The Housing Crisis Requires Bold Solutions — and There's One on the Table
The severity of California’s housing crisis hardly needs further documentation. There simply is not enough housing, especially for very low-income households. An emergent YIMBYism, or Yes In My Backyard movement, advocates building more homes in more neighborhoods to combat the housing affordability crisis. The progressive wing of the movement believes that new home construction should be focused on filling in vacant or underutilized properties, and improving transit and affordability.
In the last few years, elected officials have begun to act on the dire housing situation. The 2017 legislative housing package — headlined by state Sen. Toni Atkins’ SB 2, which established a permanent subsidy for affordable housing — was a watershed moment in alleviating the housing crisis. In 2018, voters sent Gavin Newsom, and his pledge to build 3.5 million housing units by 2025, to the governor’s mansion. When recently asked to identify the three biggest concerns facing California, Assemblyman Todd Gloria summed up the public’s interest in the issue: “housing, housing and housing.”
Despite the positive legislative and electoral developments of the past few years, much more must be done to achieve housing affordability for all Californians. Merely to satisfy household growth — to speak nothing of affordability — the state needs to build 1.8 million dwelling units, or 180,000 units annually, during the 10-year period preceding 2025. It has not achieved that level of production since 2005.
There are many proposals that seek to achieve this goal, but one stands out as being more bold, more productive and, most importantly, more progressive than any other: SB 50.
Introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a staunch pro-housing advocate, the bill is designed to compel cities to build the housing California needs. The bill would in effect increase the amount of allowable dwelling units — or “upzone” — on lots currently zoned for residential use near high-quality transit and job-rich areas.
Most significantly, housing projects within a quarter-mile of a major transit station served by rail or ferry could be built up to 55 feet (or five stories). Projects within a half-mile of a high-quality bus corridor could be built up to 45 feet. In either case, there would be reduced parking requirements, thereby reducing construction costs and in turn rents and home prices. San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer has already proposed a San Diego-specific version of such a measure, a positive step toward ensuring affordability locally.
SB 50 is based on last year’s failed SB 827, a similar bill also introduced by Wiener that garnered much fanfare across the ideological spectrum. But that bill was brought down by an unusual coalition: homeowners in wealthy enclaves sought to protect their exclusionary single-family residential land use at the same time as social justice advocates opposed the legislation based on well-founded fears of swift displacement and gentrification as a result of increased housing development.
Wiener is addressing these concerns over displacement in the new version of the bill by empowering disadvantaged communities to develop their own zoning standards that would allow increased density near transit. The bill also includes powerful desegregation incentives by also allowing more affordable homes to be built in job-rich communities that aren’t necessarily in transit-rich communities.
Further, the bill features aggressive protections for renters — including the prohibition of demolishing housing that has been occupied by a renter at any point in the last seven years — aimed at disincentivizing evictions. We hope and expect even more protections to be included to protect communities from gentrification and displacement.
SB 50 would dramatically increase the capacity for housing production, resulting in more affordable housing opportunities; help San Diego achieve the goals spelled out in its Climate Action Plan by constructing that housing near transit and protect the interests of renters and longtime residents within our communities.
We call on all our local elected officials, especially our housing leaders in the state Legislature, to support the bill. With bold action we can help California, and San Diego, achieve the housing affordability that its residents have been demanding and deserve.
Brendan Dentino is a co-chair of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County policy committee and a housing policy consultant. Maya Rosas is the founding president of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County and an urban planner. Both are residents of San Diego.