Making California Affordable Again

SB-50: Scott Wiener’s plan to build new housing and fight urban sprawl (whether California wants it or not).


There is a housing crisis in California. Decades of underbuilding have left us with a 3.5 million home deficit. While a combination of housing speculation and a booming economy in the Tech, Bio Tech, and Film Industries, have sent housing prices skyrocketing from San Diego to The Bay. But San Francisco’s own CA State Senator Scott Wiener has a controversial plan to address the crisis: SB-50, a bill which, if passed, could radically reshape broad swaths of California’s skyline, and—just maybe—make California affordable again.

I know this is a big question, but what do you see as the root causes of California’s housing crisis?

The root cause of it all is that we’ve systematically made it hard, or impossible, to build enough housing. Back in the early ‘60s, when California had 15 million people, we produced 250,000 to 300,000 units of housing a year. Now, fast forward 60 years, we’re a state of 40 million people, and we’re producing 80,000 to 100,000 units a year. Our population has almost tripled, but our housing production has gone down, by about two thirds. That’s not sustainable. And because of it we have a 3.5 million home shortage, which is equal to the shortage of the other 49 states combined.

So, that’s the root cause, everything else flows from it. We need stronger renter protections. I support that, but the reason that renters are being squeezed so badly is because we don’t have enough housing. We need more subsidized housing for low income people, but the reason we need millions of more homes for low income people is because we haven’t built enough housing. So, the housing shortage leads to almost all the other housing problems with have. We need a multi-front strategy to address this crisis, including building many more homes at all income levels, investing aggressively in subsidized low income housing, and increasing renter protection.

What does SB-50 do, and how does it address this crisis?

SB-50 legalizes more housing near job centers and near public transportation. Right now, in 80% of California, it’s illegal to build any form of housing other than a single family home. You can’t even build a small, multi-unit building. This is true in 70% of San Francisco, where it’s illegal to build anything other than a single family home or two unit building. It’s true in 70% of Los Angeles. When you zone so that it’s illegal to build multi-unit, that is a ban on apartment buildings, and it’s a ban on affordable housing—because no one is building affordable single family homes. Affordable housing is always multi-unit. So, banning apartment buildings, banning multi-unit, is a way of banning renters from your community.

So the bill requires that if you are near high quality public transportation, or if you’re in a job rich area, you can’t ban multi-unit buildings. You have to allow apartment buildings, you have to allow affordable housing.

If SB-50 passes, how many new housing units do you expect to generate annually? And do you think that will be enough to meet our needs?

It’s hard to say with precision, and especially around the timing, because development doesn’t happen overnight. You have to have available personal developer with funding, to go through the approval process. So, you can never say how much is going to be produced a year. But, there was a study that was done that looked at all of the most promising strategies to try to close this three and a half million home deficit, and the number one candidate was increasing zoning near transit. Which is projected to produce, over time, about 1.8 million homes.

What else can be done to bring down the cost of housing?

In addition to increasing the supply of housing, we need more subsidized housing for low income people, and we need rent control. There are other things too, but those are the three big ones.

Rent control. Do you support eliminating Costa-Hawkins?

I support reforming Costa-Hawkins so that over time new apartments can go into rent control. If you start putting rent control on new apartments on day one, it creates real barriers to building those new apartments. If you have a rolling time period, say after 15 years, an apartment building can transition into rent control you’ll start significantly increasing the rent controlled housing stocks, and you’ll do it in a way that still creates financial incentive to actually build the new apartment building.

This is your second attempt to pass a statewide zoning bill which ties housing to transit, the first being SB-827? How does this bill differ from that one?

Almost immediately after SB-827 died we began working with our constructive critics—including equity housing advocates, particularly in L.A.—because they were the most willing, they actually wanted to sit down and work with us.

First and foremost, we included a very strong tenant demolition protection in SB-50—the strongest existent in state law. We negotiated those protection with equity housing advocates, so that if a renter has resided in the building at any point in the last seven years it cannot be demolished for an SB-50 project.

In addition, if there’s been an eviction in all of the property in the last 15 years the building is ineligible under SB-50. We want to de-link SB-50 projects from situations where people are evicting tenants and then wanting to tear down the building. We also put in a unique treatment for so called sensitive communities: communities with significant low income population, with a significant history of displacement.

In sensitive communities the bill implementation is delayed by five years to give those communities space to do local and displacement planning. At the end of the five years, when the bill goes into effect in these sensitive communities, it can be applied in a modified way so the local community can come up with an alternative plan that achieves the same level of new housing, but takes into account the unique needs of these communities that are at risk.

Also, at the suggestion of the equity advocates who we’re working with, we expanded the bill to go beyond transit, to include so called “high opportunity,” or job rich areas. Areas that are wealthier, have lots of economic opportunity. Job centers, but maybe not great transit. So, those people might be driving, but they’re driving shorter distances. And it increases the equity of the bill by including more of the wealthy communities, that have historically been exclusionary.

The bill also has higher affordability levels, than in SB-827. There are other changes, but those are the big ones.

Speaking of some of those wealthy communities, such as Atherton, have indicated that they would rather do without Caltrain rather than accept further density. Are you worried that SB-50 will create perverse incentives to de-prioritize mass transit?

No, I don’t think so. Frankly, if a community is not willing to accept housing density, we should not be making transit investments there. We should focus our limited transit dollars in the communities where they will have the biggest impact. That means areas where you’re actually going to have good ridership. Without density, it’s hard to achieve good ridership levels. So, if Atherton feels so strongly about not having density that they’re willing to sacrifice daily train service, then so be it.

Some local critics of SB-50 say that San Francisco is already meeting, or nearly meeting, its housing targets. Yet, it would be particularly impacted because of our investment in mass transit. Why not amend SB-50, to include a mechanism to reward municipalities that are building their fair share of housing, and take local control away from those that haven’t?

This isn’t about punishing naughty cities, and rewarding virtuous cities. I think we need to move away from the narrative that it’s a punishment to require more housing. Housing is a good thing. It’s something we need.

So, SB-50 isn’t about putting housing in the cities that have been naughty. It’s about putting housing where it should go—near transit and jobs. If we agree that we have a three and a half million home deficit, and that we need to put an end to that deficit, then the question is, “Where do we put those homes?” If we’re not going to put them near jobs and transit, that means we’re building sprawl. Which is completely unsustainable environmentally, economically, and so forth.

Yes, San Francisco does meet its market rate goals, but not below market rate. And San Francisco is just one place—just like LA is, just like Silicon Valley is—where we should be putting more housing. To be very clear, San Francisco does not build its housing in a equitable way. Housing in San Francisco is built in one portion of the City: Districts Six, Nine and Ten, for the most part.

The rest of the City sees little or no new housing. The entire West Side sees very, very, little new housing; the entire Northern part of the City; most of the Southern part of the City. Neighborhoods like SOMA, the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and the Mission, will see little or no impact from SB-50, because they are already zoned for density and for height. The areas that will see an impact are the West Side and parts of the City like the Castro, or Noe Valley, that have historically been known for very low density.

What SB-50 will do is provide more equitable development throughout San Francisco, instead of concentrating development only one part of the City.