vote for each other’s bills.

Both bills are scheduled for April 24 hearings at McGuire’s committee. McGuire said last week that he would work with Wiener on a compromise between their competing concepts.