Senate Bill 50 | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photos by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

Senate Bill 50

Update (5/16/2019): Great news for California’s historic places! Decisions on the controversial housing bill, SB 50, are on hold until next year.

In a statement on his website, Senator Portantino, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, said, “SB 50 is a well-intentioned effort to help solve our state’s housing crisis and it highlights two valid ways to affect land use decisions across the state: providing incentives or legislating mandates. My preference has always fallen on the side of incentives for local governments to accomplish goals. There were legitimate concerns expressed from both large and small cities about the scope of SB 50 as it pertained to bus corridors, historic preservation, the definition of ‘jobs rich’ neighborhoods and whether it would increase gentrification and discourage light rail expansion as unintended consequences; all of which justified the pause established today by the committee. My colleague from San Francisco is one of the smartest and most earnest legislators in the capitol. He cares deeply about the housing crisis and I expect him to continue to pursue his goals. Hopefully we provided the opportunity to broaden the conversation, which can result in a more targeted legislative effort.”

Thank you, Senator Portantino for standing up for historic places, and thank you to everyone who spoke out on this issue!

Senate Bill 50  (SB 50) is intended to ease perceived land use barriers to increase density and streamline the production of multi-family housing development statewide. If passed, SB 50 would override local land use restrictions, allowing multi-family buildings to go up near “high quality” train and bus stops. This will facilitate the construction of four- to five-story residential projects in areas currently limited to single-family development. The Conservancy is working to include safeguards for preservation in the legislation, as part of a statewide coalition led by the California Preservation Foundation.

SB 50 is in follow-up to last year’s SB 827 legislation that ultimately failed to get out of committee. The focus is on neighborhoods surrounding “high-quality” transit stops. SB 50 defines a “high-quality” transit station as any served by rail and by buses with certain headways, including headways of 6 to 15 minutes during rush hour (6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.).

Density and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive or an either/or. Approximately 6% of the city of Los Angeles has been identified as historic (through designation and by SurveyLA), which leaves 94% available for development and increased density. SB 50, however, is a blunt instrument that takes away a community's ability to plan thoughtfully. 

If passed, the bill would automatically increase zoning densities and building heights for residential developments within a specific distance from certain types of major transit. It poses a significant and immediate threat to older and historic neighborhoods by circumventing local planning laws, and by exempting parts of development projects from discretionary review. This means older and historic neighborhoods -- including historic districts -- could be harmed through demolition and infill construction that is out-of-character and scale to the surrounding neighborhood. 

Over forty percent of Los Angeles is estimated to be impacted by this legislation. In certain neighborhoods the impact could be tremendous, for instance, with fifty-seven percent of land in Boyle Heights and sixty percent of land in the Silver Lake affected. Check out this blog from Urban Footprint which includes greater analysis and mapping of how California cities will be impacted, including Los Angeles. 

On April 24th, the Senate Governance and Finance Committee reached a compromise on SB 50 (amended language has not yet been published). The draft agreement includes exemptions for districts designated on a historic register as of 2010. It’s unclear why 2010 was selected as a cut off date, though we are aware that Senator Wiener, the bill's lead author, does not want to open the “flood gates” to communities designating districts as a way to avoid the legislative mandate afforded through SB 50.

Many concerns surround this legislation. For preservation it has the ability to impact historic preservation overlay zones (HPOZ) and neighborhoods currently eligible but not yet designated. For the second year in a row the Los Angeles City Council has formally come out against this type of legislation, as over-reaching into local authority. Councilman Paul Koretz has called the bill a “handout for developers,” resulting in the destruction of historic districts and single-family neighborhoods.

The current language and version of SB 50 is especially problematic as it recognizes historic districts, but only those established through the end of 2010. This means nine of L.A.'s thirty-five Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ) are not covered and at risk because they were established since 2010. 

While the intent of providing more housing may be good, the bill and its approach is highly problematic. It poses a one-size-fits-all solution and a blunt, statewide fix that would outstrip local authority and planning. It also does not recognize the diversity of development statewide, let alone throughout Greater Los Angeles.

As part of a statewide coalition of preservation organizations, the Conservancy has requested amendments to the SB 50 to ensure adequate preservation safeguards (ensuring reviews and possible exemptions) to protect structures and districts placed on, or that have been identified by a public agency as eligible for, inclusion on a national, state, or local historic register.

The Conservancy wants to ensure that the revised bill language will not impose a one-size-fits-all approach and unnecessarily harm California’s historic resources and potentially entire neighborhoods.

SB 50 legislation is moving quickly.

Please contact your State Senate representative and press for the introduction of adequate preservation safeguards (ensuring reviews and possible exemptions) to protect structures and districts placed on, or that have been identified by a public agency as eligible for, inclusion on a national, state, or local historic register.  

Email and call each of these Senate Appropriations Committee members who currently play a key role in the possible passage of SB 50:

Chairman Anthony Portantino,  (916) 651-4025 
Sen. Pat Bates, (949) 598-5850 
Sen. Steven Bradford, (916) 651-4035 
Sen. Brian Jones, (916) 651-4038 
Sen. Jerry Hill, (916) 651-4013
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, (916) 651-4010 
Also, call our six Los Angeles-area senators: 

Ben Allen, Pico-Robertson to Redondo, (916) 651-4026
Maria Elena Durazo, East L.A. to Koreatown, (916) 651-4024
Holly Mitchell, Culver City and South L.A., (916) 651-4030
Suan Rubio, Baldwin Park to Covina, (916) 651-4022
Henry Stern, San Fernando Valley, (916) 651-4027
Scott Wilk, Santa Clarita to Palmdale, (916) 651-4021