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Wealthy Bay Area suburbs could have a whole new look under California housing bill

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 5/10/2019 By Alexei Koseff

When Paul Wickboldt moved to the Bay Area from Boston more than two decades ago, he settled in Walnut Creek for the same reasons many families choose the suburbs: good public schools, safety, a backyard for the kids to play in, and the pleasure of knowing his neighbors.

“There’s a different level of anonymity that you have living in an urban environment,” he said.

With his group, Walnut Creek for Controlled Growth, Wickboldt has lobbied to preserve that quality of life as the city has grown in recent years to accommodate the Bay Area’s economic boom.

Now he worries those decisions may be taken out of Walnut Creek’s hands by SB50, which would loosen local control over housing development. The bill by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has generated controversy for its aggressive approach to tackling California’s housing shortage by promoting taller and denser construction, especially around public transit.

But it’s just not neighborhoods near major transit stops that could be transformed. Provisions in the bill that have gotten far less attention would essentially eliminate single-family zoning in the state by allowing any home or vacant lot in a residential area to be converted to up to four units.

“Many of us still consider this a suburb,” Wickboldt said. “And there’s a concern that we would grow in density in areas where we would lose that.”

In more populous counties, SB50 would also direct the state to designate “jobs-rich areas” — wealthy census tracts close to good schools and employment opportunities — where density restrictions would be eliminated. That would open the door for the construction of apartment buildings in places that have traditionally been limited to single-family homes, provided they met other local design standards such as height limits.

It could lead to significant change for much of central Contra Costa and eastern Alameda counties, stretching from Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and Lafayette down through Alamo, Danville and San Ramon to Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore.

According to a statewide analysis by UC Berkeley researchers, which Wiener’s office cites to explain which neighborhoods are likely to be affected by SB50, nearly all the land in these cities is in a “jobs-rich area.” Unlike the large swaths of San Francisco and bay shoreline cities that fall into this category, mass transit options beyond the East Bay hills tend to be limited — especially in communities not connected to BART.

Wiener said this part of SB50 is intended to ensure that well-to-do suburbs contribute to solving the state’s housing shortage. Last year, when he unsuccessfully carried a version of the measure focused mostly on raising height limits around public transit, he heard concerns that it would have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities.

Allowing denser housing in “jobs-rich areas” will mean shorter commutes because people will be able to live closer to where they work, Wiener said. It will also increase access to wealthy cities that have historically been unavailable to poor people and people of color, in part because of single-family zoning laws, he said.

“This is about gradual change over time to get to a more sustainable housing system,” Wiener said.

Some officials and residents in the East Bay suburbs are alarmed by the idea, worried that enabling denser development will overwhelm the infrastructure and change the character of their cities.

“Most of the people who came to California from New York in the 19th century wanted more wide open space. They didn’t want to live in apartment buildings,” said Walnut Creek Mayor Cindy Silva.

She defended single-family homes as intrinsic to the personality of the state: “It’s not so much that it’s sacrosanct, but it’s how we evolved.”

There’s a feeling in these communities that lawmakers in Sacramento are picking on them — that the cause of the Bay Area’s housing crisis is not their zoning laws, but a failure by San Francisco and Silicon Valley to allow nearly enough new homes for the workers at the tech firms they have been happy to welcome.

Silva compared it to “colonization, where the East Bay is the housing for the three big cities” of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

Every California community will lose some local control over development decisions if SB50 passes. But officials in central Contra Costa and eastern Alameda counties protest that they have met state mandates to plan for hundreds or thousands of new units in recent years. To preserve their suburban flavor, they want to concentrate the expansion around BART stations, leaving the rest of their cities mostly untouched. Much of that planned housing, however, has yet to break ground.

“The Legislature is hell-bent on solving the problems of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara (counties) on the back of everybody else,” said Newell Arnerich, a city councilman in Danville.

“Their legislators want us to build the housing,” but Danville has been built out since 2000, Arnerich said. “There’s no land left, absolutely no land left.”

An architect and planner, Arnerich expressed doubt that SB50 would result in additional homes being built. He said the real problem is onerous regulations on lending, adopted after the 2008 economic crash, that make it too expensive to build anything other than the highest-end housing and too difficult for anyone but rich people to buy property.

Local governments across the state have lined up against SB50, including the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles City Council. There is widespread opposition along the Peninsula and in the South Bay, in Palo Alto, San Mateo, Cupertino and Sunnyvale, which like the East Bay suburbs could see their zoning rules upended because of their designation as “jobs-rich areas.”

Joshua Davis, an organizer with East Bay for Everyone, which advocates for more housing and tenant protections, said overhauling decades-old zoning rules is exactly what’s needed.

For several years, the Oakland resident spent three hours a day commuting to and from a startup in Palo Alto. He said only top executives can afford to live in such exclusive cities, while their employees are forced to find housing far away.

“The character of a neighborhood isn’t its buildings. The character of a neighborhood is the people who live there,” Davis said. “And a lot of the people who make it interesting to live in the Bay Area are being priced out.”

Yet the concentration of the Bay Area economy in Silicon Valley and San Francisco has many suburban officials wondering how their cities came to be regarded as jobs-rich.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development would make the ultimate determination under SB50. The Berkeley researchers whose work Wiener cites based their maps on criteria including the share of the population living 200 percent above the poverty line, the graduation rates at nearby high schools, the number of jobs within 3 miles, the median commute distance, and the ratio of low-paying jobs to affordable rents. Census tracts that scored above the regional average on most of the factors were flagged.

“If you’re rich and you have a job, you’re in the job-rich area,” Lafayette Mayor Mike Anderson said. “There’s a real confusion about that.”

The Lafayette City Council opposes SB50 because it could force high-density housing on hills and in neighborhoods that are not necessarily equipped for it, Anderson said. Just blocks from the BART station and the main drag downtown, where city planners have concentrated new apartment buildings and condominiums, are narrow streets with no sidewalks or streetlights.

“It’s just too general to be promoting places that people will be happy to live,” Anderson said. “Let’s actually build some nice housing.”

Silva, the Walnut Creek mayor, said the Shadelands business park on the east side of town might be one reason the city would be considered jobs-rich. But with its location about 4 miles from BART and the freeway, she argued, it’s the type of neighborhood where adding more multifamily housing could be counterproductive, because the new residents would clog roads leading to downtown and add to parking problems when they get there.

“You won’t get people out of their cars,” the mayor said.

As the bill winds through the legislative process, members representing the region are grappling with those same concerns. Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, said she is reviewing recent amendments but is unsure whether SB50 would ease the snarled commutes created by the imbalance between housing and jobs in the East Bay.

State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, said the measure should focus on the “big urban cities” where the problem is concentrated. He has not taken a position on SB50 but suggested a better solution would be to bring jobs to the suburbs.

He offered one change that might earn his support for the bill: “You could exempt (Contra Costa) County.”

Alexei Koseff is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: alexei.koseff@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @akoseff

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