By Hannah Wiley
January 29, 2020 —
A high-profile proposal to address California’s housing crisis by compelling cities to build more homesfailed to pass the Senate on Wednesday, but lawmakers left the bill’s author one more chance to pass the measure.
The author, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said he is determined to get his housing legislation to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Wiener’s Senate Bill 50 failed on a vote of 18 to 15. Six senators did not vote on the bill. The Senate agreed to consider the bill one more time and it would pass if three more lawmakers vote for it.
“The bill fell three votes short today,” Wiener said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to pass SB 50 tomorrow.”
His proposal would require local governments to build more housing, specifically around transit- and jobs-rich areas. Cities would have to zone for taller buildings and multifamily homes like duplexes and fourplexes. It takes aim at local governments that place bureaucratic barriers to new constructions.
Wiener has characterized the proposal as one that would help Newsom achieve his goal of building 3.5 million new homes in California by 2025.
Local zoning laws have “systemically de-prioritized housing,” Wiener said on the Senate floor, and spawned an era of “supercommutes” and environmental degradation.
“You can have the most streamlined process in the world and enormous funding for affordable housing, but if the zoning says you’re not allowed to build something, that’s the end of the process,” Wiener said. “We’ve prioritized the way a neighborhood looks, that views are more important than who is actually able to live in a neighborhood.”
Despite nearly a year of negotiations with lawmakers and advocates, Wiener faced a tough fight in his own chamber.
Dozens of cities and social justice housing groups criticized the measure for nearly two years, and effectively tanked the legislation last May. Wiener then reintroduced a revised SB 50 in early January.
Wiener’s amended SB 50 attempts to ease concerns raised by its critics.
It gives local governments two years from the bill’s signing to design their own construction targets, according to regional needs, though they’d still have had to plan for as much housing as SB 50 would generate.
The plans would have to cut traffic and allocate a portion of larger projects for low-income units. For example, a project of 21 to 200 units would have to designate 15 percent of the space as low-income, or 6 to 8 percent as extremely or very low-income.
SB 50’s tighter provisions would kick in to override local authority only if the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development rejects a city’s plans.
Dozens of nonprofits and city leaders back the proposal. Four Republicans signed on as co-authors. The California Association of Realtors sponsored the bill and both pro-business and labor advocates support it.
But Wiener’s effort still failed to garner support among Democrats in the Los Angeles area whose several votes against the bill on Wednesday ensured its demise.
Their concerns ranged from potential new construction in high-fire zones, to removing incentives for affordable housing, to fears over gentrification.
“Housing policy has been plagued by racist historic policies. The intersection of race and class has a major impact on housing policy in the state and we can’t deny that or oversimplify our conversation about ‘we need housing,’” said Sen. Holly Mitchell, who represents South Los Angeles.
Should it pass the Senate by a Jan. 31 deadline, SB 50 would head to the Assembly for additional rounds of political scrutiny. It’s unlikely Wiener would be in a position to rebuff further amendments.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, told The Sacramento Bee that she supported the policy in general, but disagreed with SB 50’s two-year implementation buffer. Gonzalez chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where SB 50 will eventually face review.
“People are still upset and nothing is getting done,” Gonzalez said. “It makes me a little nervous.”
Newsom, however, told reporters during a separate event on Wednesday that even if SB 50 failed, “we are not giving up” and that California could expect “something big done on production this year.”
What that “something big” might entail, Newsom didn’t say. But the second-year governor said he supports the idea behind SB 50.
“I want to see a big production bump. The spirit of SB 50 is something I support,” he said. “We continue to work with leadership, different constituencies and we’re hoping to get something big done.”