A controversial bill with the potential to add millions of apartments and condominiums near transit — which died in its first committee hearing earlier this year — was resurrected Monday, but with a number of significant changes. Already, some of the changes are raising eyebrows.
When San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener introduced SB 827, his proposal sparked a red-hot debate over how and where we build housing in the Golden State. The measure would have required cities to allow housing developments of four to eight stories within a half-mile radius of every BART station, Caltrain stop or other railroad station, and a quarter-mile from bus stops where buses run every 15 minutes during commute times.
Pro-development groups who believe the state should relinquish its attachment to single-family homes cheered. City officials weary of state-led influence over local developments gulped. One Beverly Hills city councilman described the measure as “Soviet-style master planning with raging crony capitalism.” Social justice and affordable housing advocacy groups balked, decrying the measure as a give-away to developers at the expense of low-income and working class residents who would be displaced if the bill had passed.
The bill was dead on arrival — even before the formal debate in the legislature over its merits and flaws could begin.
“We ran out of time,” Wiener said.
This time, Wiener says he took a different tack. He reached out to critics of the original measure, he said, and tried to include their feedback in the latest version of the bill, now called More H.O.M.E.S. (Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability). The new version, SB 50, was introduced Monday.
Its already raising alarm bells, said Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss, whose City Council drafted a letter opposing the original measure. Thats because one of the key changes was including “jobs-rich” project areas in the proposal, which means cities and towns that have done a good job at attracting employers and bringing jobs to the area, but havent built enough housing, wouldnt be able to reject housing projects based on certain height and density limits — even if the projects arent near high-frequency transit.
“Its interesting and potentially alarming,” Kniss said. “It could have an enormous impact.”
Like its predecessor, the More H.O.M.E.S. Act does not change local rules governing affordable housing policies, design review or demolition of historic buildings. But it now requires developers to provide affordable housing as long as the local jurisdiction doesnt already have rules in place requiring that. It also prohibits the demolition of existing rental units and gives low-income communities more time to implement the bill, Wiener said.
The new bill lowers height requirements a little so the tallest buildings near rail stations would be five stories, not eight. For housing near bus routes, cities can keep existing height restrictions in place but cant limit density. That means cities cant reject a story-two apartment building if the land is zoned for single-family homes, Wiener said.
“The heart of the bill is still the same,” he said. “There are some changes to address displacement concerns and also to make sure we are focusing on both areas near public transit, as well as job-rich areas.”
Social justice advocates cried foul after mapping Wieners original proposal, saying it would disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color, said Anya Lawler, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. She said its important the new bill spreads new development across wealthy communities that historically have resisted building more housing, and not just low-income neighborhoods that happen to be served by transit.
“How something like this plays out in an area that is currently heavily low-income is very different than an area that is … high-income,” she said.
Lawler is encouraged that Wieners office reached out to them before drafting the new bill but said she and her colleagues need to vet it more thoroughly before giving it a thumbs up — or down.
Other groups, however, have praised the changes. Amie Fishman, the executive director of Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, said her organization was very encouraged by the direction of the new measure, though it hasnt taken an official position just yet.
“The importance of ensuring housing opportunities in high-opportunity areas that are jobs-rich but that have under-produced housing, that is really heartening,” Fishman said. “If communities are producing a lot of jobs, they need to also produce housing.”
How the “job-rich” housing provisions will play out in practice, however, still needs a lot of work, Wiener acknowledged. An outside agency likely would be brought in, he said, to help define what exactly is a “job-rich” community and how much of a city or town would be eligible for development under the measure.
Those details are incredibly important, said Jason Rhine, the assistant legislative director for the League of California Cities, which opposed the bill over concerns that is wrested too much control from cities and town though the league supports high-density housing near transit in principle. He said its too early to say whether the league will oppose or support the measure.
“Its not exactly clear what were talking about here,” Rhine said.
One thing is clear, Kniss said, “(Wiener) is not going to give up on this, and neither will the legislature.”
The More H.O.M.E.S. Act explained
What is it?
The return of a controversial, closely-watched bill that would force cities to allow taller buildings near transit. It would apply to the half-mile radius surrounding every BART station, Caltrain stop or other rail hub, and a quarter-mile around bus stops with frequent bus service. “Frequent” is defined as every 15 minutes during peak commute times.
Heights increase as the buildings get closer to rail stations. Within the quarter-mile closest to a train stop, buildings can go up to five stories tall. In the next quarter-mile, the limit is four stories. Bus corridors wont be subject to the height requirements, but cities wont be able to reject proposals based on density. That means cities cant limit development to single-family homes, but must allow multi-family apartment buildings even if those apartments are only two or three stories tall.
- Affordable housing requirements: The bill requires developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, unless the city already requires it. The exact percentage of affordable housing hasnt yet been worked out.
- Tenant protections: Wiener wanted the measure to build more housing, not replace existing housing, he said. So, he included rules that prohibit developers from demolishing existing rental units to build taller buildings in their place.
- Time for low-income communities: The measure delays implementation of the bill in the lowest-income communities around the Bay Area to allow them more time to craft community-driven protections around rent control, tenants rights, and affordable housing since the bill only supersedes local control when it comes to height and density.
- Job-rich areas: In order to balance development between predominantly low-income communities served by transit and wealthy communities that rely on driving, the bill focuses on what it calls “high-opportunity areas.” These areas have yet to be fully defined. But, the bill so far specifies areas that have a high density of jobs, have a higher median income relative to the rest of the region, and have high-quality public schools. They dont, however, need to be served by high-quality transit.