A controversial bill that would force California cities to allow denser housing around public transit cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, but only after its sponsor agreed to go easier on smaller-sized counties.

Senate Bill 50, from Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, passed out of a key legislative committee after it was amended to take a softer approach to counties of less than 600,000 people.

While the bill still faces fierce political opposition and a long road ahead in the state Legislature, the vote marks a significant victory for Wiener’s move to promote more dense housing around transit — an approach he says is necessary to help alleviate the state’s housing shortage and curb greenhouse gas emissions from commuters.

Originally, the bill would have required all California neighborhoods within a half-mile of a major public transit stop to allow apartment buildings four to five stories tall. No longer would cities be able to restrict zoning around transit to exclusively single-family homes, for example.

“We know what we need to do,” Wiener said at Wednesday’s hearing, in a Capitol hearing room overflowing with advocates on both sides of the issue. “You can have all the funding for affordable housing in the world and all the streamlining in the world, but if you don’t have zoning changes, it’s all for naught.”

The original provision would still apply to the 15 most populous California counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Joaquin counties. “Jobs-rich” communities not within a half-mile of public transportation would also have to change local zoning laws to allow for taller buildings.

But under the new compromise, smaller counties — including those with expensive real estate markets such as Marin, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo — would be treated differently.

Most cities in those smaller counties would be forced to allow housing near public transit that’s slightly more dense than what’s currently allowed, but not 4-5 stories. They also would also be required to approve duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes “by right” in almost all neighborhoods, allowing developers to bypass the often lengthy and costly process of getting small housing projects approved by local planning commissions and city councils.

The new provisions for smaller counties incorporate elements of what was a rival plan from Sen. Mike McGuire, Democrat from Healdsburg, who chairs the Senate Governance and Finance committee that held Wednesday’s vote.

“A blanket one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work for every community here in California,” said McGuire, whose district includes famously anti-development Marin County.

Advocates for Wiener’s bill point out that even the weaker density requirements on smaller counties could lead to a substantial boost to new housing — and that the “four-plex” provision in particular means an end to neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes. The city of Minneapolis made national headlines for a similar law last year.

Wednesday’s vote is a noteworthy victory for Wiener, whose try at similar legislation last year failed to advance this far.

Several politically influential groups that opposed last year’s legislation are now on board, or at least aren’t explicitly opposed. Construction labor unions have thrown their weight behind the bill, while several housing equity groups concerned about the bill’s potential to gentrify lower-income neighborhoods are still negotiating with Wiener.

But California cities up and down the state still view SB 50 as an unprecedented encroachment on local control over housing decisions. While the most fierce opposition has come from smaller municipalities, the Los Angeles City Counciland San Francisco Board of Supervisors have adopted resolutions opposing the bill.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all, its two-sizes-fits-all,” said David Reyes, a Pasadena city planner testifying against the bill even as amended. He warned that the state can expect cities to sue to block Wiener’s bill if it becomes law.

Some tenant rights and anti-gentrification groups, including those affiliated with the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, testified against the bill Wednesday. A controversial flyer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation sent to San Francisco households compared SB 50 to the “urban renewal” programs of the mid-20th century, invoking the image of African-American author James Baldwin, who called such programs “Negro removal.”

“Frankly, we have too many deep concerns about SB 50’s impacts, even with the amendments on low-income communities of color, to support it,” testified Shanti Singh of Tenants Together.

Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose who opposed Wiener’s legislation last year, said his support for the bill this year was conditioned on passage of a broader housing package, which would include new funding sources for low-income housing and more tenant protections.

“If there’s not a package we’ll continue to have conflicts,” said Beall.

Even if the bill were to pass the Legislature, it’s unclear whether Gov. Gavin Newsom would sign it. Newsom has floated several proposals aimed at reaching his goal of 3.5 million new California homes by 2025, but has balked at publicly supporting SB 50.


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