Wiener’s new housing bill would still end single-family-only zoning — but more “gently”

In Summary

Prior bills were a shot of urban growth hormone to force cities to grow vertically; this one is a density vitamin cities could choose to take or not.

For three straight years, state Sen. Scott Wiener has tried to force California cities to swallow more apartment buildings near public transit, arguing it’s the only way the state can fill its crippling housing shortage and meet its ambitious climate goals. 

For three straight years, a shifting coalition of local governments, affluent suburban homeowners and anti-gentrification groups have sunk the San Francisco Democrat’s plans. Their argument: local control over what types of housing gets built where preserves the look and feel of neighborhoods cherished by generations of Californians. 

Now, just two months after his controversial Senate Bill 50 was unexpectedly voted down by both Democrats and Republicans, Wiener is back yet again…with a decidedly “gentler” touch. 

If the the early iterations of SB 50 were a shot of urban growth hormone designed to force cities across the state to grow up (literally — although developers and pro-housing advocates would likely say figuratively too), SB 902 is more like a density vitamin cities could choose to take only if they felt like it. 

“We think this legislation will over time allow for a significant increase in the amount of housing, and will do it in a way that is a light touch,” said Wiener, unveiling details of his bill to reporters. “And also in a way where cities have significant latitude in how they do it.” 

Here’s what you need to know about the latest attempt to goad California into building more housing: 

It would end single-family-only zoning statewide — a big deal sure to anger some neighborhoods 

Wiener’s new bill retains one highly controversial proposal: the elimination of single-family only zoning across nearly every neighborhood in California. 

The new bill would force localities to permit duplexes in neighborhoods where they are currently illegal in cities of less than 10,000 people, triplexes in cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, and fourplexes in cities over 50,000. Single-family-only neighborhoods in high fire-risk areas would be exempt. 

Developers would not be required to build denser structures next to single family homes in these cities — they would simply be allowed to. Homeowners could choose to demolish their property and rebuild it more densely, as long as a renter hasn’t lived there for the past seven years. 

The idea of loosening local zoning rules has gained traction in national progressive circles, with Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders advocating for tying federal funds to denser housing. Democratic lawmakers in Minneapolis and Oregon opted to prohibit single-family-only zoning last year.  

Technically, California ended single-family-only zoning with the passage of a 2019 law that allows homeowners statewide to build granny flats in their backyards. But Wiener’s latest proposal would allow for more visible neighborhood change, and is thus sure to engender more pushback. 

“I think (single-family zoning) is a good thing,” countered Susan Kirsch, an influential anti-growth activist from Marin County who has helped organize opposition to Wiener’s previous legislative efforts. 

“Maybe not for every city. But at least it should be maintained as an option for any city.” 

Cities could make it easier to build apartments around transit — only if they want to 

Beverly Hills is likely breathing a sigh of relief. 

Wiener had previously tried to force “high-opportunity” communities like the affluent West L.A. enclave, places with good schools and close to major job centers, to allow mid-rise apartment buildings next to single-family homes. Cities would also have to allow new apartments within a half-mile of major public transit stops. 

His new proposal leaves the decision on whether to allow denser housing around transit and good jobs to the Beverly Hills City Council — the same council that passed a unanimous resolution opposing his previous effort.

If a local government passes a resolution to rezone a neighborhood for more density (up to 10 homes per piece of land), Wiener’s new proposal would allow that city to bypass environmental reviews. Pro-development forces complain that those reviews are costly, time-consuming and subject to endless litigation. 

The bill may be attractive to larger cities already interested in revamping their zoning laws in search of denser housing, such as Oakland and Los Angeles. But will smaller, traditionally anti-growth locales like Beverly Hills or Marin County jump at the opportunity to make it easier to build more apartments? 

Wiener argues they may not have much of a choice. New state mandates have dramatically increased how much housing Southern California cities must plan for. Beverly Hills saw its eight-year housing planning quota jump from single digits to 3,000. 

“It’s a tool, and I think not all cities will want to use it, but some will,” said Wiener. “I think quite a few will.” 

Gentrification and the path to passage? 

Wiener hopes that by allowing cities to opt in to his new bill’s more aggressive upzoning measures, he’ll also soften opposition from some anti-gentrification groups that feared the development of new, shiny apartment buildings would lead to rising rents in lower-income communities of color. 

But noticeably absent from the bill is any mention of subsidized housing for lower-income Californians, an issue Wiener never fully resolved with equity advocates in his earlier legislative attempts. 

While smaller-scale multi-plexes are often exempted from laws requiring set-asides for low-income housing, the lack of an “inclusionary” provision will likely resurface as a point of contention. 

After the failure of SB 50 in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed he would lead the charge for a signature housing production bill to meet his goal of 3.5 million new homes by 2025. 

In comments to reporters prior to the bill’s official language being released, Wiener stressed that SB 902 was only one of a handful of housing production bills Democratic state leadership will be considering in the coming weeks. So maybe instead of one replacement, several. 

“This bill will be part of a package of bills that will increase housing production this year,” said Wiener. “I’m looking at this as a suite of bills that will try to move the dial.” 

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