SB 50 is a Demolition Derby from L.A. to Long Beach to San Diego

In Gentrification, Housing, legislature, SB 50 by Jill Stewart

Senate Bill 50 — which would shift most housing decisions from cities and hand it to developers, severely curtailing hearings and community input — would create massive new “up-zoning” in which developers could overrun single-family areas to build apartment towers 4-stories to 8-stories high, as well as four-plexes and duplexes.

Single-family zoning would be banned in most of California under the unprecedented, radical SB 50. The bill was authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who has taken more than $700,000 from real estate interests. The bill includes new protections for upscale Northern California areas, arbitrarily singling out counties with more than 600,000 people for the worst of the SB 50 upheaval — the vast majority in Southern California.

The highly controversial bill is receiving scant and muted attention from California media as it races through approvals in Sacramento, where one-quarter of all legislators are also landlords.

If approved, developers would be free to buy out and gut huge swaths of inhabited homes — from Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, Riverside and Irvine. In addition, developers could tear down rental buildings and rental homes that have been empty for 10 years — a “renter protection” that tenant groups say is impossible to assure or enforce.

In areas near transit or jobs, developers seeking to build 4-story to 8-story apartment towers would be rewarded extensive incentives to buy out homeowners and raze thriving areas.

In areas that aren’t near transit or jobs, developers would be required to preserve some outer walls of the homes they buy and demolish, and incorporate those walls into luxury-priced duplexes, tri-plexes and four-plexes that have no affordable units.

Developers could cash in on luxury micro-units of less than 500 square feet, far too small for families, fitting them inside the remaining walls of demolished homes.

SB 50 will severely curtail public hearings and community participation because it strips cities of key decisions over where and how housing developments are built. The radical plan applies in virtually all of California aside from some chunks of the Coastal Zone and fire hazard areas.

Wiener, who is being hammered by social justice groups and other critics, has begun insisting that no homes can be “demolished” — by pointing to SB 50’s requirement that developers leave up some outers walls when they destroy homes to build luxury four-plexes and duplexes.

SB 50 places all land parcels into one of four categories, plus an “exempt” category. In the four categories, four-plexes and duplexes (dubbed “Neighborhood Multi-Family Projects”) and tall towers would replace housing that exists now. The categories are:

– Transit-Rich Parcels: in areas near rail stops or exceptionally busy bus stops, developers can ignore existing zoning, buy out existing owners, and erect 4- to 8-story housing towers.

– Job-Rich Parcels: in areas near shopping, business districts and other jobs, whether the area is served by transit or not, developers can ignore existing zoning, buy out existing owners, and erect 4-story to 8-story housing towers.

– Sensitive Community Parcels: diverse areas get a 6-year reprieve from SB 50, to rewrite their Community Plans to do away with single-family zoning in favor of towers and fourplex/duplexes. If a Sensitive Community fails to hit Wiener’s 2026 deadline, SB 50 will be imposed.

– Eligible Parcels: on any parcel that’s not in a Transit-Rich or Job-Rich area and is not a Sensitive Community parcel or an Exempt Parcel, developers can buy out and gut homes to make way for luxury four-plexes and duplexes. This also applies to vacant land. Rent-controlled or rent-stabilized buildings are purportedly protected.

Exempt Parcels:

  • the entirety of any coastal city smaller than 50,000 population, that’s within a county of less than 600,000 population, is exempt;
  • very high fire hazard severity zones (VHFHSZ) are exempt unless they have complied with certain mitigation construction;
  • state and nationally protected historic parcels are exempt;
  • individual buildings deemed historic, that are within historic districts that were officially established before 2010, are exempt;
  • land that doesn’t allow any form of housing is exempt.

A growing throng of critics say Wiener is threatening the survival of vast middle-class areas and “starter home” communities where working-class Californians build their way to the middle-class.

Yet media coverage in California has been sparse and muted. Voters are learning about the bill’s jarring details via social media, protests and a growing number of community forums.

Anger has spread as residents learn how far Wiener’s bill has gone without challenge by their own state legislators. South Los Angeles will be the site of the next town hall, created entirely by the community in the face of weak media presence. The Long Beach City Council votes on SB 50 this week.

San Fernando Valley state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the California senate majority leader, is among a small handful of legislators who openly oppose SB 50. At an April legislative hearing, Hertzberg called the drastic law full of “unintended consequences” that require a full impact study.

At that Governance and Finance Committee hearing, the normally upbeat Hertzberg, clearly disturbed, said he was granted just 45 minutes to review dense new amendments created by Committee Chair Mike McGuire and Wiener, before the vote was called.

Hertzberg told the packed room of largely anti-SB 50 attendees, “This is wrong!” The committee, chaired by McGuire, quickly approved it 6 to 1, with Hertzberg voting against SB 50.

Wiener’s bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee, which could vote in mid-May. Growing numbers of communities are opposing SB 50 as a demolition derby that will dramatically gentrify working-class areas and fuel California’s affordability crisis. The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco oppose it, as do many smaller cities, numerous social justice groups and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.