California legislators' proposals to address the housing shortfall in the Bay Area and statewide have been on the radar for local leaders for several months. Of the dozens of bills pertaining to housing introduced in the state legislature this session, Senate Bill 50, which passed out of committee last week is probably the most contentious and concerning.
SB 50 by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would force cities to allow multi-story, high-density apartment buildings in R-1 zoned residential areas near public transit with no limits on the number of units and no parking requirements. It would undo the historic local autonomy that cities enjoy over land-use decisions.
The cities of Pleasanton, Dublin, Livermore and San Ramon and the town of Danville are responding by joining forces on more in-depth community education and regional advocacy on the topic of housing.
This banding together approach is unique to the Tri-Valley; we applaud our local councils for being pre-emptive, collaborative and creative in planning to combat this legislation that will give Sacramento control over land-use, with little or no input from the people we elected to represent our local interests.
Pleasanton City Manager Nelson Fialho said the passage of the Tri-Valley framework is "the first step in a collective effort for the cities to work together in finding regional solutions to comply with new state housing mandates, as well as the nearly 100 newly proposed housing bills this legislative year."
Each of the five Tri-Valley councils has voted to approve the cities' housing and policy framework, a consensus document that details shared concerns about the Bay Area's so-called "CASA Compact" and creates a starting point to achieve common regional housing goals.
The city of Pleasanton and other Tri-Valley municipalities were shut out of the drafting process of the CASA Compact, a 10-point plan with recommendations and strategies to address the Bay Area's housing issues that is being used by regional and state officials to guide legislative proposals.
Now these municipalities are hoping state legislators will include the collaborative's policy work into the legislative process with bills like SB 50, "especially since the CASA process excluded us," Fiahlo said.
There is little question that passage of measures like SB 50 would trigger legal challenges and a voter initiative to overturn them and re-establish local zoning powers.
To avoid that outcome, legislators must work with local government leaders to craft incentives, not pre-emptive one-size-fits-all mandates, for the construction of needed housing and, most of all, funding for affordable-housing development.
The current effort to impose a solution on California cities ignores the complicated factors that have created the problem and attempts to solve it without addressing the underlying economic realities.
First, focusing only on increasing housing production of market-rate units without parallel regulation or incentives to reduce new commercial development addresses only one side of the equation. As long as communities are allowed to approve new commercial development and export the problem of housing workers to other cities, we are destined to never stabilize housing prices.
State action must impose limits on non-residential development and tie it to housing production, and housing impact fees should be raised to create funds for affordable housing.
Second, new high-density market-rate housing development, such as what has been built in Dublin, results in rents only affordable to high-income earners. So while Dublin is far ahead of cities like Pleasanton and Danville in zoning for more housing, it's not addressing the highest priority need for housing affordable to lower-income workers.
Instead of trying to micromanage zoning in cities around the state, legislators should be focusing on funding strategies that would create incentives for cities to attract and approve below-market rate housing for service workers, seniors and other lower-income residents.
Wiener and those who support his legislation are correct that the housing shortage is driving working families out of the Bay Area, gentrifying communities and pushing many to homelessness or to exorbitantly long commutes.
We agree with our sister publication, the Palo Alto Weekly, that cities like Pleasanton, with high land values, need "financing solutions to enable significant public funding of higher density affordable-housing development by nonprofit housing entities and incentives to utilize existing publicly owned land, such as municipal parking lots.
"SB 50's zoning pre-emption strategy is a divisive distraction. Wiener and his colleagues would be wise to refocus their attention on the financing strategies and incentives to achieve the housing we need most, and on enacting laws that restrict commercial development in cities that are not meeting the housing needs of their communities.
"Otherwise their well-intended efforts are destined to come back to bite them in the next election."