Senator Wiener’s transit density bill, SB 50, is touted as a “bold step” to tackle California’s housing crisis. But what does it really mean to be bold in a state with the largest homeless population, a shortfall of 1.5 million affordable housing units, and rampant gentrification and displacement? Facing these daunting challenges, a truly “bold” policy would prioritize new housing for those most in need, protect tenants, create opportunities for community-centered planning in vulnerable neighborhoods, and elevate existing equitable housing development programs. In our view, SB 50 is not bold enough.

Recently, Public Counsel and our partners in ACT-LA joined over 50 other affordable housing and equity-focused organizations to express concerns with the current version of SB 50. Our concerns are not based on any ideological opposition to the development of housing. In fact, Public Counsel and ACT-LA initiated and helped design some of LA’s strongest housing production programs - including the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) program - and we routinely enforce anti-NIMBY laws requiring adequate multifamily zoning across LA County. We are concerned about SB 50 not because it is a housing production bill, but because it falls short of equitable housing production standards – and without such standards, SB 50 could do more harm than good. Here are three key areas where SB 50 still needs work (note: this analysis is based on the bill as amended March 11):

Value Capture standards for Meaningful Affordable Housing.

SB 50 will stimulate housing production and create new value for many sites near transit. While building more densely near transit makes sense, it is imperative that the new value be recaptured to ensure meaningful levels of on-site affordable housing, which is shown to be twice as effective as market-rate housing in preventing displacement. This value capture approach is what makes LA’s TOC program a nationally regarded success.  

Unfortunately, SB 50 has gone in a very different direction. Here are some of the problems:

  • No value capture. For every SB 50 project, the bill tethers meager affordable housing percentages to the final project size, not the value created by the density increase.
  • Insufficient affordability. The affordable housing percentages are entirely insufficient. For example, most SB 50 projects would get triple the density (or more) allowed by state density bonus law without any corresponding increase in affordable housing. In virtually every instance, SB 50 would require less affordable housing than the TOC while granting more density.
  • Exclusionary loophole. As drafted, SB 50’s in-lieu fee option would allow projects to completely avoid building affordable housing near transit. Such a loophole would only serve to perpetuate segregation, delay affordable housing creation, reduce transit ridership, and increase pollution.
  • Incentives not aligned. Recent amendments removed a provision that would have ensured projects can’t bypass the incentives and gain density without affordability through a zone change.

To address these problems, Public Counsel, ACT-LA, and our statewide partners crafted a balanced policy proposal based on existing laws and proven models. You can read our full proposal and methodology here, but in short, SB 50 should: (1) expand the existing state density bonus law sliding scale framework to match up with SB 50’s larger density increases; (2) establish tiers with de-facto minimum and maximum affordability requirements (accounting for SB 50 upzoning single-family sites, which density bonus and TOC do not); and (3) and include a contribution of Extremely Low Income (ELI) units to help meet the needs of those most at risk of homelessness and the population overwhelmingly more likely to rely on transit. A strong value capture affordable housing program in SB 50 - with a fully enforced ineligibility clause assuring that tenant occupied sites will not be touched - will help promote the type of development without displacement we need.

Sensitive Communities.

Every community has a role to play in addressing the housing crisis. But a long history of exclusionary, racist policies has created the conditions that now make many low-income communities and communities of color particularly vulnerable to gentrification and displacement. While we appreciate SB 50 adding a layer of different standards for sensitive communities, the bill needs more work on the details:

  • Refine the definition. In LA (and every other part of the state that isn’t the Bay Area), the definition of a Sensitive Community is just a snapshot of poverty and segregation. Because the definition matches up with the High Poverty and Segregation filter on the TCAC Opportunity Maps, we know generally where the Sensitive Communities in LA would appear. This excludes a lot of Boyle Heights and most of Northeast LA – areas that are definitely facing gentrification and displacement pressures. The definition should include other metrics for areas where gentrification is already underway, and any quantitative approach should be paired with real community input.
  • Clarify and support the planning process. SB 50 delays zoning overrides in sensitive communities to allow neighborhood planning. But as Angelenos know all too well, community planning can be difficult, costly, and not guaranteed to address the needs of low-income communities. SB 50 must ensure that community plans in sensitive communities meet robust standards for equity and inclusion, including tenant protections and affordable housing. SB 50 also needs to identify and generate the resources that cities and communities will need to do this planning.

Equity-Centered Local Production Policies.

Los Angeles has been taking steps to increase the housing supply with meaningful affordability. The TOC program has been an important success, creating 2,377 units of affordable housing and 13,305 total units of new housing in just the first 15 months of operation.  We appreciate Senator Wiener committing, in concept, to a parcel-based exemption for TOC. But the exemption needs to go beyond a strict definition of the TOC. For example, the South and Southeast LA Community Plans built on the TOC, and through the People’s Plan campaign, included strong value capture incentives. The City’s Transit Neighborhood Plan program expands this value capture framework along other transit corridors. Neither of these programs are, strictly speaking, the TOC. But they represent important local programs that are building from the TOC and aligning density with affordability in a local context. SB 50 should include clear standards to avoid undercutting or supplanting these and other local inclusive development initiatives that are working. 

What comes next?

While we truly appreciate the time spent in ongoing dialogue with Senator’s Wiener’s office over the last several months, it is ultimately the substance of the bill, not the conversations, that will impact the communities we work with. For all the reasons above, we remain concerned about SB 50 in its current form. But we’re not just expressing concerns. We are working closely with ACT-LA and partner organizations across California to put forward equity-centered policy ideas to improve the bill. As we continue our conversations, we’re hopeful the bill sponsors will take these concerns and ideas to heart and address them with meaningful amendments soon. In LA, we’ve shown that good progress happens when policymaking embraces equity. Here’s hoping that SB 50 will include the changes necessary to build from LA’s progress, not weaken it.

Shashi Hanuman is the Directing Attorney of the Community Development Project at Public Counsel.

Doug Smith is a Staff Attorney in the Community Development Project at Public Counsel.