San Francisco Takes on Controversial Housing Density Bill, Again

SB 50 by San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener would mandate denser housing near major transit and rail lines and in "job-rich" communities. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

As he prepares for another round of negotiations, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said he’s willing to offer some level of local control to city leaders, such as San Francisco supervisors, who on Thursday will consider a resolution to oppose his controversial housing legislation, Senate Bill 50.

“We want to provide more flexibility to cities so that they don’t all have to implement the bill exactly the same way,” Wiener said in an interview with KQED on Wednesday. “And if a city has a way of implementing the bill that produces the same amount of housing, but does it a different way, we want to find that flexibility.”

The bill, which was shelved in May, has until the end of January to make it through the second year of the legislative cycle, or else Wiener will have to start all over again.

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The fight over SB 50 has gone back and forth since its inception in 2018 as SB 827. The current bill is designed to increase housing by relaxing zoning and parking requirements near transit and job centers in major cities, essentially encouraging taller and denser development. It would also virtually eliminate single-family zoning in California by allowing up to four homes per lot.

And San Francisco supervisors are still not on board.

At a meeting on Thursday of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, Supervisor Gordon Mar plans to reintroduce a resolution opposing SB 50 with amendments to clarify the kinds of changes he says would be needed to earn San Francisco's support.

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Mar said he would like the bill to allow San Francisco to plan for increased density with community input, rather than a state-mandated plan, and the ability to define “sensitive communities,” which are neighborhoods or areas that could experience displacement or gentrification brought on by new development. According to the bill, implementation of SB 50 would be delayed for five years for those so-called sensitive communities to figure out how to meet housing needs while protecting residents from displacement.

A work-in-progress map of the "sensitive communities" in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Courtesy of Senator Scott Wiener's Office)

“Our position is that San Francisco and our communities here understand how best to define what communities are being impacted by displacement and gentrification pressures,” Mar said.

According to Wiener's office, the definition of “sensitive community” is still in flux, and they are still working with housing justice advocates and the Berkeley Urban Displacement project to develop the best map. Wiener expressed frustration over the supervisor’s decision to draft the resolution.

“For the last two years, we’ve worked with a broad array of stakeholders up and down the state ... and we have made significant revisions to the bill based on that feedback and we’re going to continue to do so. This has been a very transparent process,” Wiener said. “I invite the Board of Supervisors to engage with me on the bill, and Supervisor Mar to engage with me on the bill. But it doesn't have to just be a series of resolutions. It just doesn't accomplish anything.”

But it’s not just San Francisco officials who are raising concerns over the reintroduction of the bill. Local housing groups, some of whom are working with the supervisors, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner arguing SB 50 could increase community displacement and inflate housing costs.

Norma Paz Garcia, policy director at the Mission Economic Development Agency, said she’s concerned the bill would create a new class of financial predators, who will wait until property becomes more profitable and then flip it.

“Where there is money, where there are homes, there is a potential for exploitation,” said Paz Garcia.

Some have also questioned why SB 50 doesn't require developers to build more affordable housing units.

"I think we need way more affordable housing than we're building," said San Francisco resident and educator Li Miao Lovett. "The affordable housing in SB 50 is an afterthought."

Wiener said the bill provides a framework to provide more affordable units, and allows cities and municipalities to be aggressive and mandate it if they want to.

The resolution that supervisors will consider Thursday asks for SB 50 to find a way for communities to recoup some of the foreseen windfall that real estate developers might earn because of the up-zoning.

After the resolution and amendments are introduced, a supervisors committee will vote on them next week before a final version is brought before the full board by the end of the year.

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