California’s SB 50: A Model For Addressing the Urban Housing Crisis

Earlier this month, California state senator Scott Wiener began the third year of his push for a state law to override local zoning and authorize midsize apartment buildings near transit stops. The latest version of his bill, SB 50, comes with a twist that augurs well for its passage and eventual impact. 

The bill tackles a thorny problem. Longtime residents, especially homeowners, resist neighborhood change. They’re also the dominant force in local politics. The preserve-the-neighborhood norm would be innocuous if it was limited to a few locales, but when all of a metro region’s municipalities throw up barricades to new housing—and just as environmentalists are rallying to protect exurban greenfields—the cumulative effect is disastrous: wildly unaffordable housing, a working-class exodussprawling homeless encampments, and enormous foregone productivity. This is the story of coastal California since the seventies.

The ambition of SB 50 is to turn the clock back to an earlier era—not just pre-1970, but before the Great Depression, when single-family homes in growing cities were commonly torn down and replaced by small apartment buildings. After World War II, this pattern of incremental densification largely disappeared. Today, the expansion of urban housing stock is basically confined to formerly industrial and commercial zones. The majority of buildable land in major cities remains locked up in the zoning straightjacket. Once a tract has been zoned and developed for single-family homes, it’s stuck.

Two questions have dogged Wiener’s effort to loosen the straitjacket. First, how could a bill that upsets so many homeowners and local officials ever pass? And second, even if the bill passes, what’s to keep homeowner-dominated cities from making the nominally permissible new housing practically impossible to build? To mollify opponents, Wiener has made it clear that his bill would not touch local authority over demolition controls, design standards, permitting procedures, impact fees, and more. But the less that the bill preempts, the easier it will be to evade.

The new version of SB 50 deftly resolves this dilemma. Instead of immediately “up-zoning” all residential parcels within a half mile of a transit stop—as the prior versions would have done—the bill defines a default zoning “envelope” for these parcels. Local governments will get two years either to accept the default or propose an alternative “local flexibility plan” that creates an equivalent amount of developable space in the aggregate, while also scoring well on certain transit and fair-housing metrics. A flexibility plan takes effect only if approved by the state housing department; otherwise, the SB 50 up-zoning kicks in, by default. 

The provision for local flexibility plans should make SB 50 both easier to pass and more resistant to local gamesmanship. Though some local governments may pursue the old strategy of regulatory obstruction, that approach carries legal risk. The more prudent course for many local officials will involve submitting a local flexibility plan that lightens the density load on their most resistant constituents while authorizing commensurately greater heights and residential density in more supportive neighborhoods, as well as in formerly commercial or industrial zones.

Once a local government follows this path, the state housing department will exert significant control over the stratagems by which a municipality might kill development on newly up-zoned sites. A local flexibility plan must “increase overall feasible housing capacity,” as the new SB 50 declares. To deliver on that goal, the state agency could insist that a flexibility plan put reasonable limits on fees, permitting times, demolition controls, and more.

The state agency might even allow regional local governments to exchange “SB 50 density” with one another. Beverly Hills mayor John Mirisch has made a name for himself fighting SB 50. If another Southern California city were willing to take Beverly Hills’s mandated density—for a price—Mirisch could propose a deal, perhaps even subsidizing an expansion of the other city’s transit system. His wealthy constituents would have no trouble affording it. However outlandish Beverly Hills’s land-use practices may be, California will be better off if Mirisch devotes his formidable resources to wheeling and dealing over flexibility plans, rather than spearheading a campaign for SB 50’s repeal.

California has long been the poster child for housing-policy dysfunction, but the problems facing San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also playing out in superstar cities across the nation and worldwide. The new SB 50 is a model that can travel. Urbanists everywhere should take heed.

Christopher S. Elmendorf is Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online.

Comments

  1. What seems to not be apparent in this concept is the almost immediate effect of opening houses to a totally different level of income, education, philosophy and respect for property. A family I know in the Kent Washington area, near Seattle, has moved three times as this new group entered their area. Gang activity increased greatly, crime levels went up, property damage increased, municipal maintenance went down. It was like a state of corrosion was spreading. This resulted in people who had planned to live there throughout their lives leaving due to fear and declining property value, So it seems that once the process is started it literally cannot be stopped, which is the wish of those like Wiener, who knows this. What results is decay of the area into a slum condition. This is evident across America, especially around larger communities. For example, if one goes to the area around Mobile Alabama they will find large areas that have no homes, no municipal maintenance and are essentially no man’s land. This happened because those that moved in to those areas eventually had to move because the houses were falling apart, the streets were too dangerous, and there was no business remaining. Go around any large city and you will find the same. This strategy is NOT a solution, it is a political escape from dealing with the real issue and the destruction of much of the stability America has had for a long while. Reality and Responsibility by government and the people involved has to happen or down we go!

  2. Robert Wilson says

    This is a horrible law !!!!

  3. Why the hell should someone in Sacramento have the right to tell me what the building rules have to be in my neighborhood?? First if they are going to go for dense apartments within a half mile of bus and train stops that pretty much covers all train and bus routes. Bus stops are usually about a quarter mile apart or less and train stops are about a mile apart. That means a corridor along every bus and train route for a half mile on either side would be fair game. The other problem is this only affects the lower and middle class neighborhoods. The fancy high end neighborhoods don’t have bus and train stops anywhere near them. If you want to get rid of the housing shortage and lower the price of housing all you have to do is modify the CEQA laws so people like the unions can’t keep filing silly lawsuits to force you to hire only the people they want hired and get rid of 90% of the regulations that are not useful. It has taken over 20 years to get one large plan ready to build north of LA and it has not bee started yet. If you want more housing make the processor easier and not force people into what you think should be done.

    • Snoop Chick says

      Hi. We don’t have a housing shortage…More people are moving out of Callifornia than moving in. This is just an excuse to impose Agenda 21

  4. Think Agenda 21 or 2030. That is where all this insanity is emminating from. This is a global agenda set up by the Globalists and through the UN. Years ago when American politicians went along with the climate change and immigration dictates, continuation of Agenda 21 policies were automatic. Destruction of America is your game – Soros is your Name.

    • Aprila: I agree with you and others who are posting, that the attitude of leftist/socialist/communist/tyranny/ big government supporters believe in, is that only oppressive rulers count, not ordinary people like us.

  5. Despairing says

    The whole of the housing problem and even homelessness is a failure to build new communities for whatever reason, water, environmental, political. There should be three dozen communities in the vast open expanses of California, the past solution after the influx of population from WWII. Property values dropped, most people could afford a home. Instead this approach is to ‘densify’ existing areas, it is fool’s gold that will only last so long, cannibalizing existing areas, accusing other of being ‘NIMBIES’ until even the ‘densed’ neighborhoods are un-affordable.
    This produces garbage and misery, no you can’t help the homeless with $500K condos in these areas. Progressives are very nice but they seem to be incapable of accepting consequences. AB50 is trying to ban economic forces that are no more avoidable than the weather, they just found another temporary fix as a resource.

  6. About 50 years go a LA planning Director, I think Hamilton was his name, said that the city rezoned for development their strip on land adjacent to the Harbor Freeway to encourage high rise development for commuters to downtown. No interest in all this time because LA is too spread out and cars are main form of transport. UN Agenda 21 encourages this development, primarily for anti-car promoters. Gov Brown hated freeways and really messed up the situation. Government planning rather than free market development has really messed up CA, this is but one example.

  7. Fuck SB50

    • showandtell says

      There are legislators in Sacramento, even progressive ones, who share your sentiment. They get an earful from their constituents about this ridiculous bill and it was pulled the last time around. Thus the Weiner types, who stand to gain because developers who contribute to them will make a killing, will sneak around with gut-and-amend or some other underhanded process to pass it. Keep an eye out for this. But if you call your legislator and make a stink (assuming it’s not one who stands to gain), this is probably one bill where if you call or write it will make a difference.

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