California Housing Bill Dies in Senate Committee

(CN) – A California state senator’s bid to address the pressing housing crisis consuming the Golden State stalled in committee on Tuesday.

SB 827, introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, sought to override local zoning regulations to allow higher density building near transit centers in an effort to spark more housing development, but was voted down 4-7 on Tuesday.

“At some point we are going to need more housing in this state,” said state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, during Tuesday’s Housing and Transportation hearing. “But this policy doesn’t work for the rural areas I am privileged to represent.”

Roth’s comments represented the prevailing sentiment among the state senators: Though many recognize the depth and breadth of the housing crisis, and acknowledge Weiner’s diligence and commitment, they contend that the one-size-fits-all approach is not right for a state with such geographic diversity.

State Sen. Mark McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said some cities in his district have fire engines that don’t have ladders that extend above three stories, meaning a policy that allowed five-story development could carry serious ramifications for smaller cities throughout California.

Wiener argued that the policy allowed for local entities to tailor transit-oriented housing to their particular circumstances.

“It doesn’t change the local project-approval process, which still belongs to city councils or county board of supervisors,” Weiner said. “It upholds local design standards.”

But it wasn’t enough to sway his colleagues.

A steady stream of organizations lined up to oppose the bill, which has become a flashpoint for debates over how to address the increasing cost of housing in a state that prides itself on liberal politics but continues to boast high levels of inequality throughout the state.

Predictably, many individual cities and organizations like the League of Cities lined up in opposition to the bill, since it would necessarily mean forfeiting at least a measure of local control over housing-development decisions.

More surprising, labor and environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club also announced their opposition to the bill in its current form, although many expressed hope that further amendments would be offered and further iterations of the bill would be proposed.

Weiner and the bill’s proponents tout the bill as a solution to rising housing costs, saying California is boasting a housing deficit of nearly 4 million homes.

“We have 15 percent of the nation’s population and account for nearly half of the nation’s housing deficit,” Weiner said.

Proponents of SB 827 said that the bill will address housing shortcomings and help environmentally by placing high-density housing near public-transportation hubs.

“Our housing policies have contributed to poverty, hurt minority communities and worsened air pollution,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, one of four fellow senators to support SB 827.

But Anya Lawler of the Western Center on Law and Poverty said the bill in front of the senators, while a noble effort, failed to truly address the problem of poverty, particularly as it failed to require robust development of affordable housing.

“I don’t think it’s the right approach,” Lawler said. “There are gentrifying effects that could trigger displacement.”

While the fate of this specific iteration of the housing bill is secure, many of the senators and even those in opposition conceded the issue will not go away. Rather than continue to wring hands over the well-diagnosed problem, solutions need to be identified and implemented, they said.

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