April 2019 Land Use Committee Update

Land Use Committee Comments on SB 50
Sunday, May 12, 2019

Following up on the previous week’s Town Hall featuring Senator Skinner’s Communications Director, Bob Gammon, explaining the bill, the committee discussed various aspects of the bill and how it might affect Oakland and Rockridge.  Committee members raised numerous concerns about the bill.  Perhaps the biggest concern is that the bill, like its predecessor SB 827, attempts a “one-size-fits-all” approach to addressing California’s shortage of affordable housing.  Indeed, Mr. Gammon had noted that some cities, including Oakland, were already making major efforts to add to their housing supplies, while others – including some with major jobs growth due to the tech industry – are doing very little.  It would seem the bill ought to focus its efforts more on the Cities where business expansion is creating many new jobs but little housing is being added.

It was also pointed out that the bill doesn’t consider infrastructure limitations.  Most notably, some transit stations and bus lines, including many in both San Francisco and Oakland, are at or near capacity during the peak commute hours.  It makes no sense to add housing at these sites, when there will be no transit capacity available for the added residents.  Also of concern is the limiting capacity for street traffic and parking, as well as for adding to the water supply and sewage treatment demands.

It was also pointed out that in many cities, including Oakland, even “transit-rich” areas often don’t allow good transit access to all household needs – e.g., childcare, schools, and multiple job locations for two or three worker households.  Further, lower income households, who most need good transit access, will largely be priced out of the transit areas, since SB 50 allows in lieu fees instead of on-site affordable units, and its loose language will likely result in the affordable units being built elsewhere, in areas where land prices (and hence construction costs) are much lower.  Further, smaller building (less than ten units) have no affordability requirement, but such smaller building will likely be most of what’s built in Rockridge, due to the small lot sizes.  Thus, ironically, SB 50 will likely do little, if anything, to restore the “missing middle” to Rockridge.  It has also been pointed out that, in addition to direct displacement, the increase in market rate units is likely to promote further price escalation in existing housing, causing secondary displacement of existing residents.  Another unanswered question is whether SB 50 is even needed in Oakland, when it appears accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are being added at a rapid clip.

The bill also has technical weaknesses, such as the difficulty in documenting what buildings contain existing rental units (which are protected from demolition), especially for single-family homes and associated (often unapproved) ADUs.

A question Mr. Gammon was unable to answer was whether additional state-mandated density bonus units would be granted based on the affordable units required under SB 50. [It appears they would.] That could bring the actual “by right” heights of new buildings up to 7 stories.   As had been pointed out by local architect Glenn Jarvis, right now, California provides no protection for rooftop solar panels, and new buildings allowed under SB 50 could shade and render useless solar panels installed on neighboring buildings.  This would seem inconsistent with laws requiring that new residential buildings be built to be “carbon-neutral” – i.e., to supply their own energy needs – for electricity, heating & cooling – without use of fossil fuels.

While SB 50 assumes that housing price reductions due to adding market-rate units will “trickle down” to reduce all housing prices, there is evidence that different markets (e.g., market-rate, moderate-income, low-income, etc.) do not interact much, so while adding market rate units may somewhat reduce market rate prices – if supply exceeds demand – there may be little effect on prices at other income levels.

The committee will transmit all these concerns to the Board of Directors, with the recommendation that the Board consider submitting comments on the bill’s weaknesses and needed changes.