Build Up, Not Out: California Housing Bill Sparks Power Struggle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Magnified by a string of recent wildfires that ripped through suburban areas and a mounting homeless population, California’s alarming housing shortage drives the agenda at the Legislature. Facing an estimated 3.5 million-home shortage – equal to the deficit in the other 49 states combined – lawmakers are pursuing dozens of housing related bills, including one that would wrestle control over some planning decisions from local governments.    

Up against a looming legislative deadline, a state Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a relaxed-version of the zoning proposal in a bipartisan vote despite concerns from local leaders who warn it will wreck the character of California’s most iconic cities and coastal towns.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, testified that the most feasible fix to California’s housing shortage is to increase density near job and transit centers. The San Francisco Democrat believes Senate Bill 50 will allow workers to live closer to jobs and cut down on long commutes.

“We are methodically pushing the middle class out of many parts of California, we’re making it progressively harder for working families to be able to survive and thrive,” Wiener testified to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

Wiener’s so-called More Homes Act would clear the way for new four-and-five-story apartment buildings within a half mile of rail and ferry stations and busy bus corridors. It would override existing local height restrictions and create a blueprint for developers hoping to bypass more stringent local zoning requirements. 

Up until Wednesday, state Sen. Mike McGuire was pushing his own housing bill that also called for denser housing near transit but focused on cities that produced fewer housing units than jobs over the past 10 years. At the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing, the Democrat told the crowd he had reached an agreement with Wiener to amend SB 50 and would pull his competing measure.

Under the amended version, counties with over 600,000 residents must abide by Wiener’s new zoning guidelines. In counties with less than 600,000 people, the rules will only apply to cities with more than 50,000 residents. The changes also exempt coastal cities under 50,000 people and keep protections in place for many communities classified as historic. 

With Wednesday’s passage, SB 50 advances to the Senate Appropriations Committee ahead of an eventual floor vote.

“It sets us on a path that doesn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and ensures that change does come to communities big and small,” said McGuire, who chairs the committee.

Counties that would be largely shielded from the statewide plan include both Marin and Sonoma, which McGuire represents, along with five other small Northern California counties. Larger counties such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Santa Clara would have to play by the new zoning rules.

The legislation has once again pitted Wiener against local politicians from places like his hometown San Francisco, Los Angeles and wealthy Silicon Valley enclaves. A collection of mayors, homeowner associations and even some environmental groups united to kill Wiener’s 2018 housing proposal before it reached the Senate floor. 

Wiener, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former San Francisco supervisor, told his fellow committee members that cities and towns are stubbornly holding on to outdated zoning laws that often prohibit new apartment and condo developments.

“In 80% of California, it’s illegal to build anything other than a single-family home,” Wiener claimed.

California is only building on average about 80,000 new housing units per year and experts estimate the state faces a 3.5 million-unit shortage. Regulators say the state needs to boost the number to at least 180,000 units built annually to make real progress.

But much like last year, opponents are painting the proposal as a gift for landlords and developers. One member of the public told the committee that SB 50 was a “gentrification machine on steroids.” 

If enacted, SB 50 would likely increase property values near popular train stations, sweetening the pot for landowners looking to knock down old buildings and replace them with new apartments. Instead of boosting the supply of affordable housing, critics say the bill could displace tenants and change the character of historic neighborhoods. 

Supporters say the bill contains adequate tenant protections, such as a seven-year ban on the demolition of properties recently occupied by renters and a five-year implementation delay in designated low-income communities.

Michael Weinstein and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation are perhaps the biggest critics of Wiener’s legislation and they sent out a controversial ad to San Francisco residents last week. 

The mailer featured a photo of black author and civil rights activist James Baldwin and a statement he made in 1963 about San Francisco’s housing policies.

“San Francisco is engaging … in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal,” the anti-SB 50 mailer states.

Wiener and others quickly denounced Weinstein’s ad and the San Francisco NAACP called it racist.

While San Francisco Mayor London Breed backs Wiener’s bill, San Francisco supervisors are against it.

Los Angeles is opposed as well, with city leaders unanimously adopting a resolution opposing Wiener’s bill earlier this month citing fears of rampant gentrification caused by SB 50. City planners have additionally warned that if enacted, SB 50 could make over 40 percent of LA’s developable land eligible for high-density housing projects.

Other cities against the bill include Beverly Hills, Walnut Creek and Pasadena.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, is skeptical of the plan. He abstained from the vote because he feels the changes will lead to rampant speculation and increase land costs. Instead of SB 50, Hertzberg backs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to build affordable housing on vacant state-owned land.

“My reading of exemption of the coastal zones means that this rule doesn’t apply to the city of Del Mar or the city of Malibu. Is that justice? Is that right?” Hertzberg questioned. 

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