News

Contentious state housing bill punted to 2020

Senate committee makes SB 50 a 'two-year' bill, pushing vote until next January

State Senate Bill 50, a contentious bill that aimed to encourage more housing near transit and that stirred intense opposition on the Peninsula, suffered a stinging setback Thursday, when the chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee announced that he will not be bringing the bill up for a hearing until at least early 2020.

While the announcement by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, does not kill SB 50, it ensures that the Legislature will not take up the bill this year. Now a "two-year bill," SB 50 will be eligible for a vote next January.

The decision comes just weeks after SB 50 scored several victories at the committee level, with the Housing Committee and the Finance and Government Committee each voting last month to advance the legislation (in both cases, the bill passed overwhelmingly, with just one dissenting vote). Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the bill has also undergone significant changes in recent weeks. On April 24, Wiener merged his bill with another proposed bill, Senate Bill 4, to create a two-tiered system with different requirements for counties that have fewer than 600,000 residents.

While the changes have helped Wiener pick up political support in Sacramento, the bill continued to face significant opposition at the local level in various pockets of the state. The Palo Alto City Council last month took a position against the bill, which would have loosened parking requirements and height regulations in areas within half a mile of transit hubs, including in single-family neighborhoods.

Under the bill, three- and four-story buildings would be allowed in these areas. In addition, the bill would loosen density regulations throughout "jobs-rich" cities like Palo Alto (though height limits would apply outside the transit-friendly areas).

Various mayors and city councils have attacked the legislation as a "one-size-fits-all approach" to tackling the housing crisis and attack on local control. Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth dedicated most of his "State of the City" speech in March to criticizing SB 50 and Menlo Park Ray Mueller has taken a public position against the bill.

Last month, Palo Alto submitted a letter to its Sacramento representatives declaring its opposition to the bill.

"The proposal to render cities unable to regulate parking, density and height, as examples, strike at the ability of local governments to not only define the nature of their communities, but also fails to acknowledge individual situations where these regulations are necessary to avoid spillover impacts on surrounding neighborhoods," Palo Alto's letter states.

East Palo Alto officials, by contrast, have been more sanguine about SB 50. At a joint meeting earlier this month with Palo Alto and Menlo Park city councils, several East Palo Alto council members stressed the need to address the state housing shortage and challenged cities that oppose SB 50 to present their own alternatives to the legislation.

"It's really going to take the political will of California to pause for a second and to relinquish the concept of local control for this housing transportation crisis that we're in," East Palo Alto Councilman Larry Moody said at the May 6 meeting.

In a statement, Wiener said that while he is "deeply disappointed" that the bill will be postponed, he and other supporters of SB 50 are "one hundred percent committed to moving the legislation forward."

Wiener pointed to California's housing shortage, which is estimated at 3.5 million homes — equal to the combined housing shortage of the other 49 states. The status quo, he said, isn't working.

"We need to do things differently when it comes to housing," Wiener said in a statement. "We're either serious about solving this crisis or we aren't. At some point, we will need to make the hard political choices necessary for California to have a bright housing future."

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Comments

38 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Older Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on May 16, 2019 at 2:42 pm

Good news for opponents of SB 50 is that the immediate threat is over until January 2020 and everyone can stand down and take a breather.

But that's exactly what the proponents want. Get the opposition to sit down while they build support against the massive opposition they've heard from.

Proponents will now have time to flood Sacramento with letters of support from various groups (you can imagine those groups - or you can make them up as you sit around your dining table - Vegan Carnivore Coalition for Housing or Housing for Snaggletoothed Dogs Association).

Come January when everyone's recovering from the holidays and another year of politics on the national, state and local scenes, the vote will pop up and opponents will have to dig out their pitchforks from the shed once again.

As for the state legislators? They're going to have a great holiday because the costs for developers to vote yes on this bill will have gone up. Way up.
'Why. . yes, I'd like another fundraiser please.'

Claude Rains said it all. I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!' - (as Captain Renault, Casablanca)

*****

So let's keep those cards and letters going to Sacramento and the PA City Council should take a formal stance against Sacramento dictating their 'solutions' to problems they really don't know much about.


36 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 16, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Please engage with civic affairs - including those at the CA state level - like Senate Bill 50, a proposal with moving targets and negative effects for millions of homeowners.
This is the new normal: narrow, special interest politicians reaching for money and resources from places like Santa Clara County while consolidating their power.
Keep zoning decisions in local and regional municipalities - don’t let the state legislators take this over (oh, with exceptions for elite buddies who objected, like up in Marin County).
Our Santa Clara County government representatives have been divided on SB 50 and related bills.
I recommend learning about these bills and contacting your representatives to tell them what you think. I will not vote to support any politicians who support SB 50. There are more ineffective and divisive and costly and damaging proposals out there against CA homeowners. Look out.


55 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2019 at 4:26 pm

No to building tall apartment buildings next to our single family homes! No to villifying single family home owners and calling us racist simply for working hard, saving up and purchasing a home. No to smearing and shaming and guilting people for an affordability situation not of our own making.

Yes to mass transit. Yes to raising educational levels so good paying jobs are within reach for more people. Yes to encouraging telecommuting.


25 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2019 at 4:34 pm

I hope the city takes this as a warning that we need to quickly do something effective about the jobs/housing imbalance in this city. If we don't solve the problem to our liking soon, external forces are going to solve the problem in ways that will likely be more provocative.


27 people like this
Posted by Imbalance irrelevant
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2019 at 5:03 pm

The jobs/housing balance is a red herring. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Should we bash and shame East Palo Alto and Atherton for not doing their part to attract jobs to their community? That it's their fault for all the jobs being located somewhere else? Or maybe just blame us somehow? No, that's nonsensical.

Let's work on solutions that help people find jobs near home, get from their homes to jobs, or work from home -- and let's stop villifying others.


16 people like this
Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2019 at 5:39 pm

Well, I think mostly I didn’t so much criticize SB50 as call for the region to balance its future jobs and housing growth, and for the tech sector to invest more in the housing and transportation infrastructure needed to support its expansion.

SB50 may have been a bad bill, the issue is real: housing costs and also transportation remain very serious problems. Larry Moody and others’ concerns are legitimate. If we cities are indeed to retain local control, then it’s incumbent on us to use it. Hopefully in concert with Sacramento now, instead of opposition.


6 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on May 16, 2019 at 6:04 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks Eric.

I think lawmakers will look to see what cities do this year--not just in PA but statewide.

If local control means anything it cannot mean not here.

It will be interesting to see how the council reacts to the Pre-screening for the San Antonio market rate + BMR for sale units on Monday.


15 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2019 at 10:35 pm

"Yes to encouraging telecommuting."

Whatever happened to telecommuting? It was all the talk of the town a decade ago. No pollution, no traffic mess, everybody housed where they could afford housing. You can write Sillycon Valley spyware from home or at Starbucks as readily as on a folding table shared with a half dozen coders in some storefront. Probably more productively. So why isn't everybody telecommuting?


15 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 17, 2019 at 11:40 am

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

As a previous poster stated, "I will not vote to support any politicians who support SB 50." It's important that if you feel the same, to let our "local" politicians know their chances for re-election are grim if they support this bill in the near future.


7 people like this
Posted by Not optimistic
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Not optimistic is a registered user.

@ Steve Levy "I think lawmakers will look to see what cities do this year...."

Unfortunately with SB50 merely in limbo, developers are even less likely to take up the major housing incentives cities have recently adopted across the region. Why choose a balanced meal at the local, independent restaurant now, when in a few months the big chain of Sacramento could offer an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you define the menu and somebody else pays the tip?

One of the biggest criticisms of SB50 has been its failure to acknowledge what cities ARE doing to stimulate more affordable housing. Instead of highlighting and supporting those efforts, SB50's proponents have either fought them (local impact fees and inclusionary rates) or pretended they don't exist (heavy up zoning near transit, parking incentives, and density bonuses). Even worse, instead of helping communities succeed, they've demonized them by peddling false equivalencies (in both motive and outcome) between current policy and that of 50 years ago.

By inviting developers to just wait, Sacramento may be pre-ordaining short term failure on the housing front.


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2019 at 12:35 pm

It used to be that when a company opened up in an area bringing X number of new jobs, it was newsworthy and considered good news. It probably is in certain areas but it definitely is not good news when it happens in Silicon Valley or possibly anywhere in the Bay Area.

What we don't want is more jobs. What we need is to have less jobs. When Amazon, or any other large company, decides to locate its new Y department in some area other than Bay Area, we breathe a deep breath of relief that we don't have to contend with more traffic, more people and more housing.

We have plenty of space to build both business parks and housing in areas like Vacaville, Tracy, Gilroy, etc. What we don't have are incentives to get jobs moved to these areas. Reverse commutes are already happening in Silicon Valley, Caltrain and Bart both have riders in both directions at commute hours.

We have to get concerted efforts to move jobs and housing to these outlying areas and at the same time (at the same time), improve public transport to these areas. Put pressure in promoting these ideas. Don't try and squeeze more people into areas where the infrastructure is not adequate to deal with them.


19 people like this
Posted by Don't Be EVIL Companies
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2019 at 2:56 pm

This is like one of those horror movie tropes -- remember you have to kill the monster twice, the second time after you only think it's dead, or it will come back and get you.

The only way to create affordable housing that works is to move the jobs so that we have MORE job centers. That will ultimately make for a stronger and more resilient state and national economy anyway. The argument that you build more never worked in Hong Kong (though it was used to help overbuild it) or any other concrete jungle in the world, including San Francisco.

The only thing that will work is to create additional job centers, by investing in cities that are dying for lack of investment -- where the investments can create the desirable places companies will move for. The state and localities should be levying big taxes where these companies are piling in and contributing NOTING beneficial now to undo they damage they've done by having not an ounce of a sense of civic responsibility in the places they've ruined so far, and more importantly, give them the incentive to leave.

They aren't going to do this voluntarity. But that, Mr. Wiener, is the only way that building is going to create affordability and opportunity. All your plan is going to do is advantage developers, displace more existing residents at the bottom, and create monuments to how people on the left can be used by moneyed interests just as easily as people on the right. (Only people on the right can much more rapidly remember what Jesus actually stood for and eschew their gross hypocrisy a lot easier than those on the left can undo the horrendous damage of this unsafe and unhealthy overbuilding.)


17 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on May 17, 2019 at 3:35 pm

This was an appalling bill that would have meant the end of our local neighborhoods as anything recognizable or pleasant.

Hopefully some kind of saner compromise on the jobs / housing imbalance will eventually prevail.


29 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on May 17, 2019 at 5:14 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

There are so many things wrong about SB 50 that it would take an essay just to describe them all. But I think there may be three that are the most important. Understanding them could help point us to better solutions.

1. The idea that California's housing problems are due to restrictive zoning created by residents.

I don't doubt that there are places in California where this is true, but around here there's a completely different, and much larger, set of issues involving land cost, construction cost, tech company hiring, and more. This fiasco Web Link is the poster child for what's wrong in Silicon Valley. 5.4M sq ft of office space and only 1680 residential units; I estimate the jobs/housing imbalance at about 6.5 to 1. This is not the result of hordes of slavering NIMBYs demanding "No more housing! More office space!" It's about the profitability of offices and luxury housing compared to affordable housing, and about markets targeting high-income people at the expense of of middle- and low-income people.

One size doesn't fit all. One size doesn't even fit all "large" cities and counties; the problems here, and the problems where my sister lives in Torrance, are different. We'll get more meaningful solutions with regional strategies than with statewide strategies.

2. The claim that SB 50 is for "transit rich" areas.

I can't speak to the rest of the state, but here on the Peninsula this is obviously not true. Caltrain's saturated at Palo Alto. Planned improvements in Caltrain capacity are small and mostly already spoken-for. Aspirational improvements in Caltrain capacity are not funded and are likely swamped by the extension to the hundreds of thousands of riders around the Salesforce Transit Center. VTA is reducing service, and in fact transit ridership is declining in many places (in part due to rider poaching by ridesharing companies). As far as I know, there is no transit system currently planned that can absorb the population increases that SB 50 envisions on the Peninsula.

A few days ago I listened to the Forum program on KQED that discussed SB 50. Several times Ethan Elkind commented that sure, there's not enough transit now, but once you bring in a lot more people you can tax them to create transit systems. Great! For a decade to a generation, people in "car-lite" developments are going to have to live without adequate transportation, in hopes that someday, maybe, enough taxes will be raised to pay for transit. Probably with regressive sales tax increases, to boot.

3. The politics.

Most particularly, what looks like the conscious decision to divide the population by exploiting issues of race and age. But even smaller things, like the choice to force SB 50 to apply to all of Palo Alto (and other cities) because they're "jobs rich" or have "positive educational outcomes". Not only does this put the lie to the claim that SB 50 is "transit oriented", it is (as Adrian Fine said) "a thumb in the eye to places like Palo Alto".

All this comes across as vindictive, confrontational, reminiscent of the disaster that's our national political scene, and most of all, unnecessary. We have a lot of options to use before we have to consider destroying existing homes and neighborhoods.

Where to go from here? I think the single most-important thing we could do is to require housing construction before office construction, and I'm really encouraged to see Mountain View doing that in the East Whisman area.

In Palo Alto, we need to seriously explore rezoning commercial areas to allow mixed-use and residential. Stanford Research Park should be high on the list; it has land, decent transportation access, parking, and it already has a small amount of housing.

The elephant in the room is affordable housing, which simply can't be built here without subsidies. This is going to take commitment from people with money, and I think the most likely solution is going to be a head tax on large companies. Just four tech companies accounted for 63% of all hiring in Silicon Valley last year (Web Link). It's not my preferred approach for capital investments, but a head tax has momentum, and it has other redeeming values.

Any dramatic increase in density needs to be coupled with funding for transit. I'm not going to argue for any particular type in this posting, but it should be obvious that packing people into boxes without any actual planning to get them to jobs, schools, medical care, grocery stores, etc. is not going to end well. If SB 50 moves forward again, it needs to be bundled with a bill that funds transit.

Schools, water, open space, a half-dozen other things? The more of those questions that are addressed in good faith, the more support housing bills would get, and more importantly, the better they would work.


7 people like this
Posted by Don't Be EVIL Companies
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2019 at 6:01 pm

@Allen Akin,
Very good post. The other problem with the reasoning of the people behind SB50 (the ones who don't know better but are just pushing the development out of their own interests) is that it's all people treating residents like they are something "other", and the poor like they should be happy for substandard housing and they should expect to be trapped in poverty forever so we may as well plan for it.

The Palo Alto BMR program has some 3rd party expert reports on how it's going, and the last one I read made mention of the fact that even in hot markets with long BMR housing waiting lists, some of the BMR inventory goes completely empty for long stretches -- the reason being that even poor people get creative about their options and want to do as well as they can for where they live.

This conversation about housing and commuting never seems to get to the important point that many (if not most) people commute long distances not just for affordability but also for better quality of life. The apartmentvilles that companies are pushing for their short-sighted benefit will not solve the commuting problem because -- gasp -- even poor people want to have a single-family home and raise their kids with sun, space, and nice safe neighborhoods. Even the ideas about subsidized housing will not solve that problem. The majority of millenials want to live in single-family homes. The only way to create affordable neighborhoods for people (who are not young yuppies who want to live in apartments at least for a few years out of college) is for the companies to move to fixer-upper cities.

The other important point that never gets dealt with is that all these people proposing these ridiculous overdevelopment Trojan Horses seem to think it's okay to treat the time of poor people as if it's nothing -- transit mostly takes a lot of time. In Hong Kong, with the best transit in the world with like 90% usage, the commutes are as long as in Los Angeles. The only reason to create a situation in which time-sucking transit is the only way to get around (and people no longer have the freedom they used to enjoy) is so that a few selfish companies can build their businesses here rather than moving where there is room for them to grow.

When you have nothing to sit on in your new fixer home, then picking up some junk to fill the space makes sense. When the place is full, it's called hoarding, and it's a mental illness. Same stuff, different situation. We have the civic equivalent of hoarding. Accumulating jobs actually isn't always good regardless of the circumstances, sometimes, the jobs are better where there is space for them. Making little paths between the junk and piling in more of it is not the solution. The difference is that once cities are ruined by overbuilding, you can't just get a truck to haul most of it to the dump.







12 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2019 at 7:58 pm

@EVIL,

We are not going to see the development of additional job centers because local government is for many practical purposes partners with local real-estate developers in the exploitation of real-estate within their jurisdiction.

Jobs create demand which drives real-estate prices, property taxes revenues, and city budgets and bureaucracies ever higher. The inflationary spiral also creates opportunities for politicians to "sell" zoning exemptions, development grants, and other giveaways in exchange for campaign contributions from local real-estate development industries.

Our local developers and their partners in government are locked in a viscous competition with developers and politicians from other locations for jobs, property tax revenues, city budgets/bureaucracies, and campaign funding opportunities.


5 people like this
Posted by Don't Be EVIL Companies
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2019 at 9:03 pm

@Ahem,
While what you say is true, I think it is important to take a step back and look at the big picture of what would actually solve the problems, hoping that there are enough people willing to take action.

This nation has a certain number of cities, and some of them are losing people, even in California. Ever since the Reagan revulsion, our nation has massively disinvested in essential first-world public assets and we have dangerously untended infrastructure, among much else. Yet the world and nation only get more crowded, and job centers have their own gravity. Under the circumstances, government is the entity that will have to act in order to create the investments in places that need it to make them desirable.

In Palo Alto, we lost Facebook to loud Henny Penny cries of the sky falling, yet both parties were better off for it. We need more of it. It won't be a problem because Stanford will keep generating innovators as well as residents, we can afford to share the job wealth. And we should, if only for the sake of national security.


4 people like this
Posted by Out Of Towner
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2019 at 9:11 pm

It should probably pass in 2020. By then, the housing problem will be even worse and people will be clamoring for overall improvement.

Then we'll come down from up north and start shopping around.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2019 at 8:30 am

@Out of Towner "Then we'll come down from up north and start shopping around."

Uh-huh, good luck with that. If you can't afford it now, SB50 won't help you. SB50 was for rich people.


10 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2019 at 2:19 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

SB50 will help only developers and well paid tech workers. It will make housing more expensive and less available to those who need it most. It is a bill that could have easily been written by developers, and maybe was.


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