A new version of state Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to increase housing density near transit

New version of housing density bill calls for suburbs to ‘do their share’

San Francisco Planning Department staff gave a bill increasing housing density near transit a chilly reception last year, but appear to be warming up to a revised version.

The current form of the legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener, Senate Bill 50, would require minimum housing height limits to be set at 55 feet for neighborhoods within a quarter mile of rail or ferry stops and 45 feet for those within half a mile.

That’s lower than the 85 feet called for in the previous version of the legislation, Senate Bill 827, which died in committee last year after meeting with intense opposition from local governments across California.

SB 50 would also relax density controls within a quarter mile of “high quality” bus lines or in job-rich areas, potentially allowing six-unit buildings to be built where single-family housing is zoned currently.

Nearly the entire city falls within that distance from a high-quality bus line, but most of the effects would be felt in The City’s more suburban neighborhoods, like the Sunset District, according to a staff report issued in advance of a hearing Thursday before the Planning Commission.

The bill initially earned criticism for targeting urban areas like San Francisco and mostly letting cities that chose not to offer robust transit — including those on the Peninsula — off the hook by not requiring them to raise zoning height requirements.

That’s especially pertinent during California’s housing crisis, critics said, as rents continue to rise.

Now, however, the Planning Department’s analysis notes that SB 50 has taken care of that concern by also targeting “job-rich” areas — namely, suburbs that say “yes” to mega-offices for Google and Facebook, but “no” to more housing for workers.

“One of this department’s key concerns with SB 827 was that the relatively high standard for qualifying transit service largely excluded parts of the state outside the core regions of large metropolitan areas,” the department wrote in its analysis.

The planning staff report concluded that by targeting “job-rich” areas, SB 50 could address its previous concerns, and “greatly expand the bill’s applicability to communities across the state where future residents would have access to job opportunities and other resources.”

Those communities have traditionally used low-density zoning to keep out people of color and lower-income residents, planning staff wrote.

Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said the change will make the bill more palatable to urban communities.

“I think out of the gate, recognizing a more concerted effort and that wealthy suburbs do their share is a necessary political message,” he said.

Wiener also announced amendments to SB 50 on Tuesday further clarifying that job-rich areas are defined as those with “positive educational and economic outcomes for households of all income levels” or proximity to jobs, measured by employment density and job totals.

“This year’s Planning Department analysis is more positive toward the bill because we have worked for the last year to craft a stronger and more thorough piece of legislation,” Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner.

Still, some remain skeptical.

Gen Fujioka, policy director at the Chinatown Community Development Center, said some in the tenant and housing community are concerned their bargaining power with developers could be weakened under SB 50.

Those organizations often use the carrot of increasing zoning heights when negotiating with developers in order to ask for higher rates of affordable housing. But if those heights are already set higher, their bargaining position may be weaker, Fujioka said.

“SB 50 still gives a huge windfall to developers without requiring any additional affordability for San Franciscans,” he said.

Fujioka is also concerned that SB 50 may spur speculation and development pressures in communities of color and low-income communities. Though SB 50 now allows those communities to postpone implementation by five years, Fujioka said “it doesn’t change the fact that it’s only a temporary reprieve.”

Redefining who is counted among those sensitive communities is also part of the suite of amendments announced Tuesday, using methodologies with “deep stakeholder input” with the Committee to House the Bay Area, CASA.

Some public transit-related issues the Planning Department identified with Wiener’s bill last year remain.

SB 827 was critiqued for not sufficiently accounting for changes to transit planning, which could trigger changes to zoning height requirements every time Muni re-tools a bus line.

That remains an issue with SB 50, the Planning Department wrote.

“This could mean that zoning could fluctuate substantially over time as service levels increase or decrease due to transit budgets, ridership, travel patterns, or agency service strategy,” the staff report said.

That issue “could also create an additional reason for jurisdictions or neighborhoods to suspend already planned transit service enhancements or avoid planning for increased transit service altogether, if they oppose the increased density that would come with the transit service,” the report noted.


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