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Scott Wiener tries to save transit-housing bill with major makeover

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State senator gives SB 50 one more shot

A shot of downtown San Francisco with the Oakland Bay Bridge standing between two rows of buildings and cable car tracks in the center of the street. Via Shutterstock

SF-based State Sen. Scott Wiener has less than a month to pass his transit-housing plan—which he’s worked on for essentially more than two years—so he’s letting cities like San Francisco take over the planning.

In the latest incarnation of Wiener’s SB 50 bill (on which YIMBYs across the state have pinned their hopes), the state senator will cede to longstanding complaints that the proposal takes too much power out of the hands of local government.

Under the revised plan, cities would decide for themselves where to make major zoning changes near transit—as long as they do it in a way that makes a certain amount of new density likely.

Wiener’s SB 50 (the descendant of a similar bill introduced in the first weeks of 2018) is eligible for a vote once again this month, after getting held up in committee last year.

But there’s a January 31 deadline for a senate vote. After that, the whole thing will get scrapped.

Originally, SB 50 barred low-density zoning (i.e, less than four or five stories, depending on the area) near major transit lines and job centers.

Wiener and YIMBY backers have long framed the proposal as a common sense solution: California needs more housing, and lots adjacent to jobs and public transportation are the most logical (and environmentally friendly) places to build.

But many local governments detest the plan—either because they’re not fond of greater housing density in general, or just because they resent Sacramento putting hands on local zoning.

Even the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the lawmaking body on which Wiener served for years, has serially condemned his bill over and over again.

So with a tight deadline and entrenched opposition, Wiener’s new idea is to let local governments decide where to build—as long as they get the job done.

Under the latest of the many versions of SB 50, California cities would have two years to come up with new plans that increase housing density around transit.

Rather than having one general rule for everyone, now cities like SF will be challenged to come up with their own designs that would have to yield the same volume of potential housing, but now with city governments deciding more precisely where said housing will go.

For example, rather than mandate at least five-story zoning along the L Taraval or N Judah Muni lines, the new proposal would allow SF City Hall to cluster even taller zoning in certain areas adjacent to the train, while sparing other blocks if they so choose.

If cities don’t come up with their own plans, they will be subjected to a one-size-fits-all standard. In a Monday email, California YIMBY Brian Hanlon said that the idea now is to “give cities all the flexibility they need.”

Wiener touted the “flexibility” of the new proposal, as well as an extra amendment that would give longtime neighborhood residents priority for tenancy in newly built housing—a counter to common fears that new developments would turn into eviction mills.

It’s unlikely that many influential people will reverse their stance on the plan even after these concessions, but even a few changed minds could tip what’s likely to be a nail-biting vote later this month.

Anthony Portantino, the Southern California senator who single-handedly held up SB 50 in 2019, told the LA Times that he hasn’t seen the new version but still doesn’t feel moved by the plan because, “This bill doesn’t build affordable housing.”

The SF Board of Supervisors will stand by its latest 10-1 vote against Wiener, with Supervisor Gordon Mar calling the bill a “giveaway to developers” and accusing it of “trickle-down housing” policy on Tuesday.

Last week, former Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth penned an op-ed shooting down SB 50 in advance of this week’s changes, calling it a subsidy for developers.