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California’s transit density bill is back. What would it do to Los Angeles?

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Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to side-step SB 50—if it ramps up existing plans to meet regional housing goals

SB 50 would guide cities away from reserving so much of their land for single-family homes.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and advocates for a denser California are resurrecting contentious legislation designed to force cities to allow more small multi-family housing to be built near transit.

Senate Bill 50, which was introduced one year ago, would waive or relax local minimum parking requirements and density restrictions for developers looking to build housing near train stations and “high-quality” bus stops. But in the seven months since the bill was shelved in May, it has been amended.

Now California cities will have to demonstrate how they plan to add more housing units in a way that decreases transportation emissions before a two-year deadline on January 1, 2023, or adhere to what’s prescribed in SB 50. (Communities deemed “sensitive,” because they have high poverty rates or have residents at risk of displacement, would receive up to five years to make their plans.)

Los Angeles, with similar programs already in place in some parts of the city, is uniquely positioned to side-step SB 50—if it ramps up existing plans to meet regional housing goals.

“These new amendments recognize that cities should have some flexibility in how they implement SB 50’s goals,” said Wiener.

The state bill has two major goals: spur the construction of more duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes, and promote alternatives to driving—the state’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It has proved one of the most divisive solutions to California’s housing crisis, as it would guide cities away from reserving so much of their land for single-family homes.

To survive, the bill must be voted on by the full Senate by the end of January.

A spokesperson for Wiener says the city of Los Angeles already has an incentive program for building denser housing near transit, known as “transit-oriented communities,” or TOC, that could qualify.

California YIMBY, a group that sponsored the legislation, agrees. But spokesperson Matthew Lewis says LA’s program would need to be expanded to cover more areas.

There’s also another key difference between the pending state legislation and what LA already has in place. SB 50 would cap the number of units in a building at four—what’s known as a fourplex—while LA’s program caps the number of units based on how the property is zoned already. But to qualify for TOC, the project has to be built on land that is zoned for a building with at least five units. Under SB 50, a developer could either replace or convert a single-family home with up to four units.

Steve Garcia, a spokesperson for the city planning department, says it’s too soon to say whether Los Angeles would attempt to use the TOC program to qualify as an SB 50 replacement, but he says the goals are the same.

“TOC has been a really contentious program in the city, but if you look at our numbers, the raw data of housing production, it’s also been one of the most successful,” Garcia says.

Applications for 17,687 new multi-family units have been filed under the program in less than two years. Of those, 3,679 are designated affordable.

But it’s not perfect, and it has been criticized by affordable housing advocates for putting older, rent-controlled buildings at risk of demolition. That doesn’t just disrupt the lives of existing tenants. New TOC projects may be taller and denser but can sometimes contain fewer units that are affordable than the older buildings they replaced.

In an email to supporters today, the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles group that keeps tabs on the demolition of rent-controlled buildings, said SB 50 would “lead to increased gentrification that will lead to tenant displacement and the loss of existing rent-controlled affordable housing.”

Housing Is A Human Right, a division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that has grown increasingly involved in fights over affordable housing, density, and preservation, called SB 50 a “gift” to the real estate donors who have contributed to Wiener’s campaign.

The bill has also met resistance from residents and elected officials who view it as a death-knell for single-family zoning. In 2018, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times that the bill wouldhave a neighborhood with little 1920s, ’30s and ’40s single-family homes look like Dubai 10 years later.”

Last year, the LA City Council adopted a resolution opposing the bill.

But the bill, which caps building heights at 55 feet, or about five stories, would not abolish single-family homes or the right to build them. Instead, it would give developers incentives to build denser near train stations and bus stops—though not too dense.

In Los Angeles, the changes would be impactful, says Lewis, but not in a way that would dramatically change the look and feel of neighborhoods.

After SB 50, Los Angeles would look more like it did in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, he says. “The low-slung apartments that are the signature of Los Angeles would come back.”