Senate Bill 50 returns -- and so does Peninsula's housing debate | News | Almanac Online |


Senate Bill 50 returns -- and so does Peninsula's housing debate


Responding to local concerns about the top-down mandates of his contentious bill, Senate Bill 50, state Sen. Scott Wiener in early January revised the bill to allow cities to craft their own zoning laws to facilitate home construction and avoid the bill's requirements.

The proposed law, which last year caused a stir in many Bay Area cities, targets areas near transit and "jobs-rich" sites for housing, effectively allowing residential developments of up to four stories in these areas. While SB 50 has generated great support from housing advocates and public officials, many local officials have characterized it as a "one-size-fits-all" solution and an affront to local control.

Under the amendments that Wiener released last week, cities will have up to two years to craft their own zoning laws that would allow as much – or more – housing production as SB 50 calls for. The local plans would have to be certified by the state. If the cities don't move ahead with this type of zoning change, the provisions of SB 50 would kick in.

In a Jan. 7 post on Medium, Wiener wrote that the bill's new provisions "seek to ensure that local governments can implement SB 50 in a way that works best for their communities ..."

"In other words, a city could decide to go taller in some areas and shorter in other areas or to focus density in some areas but not other areas," Wiener wrote. "As long as the city's alternative approach zones for at least the same amount of additional housing as SB 50 would, then the plan qualifies."

The additional zoning would have to be implemented in a way that does not place new housing far from jobs and transit, thus promoting sprawl development. It also prohibits cities from placing the bulk of its new housing in low-income communities, in violation of fair-housing principles. And much like the earlier version, the bill would give "sensitive communities" – which are made up predominantly of low-income residents and communities of color – five years to come up with housing plans before SB 50 kicks in.

The new version also proposes to give cities credit for zone changes that they had made in the prior 20 years to allow more housing – a provision designed to "reward good behavior," according to Wiener. And much like the prior version, it requires 25% of the new units to be affordable to low-income residents and prohibits cities from getting credit for new housing by replacing existing housing developments.

The bill retains some of the more contentious provisions of the prior version, including the removal of density limits and the relaxing of parking standards within a quarter-mile of transit and high-frequency bus lines. It also makes a distinction between counties with more than 600,000 residents and smaller counties, where cities would have to allow up to 15 feet of additional height for new buildings near transit stops.

With the new amendments, Wiener hopes the bill would overcome the hurdles that stymied it last May, when the chair of the state Senate Appropriation Committee, Sen. Anthony Portantino, decided to turn SB 50 into a "two-year bill," making it eligible for a vote in January 2020. The decision came after both the Housing Committee and the Finance and Government Committee voted to advance the bill, which was widely seen as the most ambitious and contentious of the dozens of housing bills under consideration.

In Menlo Park, there hasn't yet been a clear consensus in favor or against the bill from the City Council, though Councilman Ray Mueller has expressed his opposition to it in the past. He called it a "one-size-fits-all proposition" that "puts us in a precarious situation where we will be unable to negotiate for specific needs," and said it was a "a misguided precedent-setting centralization of power in the state that weakens the foundation of local representative government and devalues the voices of its electorate."

During a joint meeting held last May with the city councils of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, Palo Alto council members generally opposed it and East Palo Alto council members generally favored it. But Menlo Park's council members have held their cards close.

While Mayor Cecilia Taylor didn't take a side on the bill during the May meeting, she said she believes one of the reasons SB 50 exists is because cities have not done a good job in entering into development agreements with employers that address some of the impacts caused by commercial projects.

Each city, she said, should adopt an "all-inclusive policy" that requires local hiring and contributions toward improving transportation and education.

She noted that the constituents in her district, Belle Haven, have trouble getting out of the city and getting home because of all the traffic. Schools, she added, are underperforming.

"I believe SB 50 exists because we didn't take care of our own city," Taylor said.

The bill has been particularly divisive in Palo Alto, where last March hundreds of people attended a community meeting to rail against it. The topic even came up during the recent mayoral election, where Councilwoman Lydia Kou refused to vote for new Mayor Adrian Fine – a proponent of SB 50 – on the grounds of his support for the proposed legislation. Reiterating earlier criticisms, Kou called the bill "one-size-fits-all" and said any amendments would be "lipstick on a pig."

In speaking against SB 50, Kou quoted former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson's dictum that "the government closest to the people serves the people best."

"As an immigrant I can never understand why a government of the people, by the people for the people would abdicate its local control of our government," Kou said.

But for proponents of the bill, the legislation is sorely needed at a time when the state has a housing shortage estimated at 3.5 million homes and when many cities are struggling to meet their housing targets, particularly for below-market-rate homes. While the city has a goal of building 300 housing units per year, it has fallen well short of the target in each of the last two years.

In his post, Wiener called SB 50 "an equity bill, an affordability bill and a climate bill" – one that overrides "local restrictive zoning – zoning that bans apartment buildings and affordable housing by only allowing single-family homes."

"SB 50 ensures that as we build these millions of homes, we do so not just in low-income areas but in wealthy communities as well," Wiener wrote.

Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw contributed to this report.

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2 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Has anyone considered how so many Airbnb's are adding to the shortage of full time rentals ?

38 people like this
Posted by Complete Nonsense
a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Adding more housing just makes the problem worse. The Bay Area infrastructure just can’t handle such growth. Make Facebook and google house all their employees on site. Enforce a moratorium on any new commercial building unless they can house staff on site. Our communities should not suffer because of poor civic planning. We’re too crowded already, enough is enough.

14 people like this
Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2020 at 1:02 pm

@Complete Nonsense
typical boomer mentality. I got mine, me me me. How about we get rid of prop 13?!? The area is not dense at all, not by a long shot.

10 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

I agree with the statement that our politics got us into this mess. Our city councils continued to approve massive office expansions (such as Facebook) without planning for commensurate housing. This is leading current residents to being priced out and displaced, some on the street. This bill has been around for almost 3 years now and local control has done nothing to help. Housing prices continue to go up, and so does homelessness. I support SB50 even though I'd prefer a local solution.

34 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 15, 2020 at 2:33 pm

This area is a suburb and is not meant or designed for dense housing. Try going from El Camino to Bayfront expressway in the afternoon and tell me we have the infrastructure for more housing or office space. Same with trying to get a seat on CalTrain during the rush hour commute. Those trains are so packed they discourage commuting on them. The state should not be dictating what can be built where to the cities. If this passes there will be a long protracted lawsuit.

27 people like this
Posted by Boomer
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 15, 2020 at 9:01 pm

I don’t normally comment in this forum because discussions rapidly devolve in attacking broad groups of people or even individuals . By virtue of the year I was born I am a baby boomer. Some short -sighted “contributors” disparage my whole generation because of when we were born. They seem to think we are all the same. MPer: why not make a lucid argument for your position instead of devaluing another’s by painting broad stereotypes? Would you ever say “typical black person comment” or typical gay person comment?” I don’t think so.

27 people like this
Posted by Enuff
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 15, 2020 at 9:29 pm

@ Complete Nonsense: spot on!
Menlo Park is a small suburb of about 30,000 people. Yet our City Council is allowing Facebook to bring 30,000 employees to our city. This will be ruinous whether they're commuting or living here. Facebook should move to San Jose or some other place with far more space that can handle this kind of growth and where high-rises are more appropriate.
Don't forget that Stanford is already building a huge project that spans several blocks on El Camino. Imagine the traffic jams in store for us.
And once these huge monoliths are built, we're stuck with them, and the face of our once tranquil suburb will be changed forever--and not for the better.
This was a lovely place to live and to raise children. No more.

7 people like this
Posted by Me. Rogers
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2020 at 10:19 pm

Keep on cursing Facebook employees. See how far it gets you.

Who do you think your neighbors are now?

26 people like this
Posted by Burisma Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 15, 2020 at 10:48 pm

Just as the recently enacted anti-Uber/Lyft AB 5 has been fraught with countless unintended consequences, the same is true with SB 50. Tell the local politicians to shove it.

7 people like this
Posted by Corporations Rule
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2020 at 12:50 am

Facebook is still expanding in Menlo Park - with the city government securely in its pocket. Some cities and counties resist the corporate take-over of California. Privately-funded state politicians will take care of that problem. Bye-bye Golden State Hello more high tech workers. Maybe AI will make better decisions.

6 people like this
Posted by Jason
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jan 16, 2020 at 5:02 am

All the bellyaching about City Council going to approve 30,000 employees for Facebook is nonsense to me. There aren't three votes on City Council to approve such a project.

Drew Combs can't vote - he works for Facebook. That means 3 our of 4 City Councilmembers have to vote FOR Facebook to add jobs.

Cecilia Taylor and Betsy Nash are so anti-growth they initially proposed a moratorium (but then never asked for a vote on the idea.) and Ray Mueller voted against the General Plan.

Even if Cat Carlton supported more Facebook jobs (which she has not said), two of the three council members above would have to vote with her. And Cat Carlton is coming off City Council.

So where are there three votes for more Facebook jobs?

9 people like this
Posted by Reality
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2020 at 6:38 am

It's amazing to me how many people can recognize that we have a huge housing problem, but refuse to support any efforts to improve it that are realistic. These companies are not going anywhere. This problem affects every town from SF to SJ, but there is no other place to build housing. Efforts are needed in every town, and every community has the same reaction: Not in my backyard.

100 years ago this was all orchard. Things have changed and will continue to for the next 100 years. Sorry you don't like it.

24 people like this
Posted by new guy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2020 at 9:36 am

Hey Reality.

I just looked on zillow dot com, and guess what? There are homes available to purchase in Menlo Park. Weird right?

1. If you think adding density (at first) will bring prices down, please show me an example where this has occurred recently.

2. Please look on google maps and show me where you plan to add new playgrounds, sports (soccer/baseball) fields, schools, etc. You know the stuff new residents that pay the price to live here demand.

3. Show me where I can get a seat on Caltrain during commute hours?

Untill you own a backyard, you do not understand what "not in my backyard" actually means!!!

2 people like this
Posted by thought
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 17, 2020 at 5:24 pm

Woodside & Portola Valley are looking more attractive every day. 5 minutes away from most of these issues. And there's lots of open space and green beauty. Don't tell anybody. Thx.

2 people like this
Posted by Joan
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm

We need to consider the water issue before we sign on to build 100s of thousands of new housing units. The 55 gallon restriction cannot be met now - how will we provide water for all of this new housing?

1 person likes this
Posted by Zuck
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 23, 2020 at 10:10 am

Oh Boomer, we don’t dismiss you because of your age. We dismiss you because of your generation’s selfish NIMBY practices. You’ve managed to poison the planet and your lack of any long term planning over short term gains has put all of us in a lousy position. You got yours, and you want everyone else to go away. Now it’s our turn to tell you to fade off into your nursing home years. Maybe we can still fix what you completely screwed up.

1 person likes this
Posted by Reality
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 23, 2020 at 5:00 pm

I am a home-owner, with a big backyard, AND I support SB 50.

Nice slander attempting to put down someone you feel is inferior to you based on your guess at their wealth or home-ownership status.

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