SF Apartment building


On Tuesday, April 2, the More HOMES Act (Senate Bill 50) will have its first committee hearing at the State Capitol in Sacramento. This Thursday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee will be hearing a resolution to oppose the bill. Misinformation about the bill abounds, but we’re here to set the record straight.

Scott Wiener's SB50 is a new-and-improved version of last year’s SB 827, an effort to legalize greater residential density around public transit. It’s a high-profile bill for a high-profile crisis.

California faces a 3.5 million home deficit, creating skyrocketing prices that are pushing people out of state, into homelessness, and into hours-long commutes from outer suburbs. One reason California has so acutely and chronically underbuilt is that single-family zoning makes it illegal to build apartments in much of the state. To prevent sprawl, slow climate change, and increase housing affordability, SB 50 zones the areas around jobs and transit for 4-5 stories.

The list of endorsements is long, and includes the California Labor Federation, Habitat for Humanity’s Greater San Francisco Chapter, Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, the BART Board of Directors, the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Stockton and Sacramento, and the City of Emeryville. Three-fourths of San Francisco residents polled by the SF Chamber of Commerce support SB 50.

Yet landlord and District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar recently wrote a resolution opposing SB 50, cosigned by fellow Supervisors Mandelman, Yee, Fewer, Peskin, Walton, and Ronen. They join leaders of cities including Beverley Hills, Orinda, and Palo Alto who want to preserve single-family zoning around jobs, transit, and high-performing schools.

While there are good reasons to be wary of zoning reform, particularly concerns of exacerbating high housing costs in low-income areas, the resolution and similar criticisms contain falsehoods about SB 50 which should be addressed before the bill goes to a vote. Here are some of those misconceptions.

Myth: Mar claims SB 50 would “significantly restrict San Francisco’s ability to protect vulnerable communities from displacement and gentrification.”

Fact 1: SB 50 makes it illegal to demolish a building with renters in it within the past 7 years to build something taller as a result of the zoning. While some critics argue that this data is not available, another state bill by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) aims to create a statewide rental registry to address precisely this problem.

Fact 2: Mar marshals only one piece of evidence to support his assumption that SF will be less able to protect vulnerable communities from displacement and gentrification after SB50 passes:that SB50 will limit SF’s ability to enact “long term zoning and land use policies to assure equitable and affordable development in those neighborhoods.”

Zoning, if you’ll remember from a bevy of research we’ve reviewed, and 20th Century U.S. history, is racist as hell. So the idea that zoning is what keeps San Francisco equitable and affordable (it’s neither) is laughable. Affordable housing is currently illegal to build in over 70% of San Francisco due to our zoning code.

Fact 3: While some claim the Richmond, Bernal Heights, the Haight, and Alamo Square are sensitive to gentrification, the reality is that SB 50 will only change zoning for high-income neighborhoods. Such as Alamo Square and Bernal Heights.

Every lower-income neighborhood in SF is already zoned for height. Why is that?

Fact 4: San Francisco’s current zoning code is a direct result of then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein responding to the 1970s housing shortage crisis by prohibiting apartment buildings in vast swaths of the city, because that’s what the wealthy white homeowners wanted. In downzoning the westside neighborhoods, she codified the City’s racial and economic residential segregation.

Fact 5: Even if SB 50 changes zoning for a vulnerable neighborhood in SF, that community can get a five-year delay in rezoning.

Myth: Mar claims SB 50 would “prevent the public from recapturing an equitable portion of the economic benefits conferred to private interests.” 

Fact 1: The math is just wrong on this claim. SB 50 will result in greater impact fees and more affordable units as more housing gets built.

Fact 2: Mar is likely concerned that SB 50 could make it slightly more difficult to shake down housing developers for neighborhood handouts, something Mar has bragged about doing in the past. 

But he’s actually wrong on that front. SB 50 doesn’t touch discretionary review, the process that Supervisors and organizations use to wring money out of housing developers. SB50 doesn’t touch local control except on the issue of zoning. Discretionary review, environmental review, CEQA lawsuits, labor and employment standards, local development fees, the community engagement processes, local design standards, local inclusionary housing standards, local demolition controls, and local approval processes, and all the other mechanisms neighbors and planners have to stop development all remain untouched.

Fact 3: SB 50 respects or increases inclusionary zoning requirements of 15 to 25% (depending on project size) low-income homes statewide and offers a five-year deferral for “sensitive communities.” In the vast mythical lands outside of San Francisco known as “most of California,” there are no such requirements at all. 

Myth: A group called Livable California wrote that “SB 50 openly threatens ‘sensitive communities.’”

Fact 1: SB50 poses zero threat to sensitive communities in San Francisco. That’s because, thanks to the 1970s downzoning, only affluent neighborhoods are single-family zoned. The neighborhoods in SF that are sensitive or subject to gentrification are already zoned at SB 50 densities or higher. The Mission specifically was up-zoned as recently as 2008.

The only areas SB 50 up-zones in SF are exclusionary, high-opportunity and high-income neighborhoods.

Fact 2: Even if their zoning were to change under SB 50, and it won’t, vulnerable neighborhoods are already protected not only by local demolition restrictions, but the addition of even stronger, renter-specific demolition prohibitions within the bill. San Francisco will retain its authority to ban, prohibit, or restrict demolition of existing housing. Again, most cities in California don’t have policies like these at all.

Fact 3: SB 50 has the potential to be one of California’s strongest tenant protection laws, offering specific new protections for tenants by banning demolitions for buildings occupied by renters within the past seven years and for buildings that have had an Ellis Act eviction in the past 15 years.

Fact 4: The communities actually under threat from SB 50 are wealthier, whiter, and older than the rest of California, and are desperate to prevent people who don’t look like them from moving in. For example, the wealthy health care executive Dr. Scott Zeller recently spoke against SB 50. “Local control is the big issue,” Zeller said. “This is an amazing city that we live in. It’s so different than the rest of the Bay Area.” Which is true. At 78.28%, Orinda is far whiter than the rest of the Bay Area. It’s also much richer and older than the rest of California, with a median household income of $178,704. Orinda has been known to hire private investigators in an effort to oust a young Latinx girl from its school district whose mother had fled domestic abuse in Pittsburg.

Mar is a first-term Supervisor who recently asked why no projects eligible for neighborhood preference program participants were built in the Sunset. He may not realize the neighborhood preference program doesn’t work in single-family homes, which the Sunset is zoned for. Perhaps Mar would supportSB 50 if he realized it would legalize multifamily apartment projects in his district, which would then be subject to the inclusionary zoning and neighborhood preference mandates our progressive leaders claim to support.

Is the Board of Supervisors really interested in having more affordable housing in San Francisco?

RSVP to various rallies via Facebook or Eventbrite to make your voice heard on SB 50 on Tuesday.



Join us for our next BeaconTalk: Affordable housing finance expert Fay Darmawi answers California's multi-billion dollar question: How do you pay for affordable housing

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