A California housing bill targeting upscale communities would eliminate single-family home zoning across most of the state, transferring the authority to shape neighborhoods away from local governments to remote politicians in Sacramento.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the lead author of Senate Bill 50 (SB 50), says the practice — known as “upzoning” — is necessary to address problems such as housing affordability and homelessness, which he claims have reached “crisis” levels statewide. To justify his bold proposal, Wiener references a report that found California needs 3.5 million more homes.
“The fundamental problem is that we have a massive housing shortage, which explodes housing costs and which puts enormous pressure on tenants in particular because the rents go so high,” Wiener told Mother Jones. “We have to lessen that pressure by adding more housing of all varieties at all incomes.”
SB 50 is supported by mayors in San Francisco and Oakland but overwhelmingly opposed by municipalities further south. A Los Angeles Councilman described the bill as a “handout for developers” that aims to “destroy single-family home neighborhoods in Southern California.”
“I feel that overreach by Sacramento politicians is a threat not only to our community but to every community in the state,” said Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch.
The complicated measure recently underwent significant changes that allowed it to advance from a Senate committee. More revisions were created earlier this month which establish different rules for rural and urban areas. Some lower income “sensitive communities” at risk of displacement and gentrification would be exempt for five years.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the proposal’s current language “would require California cities and counties to permit duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes on much of the residential land now zoned for only one house,” and “would allow midrise apartment construction near mass transit and small apartment complexes and townhomes in wealthy communities in large counties …”
The Times went on to report:
As it stands, the bill has limits on where developers could build fourplexes. Under the legislation, developers would not be able to demolish a single-family house to build a fourplex without local government approval, but a single-family home could be remodeled into a fourplex if it doesn’t increase in size by more than 15%. The bill also places restrictions on building fourplexes in single-family areas that are in floodplains, communities at high risk of wildfire and some historic zones.
These limitations would blunt the bill’s ability to spur construction of fourplexes in single-family-only neighborhoods, says Mott Smith, a principal at Civic Enterprise Development in Los Angeles. But he still expects a significant number of property owners to be able to take advantage.
“I wish that it were less restrictive,” Smith said. “But at the same time, this is quite momentous: the abolition of single-family zoning in California.”
Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat representing the East Bay Area who co-authored SB 50, said single-family zoning policies were deliberately crafted to exclude people “for economic reasons and race reasons.”
“That’s the poster child for discriminatory zoning,” Skinner said on a recent episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast.”
“I love this inclusion of the fourplex because it allows us to get at some of that exclusion and gives other people the same type of access to the neighborhoods to have the great parks, the great schools, and other great assets,” she continued.
Last month, the Times wrote that Wiener “intended for his bill to push high-income neighborhoods zoned only for single-family homes to make room for apartments as redress for historical wrongs.”
SB 50 must go to the Senate floor for a vote by the end of this month. If passed, it will advance to the Assembly for consideration. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has not taken a position on the proposed law.
“If this does pass it will be a big smack in the face to local government by our California electeds,” said West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico.
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