Open Thread: Will Single-Family Juggernaut Finally Break?

Transit Housing Bill advances despite push back

A drone shot of the Sunset District's sea of single-family housing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A drone shot of the Sunset District's sea of single-family housing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, State Senator Scott Wiener’s transit-density bill, S.B. 50, passed the Senate Governance and Finance Committee by a vote of 6 to 1.

“Today we sent a message that the status quo cannot stand,” wrote Wiener, in a prepared statement. “Our housing crisis hurts families, workers, children, our environment, and the list goes on. For years, we have ignored the steady growth of our crisis. We can no longer afford inaction… The legislative process will continue, but today was a vital and exciting step.”

The bill would supersede local zoning restrictions that currently prohibit multi-family dwellings adjacent to transit. Streetsblog readers will recall that last year’s attempt at increasing density near transit, SB 827, failed to pass this committee hurdle.

Currently, it is illegal to build multi-family housing in over 70 percent of San Francisco, sometimes even in areas that are an easy walk from a transit hub. Supervisor Gordon Mar of the Sunset District of San Francisco, along with Norman Yee, Sandra Lee Fewer, Aaron Peskin, and Hillary Ronen, passed a city resolution to oppose SB 50 last month.

(Separately, and ironically, Mar and other Supervisors also declared a “Climate Emergency” and vowed to act against CO2 emissions).

S.B. 50 eliminates density restrictions for housing near transit and in job-rich areas. In counties with more than 600,000 residents, sites within a ½ mile of rail and ¼ mile of high-frequency bus stops and in job-rich areas will be upzoned. Within these geographies, a city may not limit density (e.g., ban apartment buildings). Within ½ mile of fixed rail, a city may not impose maximum height limits lower than either 55 feet or 45 feet. Local height-limits will still apply for bus stops and job-rich areas. SB 50 will also allow for the creation of fourplexes, by-right, in all California communities, regardless of jurisdiction or population.

“I have seen too many people I grew up with pushed out of San Francisco because we have not built enough housing, especially affordable housing, throughout our entire city,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement about the bill. “I look forward to working with Senator Wiener and others to make sure SB 50 creates more housing opportunities near transit, while maintaining strong renter protections and demolition restrictions so we are focusing development on empty lots and underutilized commercial spaces.”

The bill now heads for the Appropriations Committee. And if it passes, it then moves on to the Senate floor.

Do you think this could finally be the year the single-family zoning shackle is removed, and cities will finally be forced to build significant amounts of housing along transit? Comment below.

  • crazyvag

    We still caught up in the “too tall”, “too big”, and “too much traffic” concerns that people make without any concept of existing road capacity.
    I wanna cry when people say that a neighborhood is full.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    If it gets watered down any more, we’ll all drown. The new definition of “high quality bus corridor” includes a handful of Muni routes, several Metro routes, and a couple of VTA routes, but nothing in any other city, including the entire East Bay. The “by right” fourplex provision is subject to height limits and lot coverage limits so effectively might as well not exist.

  • JustJake

    It will get watered down even more, with further Senate hearings, and then the full rack of assembly hearings. The touted four-plex provision only allows 15% increase in existing square footage, that largely crimps the concept.

  • p_chazz

    With all this demand for more densification, I don’t see any increase in electrical power generating capacity, water storage facilities, etc. We need to be building power plants and reservoirs, and that’s not happening.

  • Michael Escobar

    The question is: housing for whom? Do you really believe that allowing unlimited construction of market-rate housing will do anything for renters currently being pushed out of the Bay Area or L.A. county? If your YIMBYism doesn’t put working-class renters first, I don’t want anything to do with it.

  • Ben Phelps

    well NOT building housing hasn’t worked so well

  • Spot on. On a related note, our transit systems are incapably of handling the existing “sea of single-family housing” area, much less a huge influx of additional housing. If Wiener wants a ton more housing then he’d sure as heck present and fund his master subway plan for SF like he promised during his campaign.

    A bigger issue is land values which drive up unit costs. If a SFH goes for $1.5M in the sunset that postage stamp parcel is already out of reach for most folks when factored in the total construction cost of building 2-3 units on what used to be 1 unit. Sure, multiple lots can be combined if rezoned but the end result is still market rate. Developers will squeeze every last dime out of their investment.

  • This is all talk so they can pat themselves on their backs for a job well done even though nothing will actually come from it.

  • Dave

    SF is blowing smoke unless they’re talking about going full Karl Marx, seizing apartment buildings for workforce housing and limiting rents and selling prices for properties. A free market in housing is a major cause of long SOV commutes.

  • What’s going to happen is that by the time any sizeable amount of housing is ready for occupancy the vast majority of the middle class will have left the Bay Area out of necessity. Companies will relocate to lower cost of living areas like many are doing now and workers will follow (or the reverse). The damage has been done here and appears to be irreversible.

  • Saundra

    Sta­rt getting residual profit every week… It’s an amazing side work for anyone… Best part about it is that you can work from your house and get paid from 100-2000 bucks at the end of every week … Apply now and get your first paycheck by the end of the week…> http://lista.tv.br/ZurUq

  • MonadnockMan

    That is called planning and dems do not know how to do that just look and the 2.1 mile Bay Bridge, TransBay Terminal, and who can forget the moonbeam distressed choo choo from nowhere to nowhere with an anticipated fare box of zero at the fantastic depressed speed railroad that will parallel and existing proven rail system that actually goes to some place in between and at both ends, with an excellent fare box return. I am pleased to see the usage of descriptive adjectives being uses especially this new on called densification. The use of that word clearly invokes failure before anything is planned!

  • sf in sf

    I am tired of the suggestion that building more housing or protecting tenants is either-or. As long as Californians are stuck in that mindset, landlords and property speculators will laugh all the way to the bank. We can and must do both. SB-50 will make a great package together with AB-1481 (just cause required for eviction) and AB-1482 (anti-rent gouging), which passed a committee this week as well.

    That said, a recent study adds to the large body of evidence that building more housing – yes, even the much maligned “luxury” housing – lowers rather than raises rents – and yes, even in gentrifying neighborhoods (though out of an abundance of caution, gentrifying neighborhoods will get to select out of SB-50):

    “In neighborhoods where new apartment complexes were completed between 2014-2016, rents in existing units near the new apartments declined relative to neighborhoods that did not see new construction until 2018. …our results suggest that—on average and in the short-run—new construction lowers rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.” https://appam.confex.com/appam/2018/webprogram/Paper25811.html

  • sf in sf

    I think SB50 will pass. And it’s encouraging to see this happening not only in California, but as a national movement. Minnesota’s largest city did away with apartment bans last year, and Oregon is considering its own bill to re-legalize missing middle (duplexes and triplexes) statewide. https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/19/oregon-wants-aid-affordable-housing-eliminating-single-family-zoning/3212535002/

    There is nothing progressive, pro-tenant, or pro-affordability about exclusionary zoning that says if you can’t afford a whole building to yourself on a large lot, you have to stay out of the neighborhood.

    To me, this is critical as a step toward a less car-dependent state. It’s easy to forget here in San Francisco that the average California household owns two cars. That’s not exceptional, it’s the average! So no wonder we see complete streets bills getting watered down, a car lobbyist getting appointed to head CalSTA, and Caltrans reaffirming its commitment to highway expansion as a higher priority than the environment, all of which happened this week. Those two-car households vote! But a lot more of them can become one- and zero-car households if we make room for them in the walkable urban areas in our state.

  • Ari Isaac

    The simple NIMBY truth is that they do not want any apartment next to them and they believe they have a GOD given right to zone 70% of urban cities to only allow single family homes, including along public mass transit corridors. Everything else they cite are just straw-man attempts to block apartments being built next to them without the bad optics of their immoral position.

    socialist/communist solutions to a capitalism problem will always fail. Capitalism says to overrule NIMBYs so we can build enough housing supply for all income levels and the housing market will self balance, making California cities affordable again to middle and lower incomes. Anything else will doom another generation and make the already rich NIMBYs at least twice as rich to come…

    NIMBYs usually claim that rich corporate executives and developers wrote SB 50 in their favor, which is a standard NIMBY scare tactic, to protect the high land/rent prices of the filthy rich NIMBY home owners who immorally ban apartments and renters from their backyards. Do we really believe that RE developers want 15-25% inclusionary affordability requirements, demolition protections, banning development if building has had any renter for past 7 years, excluding poor communities, etc., etc., all of which SB 50 requires/provides. It is ludicrous to think this was not a carefully negotiated approach by all equity, business, and developer stakeholders, except of course, the filthy land rich single family NIMBY home owners that caused this horrible housing/homelessness humanitarian disaster in LA and SF Bay Area.

    SB 50, unlike the killed SB 827, was a product of extensive negotiations by all parties at the table. Just like the CASA compact, which old, filthy rich NIMBY single family homeowners (who created the CA housing/homelessness crisis) also are rabid against, but the young and renters (who are getting crushed and spit out of CA) strongly support it.

    We should not let the NIMBY’s fake “perfect” be the enemy of the SB 50 “good”, b/c the NIMBY status quo is the real evil.

  • Ansel Lundberg

    I see it as a way for local entities to piggyback off of the changes and give them political cover to bring in their own, better solutions along the same lines. I, too, would have preferred the 827 version from 2018 as well, but this is politics… In Sacramento (the city), we’re pushing for more upzoning around transit beyond what is required in SB50. Please do that in your own community as well.

  • Frank Kotter

    I’m not one to beat the drums of the a free market panacea. However, the housing market is such a perfect example of supply and demand that actually works that, yes, increasing supply does bring down prices. In urban areas this mean increasing density.

    How can you dispute this?

  • Michael Escobar

    when density limits are increased, the potential value of land goes up. developers will spend what it takes to buy out existing landlords, and evict existing tenants, in order to build higher, and sell/rent the new units to those who have the ability to pay, at whatever price the market will bear. we’re not talking about a liquid marketplace with perfect competition between different sellers of pizza or automobiles. as a San Francisco renter and voter, I want my government to represent my interests. there is a finite supply of land. therefore, I only support new construction as long as it will bring in more affordable units than are lost because of the new construction. I’m all in favor of increasing density, and letting San Francisco acquire a more Parisian appearance with blocks of eight-story flats, but like I said originally, the question is always: housing for whom? if you simply favor building as much as possible, without centering existing tenants, then you’re not actually in favor of maximizing utility for the greatest number of people; you’re just another developer trying to mask your private interest as public interest. your only natural allies are incumbent property owners, since your new construction doesn’t threaten their property values. this is how we got to where we are today, where 100% of the area median income doesn’t come close to being able to afford a median home.

  • Frank Kotter

    ‘there is a finite supply of land. therefore, I only support new construction as long as it will bring in more affordable units than are lost because of the new construction.’

    You just unwittingly became an advocate for building density.

  • Michael Escobar

    I like density! Did you not read my statement “I’m all in favor of increasing density” in the exact comment you were responding to? That’s why I live in San Francisco! But I don’t advocate allowing construction without evaluating the kind of construction. that’s why my original post asked the question, “housing for whom?” I disagree with the free-market argument “just build something, anything, and rents will go down”. when I say “affordable units” I mean units actually set aside for those making X % of the area median income, which is a percentage that should be set through our political process.

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