Northern News


A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

Making great communities happen

Growing cities up: California’s SB 50 is a model for addressing the urban housing crisis.

By Christopher S. Elmendorf, Professor of Law, UC Davis, in, January 14, 2020

“Earlier this month, California state senator Scott Wiener began the third year of his push for a state law to override local zoning and authorize midsize apartment buildings near transit stops. The latest version of his bill, SB 50, comes with a twist that augurs well for its passage and eventual impact.

“Longtime residents, especially homeowners, resist neighborhood change. They’re also the dominant force in local politics. The preserve-the-neighborhood norm would be innocuous if it was limited to a few locales, but when all of a metro region’s municipalities throw up barricades to new housing, the cumulative effect is disastrous.

“The ambition of SB 50 is to turn the clock back to an earlier era — not just pre-1970, but before the Great Depression, when single-family homes in growing cities were commonly torn down and replaced by small apartment buildings.”

“Today, the expansion of urban housing stock is basically confined to formerly industrial and commercial zones. The majority of buildable land in major cities remains locked up in the zoning straightjacket. Once a tract has been zoned and developed for single-family homes, it’s stuck.

“To mollify opponents, Wiener has made it clear that his bill would not touch local authority over demolition controls, design standards, permitting procedures, impact fees, and more. But the less that the bill preempts, the easier it will be to evade.

“The new version of SB 50 deftly resolves this dilemma. Instead of immediately ‘up-zoning’ all residential parcels within a half mile of a transit stop — as the prior versions would have done — the bill defines a default zoning ‘envelope’ for these parcels. Local governments will get two years either to accept the default or propose an alternative ‘local flexibility plan’ that creates an equivalent amount of developable space…

“A flexibility plan takes effect only if approved by the state housing department; otherwise, the SB 50 up-zoning kicks in, by default.

“A local flexibility plan must ‘increase overall feasible housing capacity,’ as the new SB 50 declares. To deliver on that goal, the state agency could insist that a flexibility plan put reasonable limits on fees, permitting times, demolition controls, and more.

“California has long been the poster child for housing-policy dysfunction, but the problems facing San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also playing out in superstar cities across the nation and worldwide.”

Read more here.”