Mark McDermott

Proposed state law forces housing density on cities

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by Mark McDermott

A bill in the California State Senate would require affluent communities such as Manhattan Beach to allow apartment building in neighborhoods currently zoned only for single-family residences.

Senate Bill 50 was introduced in December by Sen. Scott Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, and is intended to address California’s housing shortage by requiring cities to loosen local restrictions on building multi-family housing. SB50 targets job-producing areas and those near major transit lines, including light rail and bus stops with peak hour service intervals of 15 minutes and off-peak intervals of 20 minutes.  

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Manhattan Beach does not itself meet either requirement in that the city is not a major center of employment nor do its bus stops meet SB 50’S definition of “major transit lines.” But such transit lines do exist near city borders in neighboring Redondo Beach, and thus neighborhoods within a half mile of those bus stops would be subject to the proposed law, which passed its first significant hurdle when it was approved by the Senate Housing Committee in early April.

Councilperson Richard Montgomery was part of a city delegation that went to Sacramento last week to lobby against SB 50. He said that the proposed law threatens to change the neighborhood character of Manhattan Beach.

“The way its written now, cities our size may be exempt from some of the more harsh aspects of SB 50, but what we are not exempt from is if adjacent cities like Redondo Beach have a bus stop on their side of the street, the circumference is a half a mile,” Montgomery said. “That means forget the zoning we have in our city —  a half mile from a transit stop, a bus stop, they could build apartment buildings in the middle of residential housing up to four stories in height, with no parking required.”

Montgomery was part of a South Bay contingent that included Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand and Hermosa Beach Councilperson Hany Fangary. He spoke directly with Weiner.

“His own city, San Francisco, is opposing the bill, and so is the City of LA,” Montgomery said. “It’s not just us, small coastal cities, who are fighting it. Beverly Hills is fighting it just as hard as we are…I told him to his face we are not supportive of it and I hope it goes down and it goes down badly, because he doesn’t understand: you are going to rip the fabric out of our community. We are not built like Oakland and San Francisco and LA and other big cities. It’s Northern California guys trying to dictate to Southern California cities again, this one-size-fits-all mentality.”

SB 50, however, has picked up significant support. The California Association of Realtors has vigorously backed the proposed law as a means of addressing both the state’s housing shortage and its lack of affordable housing. “Thank you, Scott Weiner, for your leadership on SB 50 and addressing the housing crisis,” CAR tweeted after the bill passed out of committee last month.

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental California, and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) are also supporting SB 50, arguing that more housing near jobs would reduce the state’s carbon emissions caused by commuters traveling to jobs.

“Climate change is real, California is already experiencing its effects, and the best minds in the world are saying that the next twelve years are critical to staving off the worst impacts,” said Dan Jacobson, state director at Environment California. “So let’s roll up our sleeves in Sacramento and do the hard work of reshaping our lives. SB 50 starts a critical conversation about collectively rethinking where we choose to live and how we get around.”

The issue has also captured national attention. The Editorial Board of the New York Times weighed in Sunday. “The state is desperately in need of more housing,” the editorial said. “Home prices are the highest in the continental United States, and population growth continues to outstrip construction. A 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated California needs 3.5 million more homes by 2025 — as much as the other 49 states combined. At the present pace of construction, California will add one million units over that period.”

Both those for and against SB 50 agree that the state faces a severe housing shortage, both in terms of overall availability and affordability. A recent study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley showed that despite the shortage, less than 25 percent of land in municipalities is zoned for multifamily housing. A UCLA urban policy study showed that such zoning constraints prevent cities and counties from building 2.8 million homes.

“If you’re prohibited to build enough housing, then you’re sort of stuck,” Wiener said at a committee hearing last month, according to CityLab.

“This housing shortage, which is self inflicted in many ways, has real-life consequences for people. It pushes people into poverty and homelessness. It spikes evictions and displacement. It is a problem and we have to address it.”

SB 50 has cleared two significant hurdles legislatively thus far, winning 9-1 approval from the Senate Housing Committee on April 2 and 6-1 approval April 24 from the Governance and Finance Committee.

“We need bold ideas that will have a real impact on our 3.5 million home deficit,” Wiener said in a statement after the bill’s passage out of committee. “SB 50, in combination with other strong housing proposals, will help move the dial. California’s housing shortage is threatening our environment, economy, diversity, and quality of life. We must reform how we approach housing and, once and for all, elevate housing to a top priority.”

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Paramount, stopped short of endorsing the bill during an appearance on NBC4’s News Conference program Sunday but indicated his general support for what it proposes.

“Whether it is SB 50 or not, we are going to work out those details…we know that in certain corridors increasing density makes a tremendous amount of sense,” Rendon said.

Those details will be very significant for Manhattan Beach and other Beach Cities. Last week’s committee approval merged SB 50 with SB 4, carving out some low population counties and coastal areas from many of its provisions, including affluent, single-family areas such as Marin County, where SB 4’s author, Democrat Mike McGuire, is from. But the revised SB 50 also adds SB 4’s requirement that single-family lots throughout the state be allowed to accommodate four units.

State Senator Ben Allen, a Democrat from Santa Monica whose district includes much of the South Bay, is awaiting the exact details of the revised bill’s language before passing judgement on it. A spokesperson for Allen said he has not yet seen the new version of SB 50.  

“We know that it has been combined with SB 4 but we have no idea what the language actually looks like,” the spokesperson said. “I can tell you the Senator was on the record as having serious concerns with previous iterations of the bill and he will be looking at the new language with that same mindset.”

Mayor Steve Napolitano is leery of whatever form SB 50 takes, because he believes it is a legislative overreach which attacks the very idea of local control.

“Not only is this another attack on local control by Sacramento, SB 50 undermines the community planning process and public participation at the local level,” Napolitano said. “Manhattan Beach is a dense and already built out city. There are plenty of others that aren’t, including Los Angeles. The state should be working with those cities and stop trying to shove a one-size-fits-all approach down everyone’s throats.”

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