Real Estate Reporter

Scott Wiener explains why you’re wrong about SB 50

State Senator Scott Wiener, center, talks housing with John Zipperer and Michelle Meow. Photo: Sonya Abrams

State Senator Scott Wiener stirred up a hornets’ nest last year when he pushed a bill to allow greater density of housing around transit points across the state. That bill died early in committee, but it was reborn in the current legislative session as SB 50, and this time Wiener had momentum as he adjusted the bill to deal with concerns about displacement and workforce housing. SB 50 was doing well in the legislative chambers until May, when Appropriations Committee Chair Senator Anthony Portantino put a hold on the bill until the 2020 session. Wiener said he’ll keep pushing for the legislation in this and the next legislative session.

At the end of April, Senator Wiener discussed SB 50 at a Commonwealth Club program with my cohost Michelle Meow and me.

Let’s just understand what it is you’re proposing.

You look at the magnitude of the problem in California, it’s easy to become demoralized, which we shouldn’t, because we know how to solve it — over time, nothing happens overnight.

There have been several analyses done about the housing shortage in California. We are short 3.5 million homes in California. In context, the other 49 states combined have a housing deficit of 3.5 million homes. We rank 49 out of 50 states in homes per capita. The only other state that’s lower is Utah, which has very large household sizes, so they need fewer homes.

In California, back in the 1960s, when we were a state of 15 million people, we built 250,000 to 320,000 homes per year. We’re now a state of 40 million people, and we’re building 80,000 to 100,000 homes per year.  The reason is that the policy structure for building housing in California was created in the 1960s and 1970s, when the state was dramatically smaller. We sort of decided [to] deprioritize housing production. We started putting approval layers in place, making it very hard to approve housing. We did it by some interpretations of CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, making it really easy for people to oppose and block housing. Cities did it by putting really lengthy approval processes in place, where it could take 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 years to approve housing, including low-income housing.

And we did it by zoning. Zoning is basically what housing is legal or illegal to build. We used to build apartment buildings all over California, all over San Francisco, all over the Bay Area. Everywhere, you’d see apartment buildings. Then in the ’60s, the ’70s, and into the ’80s, all through California we started banning apartment buildings. We did that through what we call single-family home zoning, a technical way of saying that it is illegal to build any kind of housing except single-family homes. We’re to the point where on 80 percent of the residentially zoned land in California you can only build single-family homes. In San Francisco, 70 percent of the land is zoned only for single-family or two units.

SB 50 is designed to address that problem. The bill says if you are near quality public transportation or in a jobs-rich area, you can’t ban apartment buildings. You have to allow some level of density. By “apartment buildings,” it’s not just market-rate; it’s also affordable housing for low-income people. If you say only single-family homes, you are banning affordable housing, because no one builds affordable housing as single-family homes, so you’re effectively banning poor people from your community.

So SB 50 will allow small to midsized apartment buildings near jobs, near transit; it has an affordability requirement in it; depending on the size of the project, it’s somewhere between 15 and 25 percent affordability. If the local affordability [requirements are] higher, then that applies. Local design standards apply. Local demolition protections apply. A lot of local rules will still apply. And the bill has very strong tenant protections in it.

[Some] folks have been concerned [that] this bill would attract high skill level workers, those who would earn a whole lot more and drive up costs of living. You can hear their fears about building these apartments and bringing in new residents will “drive me out.”

I don’t blame them for having that fear, because there has been so much gentrification and displacement all over. Frankly, that gentrification and displacement started in the years and years in which we weren’t building much housing at all; it’s only very recently that we’ve really ramped up housing production.

It’s not the construction of new housing that drives displacement; it’s scarcity of housing — so housing costs explode, landlords have an incentive to push people out and get higher-income people in, which is why it’s so important to have tenant protections.

The goal of SB 50 is to add new housing, not to replace existing residents.

Some people say this is all about real estate developers and they all benefit.

Yeah, we do hear this narrative, that this is just about benefiting developers. Honestly — no offense to developers — but I could [not] care less if developers are making money or not. What I care about is making sure that someone is building housing for people to live in.

If you go around and all those people who say that to you, you should ask everyone of them, “Who built your house or apartment? Did Dad or Mom go out with their toolbox and build it?” A developer built that. Maybe a developer built it in 1920, or 1970, or in 2017, but I can guarantee that for every person who says that to you, they are living in an apartment or home that a developer built. And that developer — guess what? — made money.

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