What Does SB 50 Mean for ‘Sensitive Communities?’

Fears of further displacement have dogged the controversial housing transit bill, which is up for another critical vote soon.

Nestled in a controversial housing transit bill that would bring substantial change to state policy are a few mentions of “sensitive communities” that would have more time to prepare for the changes. 

Who exactly are these sensitive communities in San Francisco and what do they want from a bill like Senate Bill 50?

The bill, put forward by San Francisco’s state Sen. Scott Wiener in 2018, proposes sweeping housing changes by requiring cities to approve dense development near transit and end single-family zoning restrictions statewide. SB 50 sparked opposition from both wealthier suburban cities like Palo Alto, who fear changes to neighborhood character, and cities like San Francisco fearing the bill will accelerate already-devastating displacement of marginalized populations.

Under the latest amendments introduced earlier this month, cities will get two years to come up with custom plans, provided those tailored re-zoning plans hit the same net housing goals SB 50 puts forth.

Advocates for low-income communities also pushed for provisions in the bill to account for the lack of resources in those areas. The bill now makes allowances for sensitive communities and potentially sensitive communities.

If SB 50 passes, San Francisco would have until January 2023 to come up with its own plan to meet new housing and density guidelines. Potentially sensitive communities would have until July 2023, and sensitive communities would have until January 2026. 

Sensitive communities in San Francisco include most of the southern portion of San Francisco like Ingleside, Bayview Hunters Point, and Visitacion Valley, plus South of Market, parts of the Mission, Tenderloin, and Chinatown.

Communities in other Bay Area counties were included in this amendment, and language was added to help define potentially sensitive communities. 

The goal has remained the same since Wiener’s previous-but-failed version, SB 827, but some specifics have changed as it gathers supporters like California YIMBY and California Community Economic Development Association. 

“This bill isn’t about good actors or bad actors,” Wiener tells SF Weekly. “This bill is about a need for millions of homes. We don’t want those millions of homes to be sprawl — we want these homes to focus on jobs and transit.”

But anti-displacement groups still feel that marginalized communities will bear the brunt of this vast policy shift — and haven’t been heard along the way. 

While Wiener is working on providing resources for communities to help develop re-zoning plans, groups like the San Francisco Tenants Union and PODER feel SB 50 places a disproportionate amount of pressure on those communities. 

“The first issue is that why aren’t sensitive communities at the table in helping to define what the policy should look like around sensitive communities?” says Charlie Sciammas, a lead community organizer with PODER, noting that the Excelsior stands to feel added rental pressure from SB 50-related developments. “Just having a top-down approach where Sacramento is mandating a community planning process isn’t necessarily going to address the issue unless you’re centering the voices of the community that are most vulnerable and impacted by these developments.” 

Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, agrees that the bill prioritizing market-rate housing is the wrong approach and that San Francisco voices — from Wiener’s own district — are lacking in the process. Varma, along with PODER and the Council of Community Housing Organizations, seeks a blanket exemption to SB 50 for sensitive communities and other amendments but Wiener wants to prevent other, wealthier neighborhoods from using it as a loophole in bad faith.

SB 50’s latest version did change minds at Pacoima Beautiful, an environmental justice group in northern Los Angeles, after requiring that 40 percent of affordable housing units — which are required for up to 25 percent of bill-related projects — prioritize residents within a half-mile radius. The Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California and SPUR, both of which have offices in San Francisco, are in support

“It’s not the best path but it’s an important part of the path,” says SPUR Community Planning Policy Director Kristy Wang, clarifying that housing crisis solutions will require multiple approaches like preserving existing units and protecting tenants. “Realistically, if we’re going to meet the needs of all Californians, we’re going to need non-profit and profit housing developers on this.”

Wiener says that he’s heard repeated opposition from the Board of Supervisors “loud and clear.” Some of the amendments called for have been incorporated and Wiener says he “couldn’t agree more” about requiring significant investment in transit. In response to the new amendments, Supervisor Gordon Mar said that SB 50 “remains a giveaway to developers” and that San Francisco, sans Mayor London Breed, officially remains opposed. 

There’s consensus in San Francisco that more housing must be built statewide, that building along transit is critical to reducing emissions in the midst of a climate crisis, and that transit requires more investment. Anti-gentrification advocates have different ideas about how to get there.

“It gets at the much-needed lack of housing built by the wealthiest towns in California but it unnecessarily dragnets communities at the frontlines of displacement,” says Jackie Fielder, a democratic socialist activist who is running against Wiener for his seat. “We need density not just for density’s sake but we need density for equity’s sake.”

Fielder instead proposes a $100 billion California housing emergency fund that would remove at least 200,000 units from the speculative market à la Moms 4 Housing, build at least 100,000 publicly or non-profit owned affordable homes, and upgrade existing publicly-owned housing. It would build on the newly-implemented AB 1763 by Assemblymember David Chiu, who represents San Francisco, which eliminated density caps for 100 percent affordable housing projects along with transit among other incentives. 

Wiener acknowledges that the bill could stand to have inclusionary housing requirements but that it will take more convincing statewide. In the meantime, he feels a push toward significant housing production can’t wait.

“This bill has been a work in progress for two years and it’s still a work in progress,” Wiener says. “We’ve been open to new ideas and made numerous changes.” 

SB 50 recently moved from the Appropriations Committee, where it was shelved in 2019, but has until Jan. 31 to make it out of the state Senate before being scrapped. If the Senate approves, more amendments may be made. 

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