• Editor’s Note: SB 50 bill heads to its final committee hearing on Thursday, May 16, 2019, before a full vote in the California State Senate.

      An Apartment building on S. Eculid Avenue in Pasadena (Photo - W.K.).

      An Apartment building on S. Eculid Avenue in Pasadena (Photo – W.K.).

      Last week was a big week for SB 50 (Wiener), the bill to upzone residential areas near transit and jobs.

      By Ethan Elkind

      The bill faced a potentially hostile Senate Governance and Finance Committee, chaired by State Senator Mike McGuire from Sonoma County and author of the rival Senate Bill 4. Despite the treacherous path, the outcome was a decisive win with only one vote against (Sen. Hertzberg of Los Angeles), albeit with significant amendments to the bill.


      The new bill language has not been released, but based on the committee discussion and follow-up statements from Sen. Wiener and his office, the amendments essentially appear to do two big things (among other changes):

      • Exempt SB 50 from counties with populations less than 600,000, except for cities within those counties with populations over 50,000 that have rail or ferry stops (see the green/purple parts of the flow chart below)
      • Legalize “by right” permitting of single-family homes into duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes across the state, albeit with only minimal demolition of existing structures allowed.

      The amendments now make the overall bill relatively complex, but Berkeley-based artist Alfred Twu drew up this handy flow chart to explain how the bill will now work:

      For a graphic on the counties now affected, click on this map from Barak Gila with the counties over 600,000 population (in which SB 50 applies) in yellow.

      So did Marin County get a carve out, in a deal to merge the bill with county representative McGuire’s SB 4? Notable cities now apparently exempted from SB 50 include the SMART train and ferry stop in Larkspur and the ferry-stop towns of Sausalito and Tiburon. Yet San Rafael and Novato (two SMART train stops) are still covered by SB 50.

      What about Sonoma County? Cities with SMART trains that no longer would be under SB 50 jurisdiction include Cotati, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale, Healdsburg, and Windsor. Still included are Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

      In Southern California, Santa Barbara County’s Goleta and Carpinteria Amtrak stations also would not be covered by SB 50, while the City of Santa Barbara would still be affected.

      Meanwhile, notable other cities with rail or ferry stops within those non-yellow counties, to which SB 50 will still apply, include Vallejo, Fairfield, Vacaville, Roseville, Rocklin, Madera, Modesto, Merced, Davis, Chico, Redding, and Salinas. And of course the remaining yellow counties represent major population and employment centers that could greatly increase housing production with SB 50 upzoning.


      On balance, this new population criteria is not a bad compromise, as it means most of the core areas of California that prevent new housing are still affected. But the SMART train line is pretty well decimated by this compromise, as is the Santa Barbara Amtrak line. It’s a relatively small but painful price to pay, given the potential benefits statewide with the remaining areas.

      Meanwhile, the fourplex by-right provision could potentially open up significant densification in California everywhere, a la the recent Minneapolis plan to end single-family zoning and allow triplexes city-wide. But could this new SB 50 provision encourage more high-density sprawl, with fourplexes in outlying areas that don’t have access to transit and therefore lead to more traffic and pollution? The original beauty of SB 50 (and its predecessor SB 827) was that it targeted transit neighborhoods to reduce overall driving miles. The fourplex provision could undermine those environmental benefits. Yet since the fourplexes (or other smaller divisions) can only involve minor demolition of existing structures (or building from the ground up on vacant parcels), the deployment may not be as sweeping as it might initially appear.


      Overall, SB 50 cleared a major hurdle last week before its eventual advancement to the Senate floor, emerging relatively unscathed and with some potentially major new additions. If it passes that chamber, it will be on to the Assembly, with further carve-outs and compromises likely.

      Ethan Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley Law, with a joint appointment at UCLA Law. His book “Railtown” was published by the University of California Press.

      End of article

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      1. Sean says:


        The bill’s critics say it would not make a real dent in housing prices. “What the Wiener bill really is about is raising housing opportunities for highly skilled, relatively high-income people,” said Michael Storper, a professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles. SB 50 is built on the assumption that the market will react to upzoning by building more housing. That’s true, said Storper, but he warns that “the market will respond in the areas where the price of the construction is met by an effective market demand—a return on its investment.” And that means housing for the well-off.

        Upzoning cannot change the high cost of building, nor can it make lower-income neighborhoods more desirable to developers, said Storper. “It will gentrify what’s left to gentrify in the highly desirable areas,” he predicted.

        Opponents of SB 50 point to Chicago, where smaller-scale, targeted upzoning laws did not lead to the expected boom of new units. As a recent study found, real estate speculation soared and housing and land prices increased in the upzoned areas. Another study found that upzoning in New York City further fueled the displacement of minority and working-class residents. Its authors recommended that upzoning needs to be balanced with policies to prevent displacement. Francisco Dueñas, the housing campaign director at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said, “We think that in general, similar to what happened in Chicago, [SB 50] is just going to increase the value of that land, fueling greater speculation, and then that gets translated into increased rent and more people getting pushed out.”

      2. Sean says:

        Thanks for the info.

      3. Ethan Elkind says:

        Proximity to transit is a key determinant for how likely someone is to ride it, but there are a number of variables. Income level is one, as is access to parking. The best “bang for the buck” on housing near transit to boost ridership is low-income (affordable) housing. However, market rate residents will still ride transit if the service is frequent and faster than or comparable to driving, as well as if parking at either end is not abundant or cheap. And building market-rate housing near transit will also likely reduce VMT, even if these residents still drive, assuming these homes are in infill locations near jobs and services. Bottom line: every successful transit line in the world features a high concentration of residents and jobs around the stations.

      4. Sean says:

        Question to the author: do studies show that the majority of people who live near major transit stops use them? And does income level make a difference? I ask because it is likely that new high-density complexes built under this law will be market rate or above and it stands to reason that the middle-high and high-income people who can afford those types of units have 1-2 vehicles and prefer to use them rather than public transit (I know that a percentage of set aside affordable units is required in the current bill but the vast majority of units will not be affordable). Public transit is also limited by delay and the proximity to one’s work (not just their home). Were all these things considered and validated before the creation of SB 50?

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