Support Grows for Bill That Would Legalize More Home Construction Across California

A new poll shows 74 percent of San Francisco residents are in favor of a state bill that would peel back local restrictions on housing.


Vitalii Turchyn/

California's latest effort to allow for more housing construction in the state's urban areas is quickly gaining steam, suggesting that this year's stab at reform might succeed where past attempts have failed.

A new poll from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce found that 74 percent of people in San Francisco support a state bill that would override local controls to allow for the construction of apartment buildings near transit, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today.

The Chronicle says that the poll did not give an explicit name to this state bill, but it is obviously a reference to SB 50.

That bill, filed by state Sen. Scott Weiner (D–San Francisco), would give developers waivers to local zoning controls, allowing them to build apartment buildings up to 55 feet tall within a quarter mile of transit stops, or up to 45 feet tall within a half mile of transit stops. Weiner's legislation would also override some local zoning controls in "job-rich areas," defined in the bill as areas with high median income and good schools.

It's very similar to a more ambitious bill Weiner introduced at the beginning of 2018, which was killed in committee after stiff opposition from construction unions, tenant advocates, and local governments.

This year, Weiner is gambling that the new SB 50, which is more modest in the kinds of development it would allow, and which makes several important concessions to powerful interest groups and will garner enough support to make it through the legislature.

Those concessions include a requirement that any developers taking advantage of SB 50's waivers pay a "prevailing" wage, a gift to the state's labor unions.

The waivers could not be used on project sites that had rental housing on them within the last seven years. That provision is in response to critiques of upzoning from tenant advocates, who fear it will be used to tear down existing rental housing and replace it with bigger, more expensive units.

The more modest approach of SB 50 appears to be working so far. The State Building and Construction Trades Council—which represents construction unions at the state level—played a critical roll in killing SB 827, but has since endorsed SB 50. Low income housing groups that came out strongly against SB 827 from the beginning are either holding their fire or even offering some muted praise of the bill.

San Francisco was a hotbed of opposition to SB 827 when it was proposed. The city's Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 on a resolution condemning the proposal in April 2018, and supporters of SB 827 performed much worse than expected in the city's November municipal elections.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce—who asked about support for the bill as part of a wider annual poll of city residents—is keen to represent this latest survey as proof that opposition to SB 50 is coming from a loud minority.

"It's time to talk about what real solutions are for housing and not get distracted by a couple of loud voices that can drown out what people actually want across the city," said Juliana Bunim, senior vice president at the chamber, to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Whether the coalition assembling behind SB 50 will be enough to get it over the finish line this time remains to be seen. And while the bill is certainly flawed, it is far better than other housing proposals being floated, which include either more money for public housing or rent control.

The bill is currently idling in the California Senate's Committee on Housing and Government and Finance. No hearings have been held.