Push for High-Density Housing Clears First Hurdle in California Senate

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Taking a second shot at legislation that could ignite a burst of new apartments and condos, a San Francisco lawmaker pushed for more state control over local housing decisions Tuesday to fix the state’s housing crisis. 

Backers of the housing bill, specifically state Sen. Scott Wiener, place the bulk of the blame for California’s 3.5-million-unit housing shortage on local governments that for decades have made it nearly impossible for developers to build apartment buildings near transit centers. Wiener wants to stem the longstanding practice of cities favoring single-family projects in the suburbs and encourage denser housing near public transportation and job centers.

Wiener, a Democrat, has found the process of wrestling control over housing decisions from cities like his hometown San Francisco thorny: Local politicians, homeowner associations and even some environmental groups united to kill Wiener’s 2018 housing proposal before it reached the Senate floor. 

Armed this time around with more support from the mayors of cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento as well as construction unions, Wiener’s rebooted housing bill cleared its first committee Tuesday.

“This housing shortage, which is self-inflicted in many ways, has real-life consequences for people,” Wiener told the Senate Housing Committee. “It pushes people into poverty and homelessness, it spikes evictions and displacement; it is a problem and we have to address it.” 

Following the defeat of his 2018 housing proposal, state Senate Leader Toni Atkins last December gave Wiener a second chance by making him the chair of the Senate Housing Committee. The move essentially guaranteed Wiener’s zoning reforms would make it farther in the legislative process than they did in 2018.

But even with the committee’s 9-1 vote Tuesday, Wiener’s so-called More Homes Act faces an uphill battle.

Critics believe SB 50 will create a statewide “trickle-down” housing effect that instead of fixing skyrocketing home prices will ultimately usher in a spree of new luxury condos that the average Californian won’t be able to afford. Others are concerned landlords looking to make a quick buck will knock down old buildings that housed low-income tenants and speed up gentrification in historic neighborhoods.  

While Wiener’s bill does contain eviction protections – it bars landowners from qualifying for the regulatory perks if they are going to tear down a building that housed renters within the last seven years – housing advocates are worried that they don’t go far enough.

“What happens after seven years? Do you revert back to no protections? That’s not clear,” asked Norma Garcia of the San Francisco-based Mission Economic Development Agency, which is against SB 50.

Others in opposition include the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and various Southern California cities such as Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Redondo Beach.

Wiener says the main goal of SB 50 is to promote construction of small apartment buildings that have been prevented by outdated local zoning laws. He wants make it easier for developers to build four- and five-story projects within a half mile of rail stations and ferry terminals and certain busy bus lines.

In order for developers to begin building near the transit centers, they would have to agree to include a minimum number of affordable units depending on the total size of the project. Qualifying projects would also be exempt from minimum parking requirements and other perks intended to speed up the building process.

However, the changes to this year’s bill haven’t gone far enough to sway some local politicians like San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar, who called SB 50 a “giveaway to private developers” in a guest column published Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle.

“SB 50 guarantees zero increased affordable housing and drives up land costs, making 100% affordable housing development more difficult,” Mar wrote.

Mar is pushing a resolution against SB 50, even as a representative from San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office testified in support of the bill Tuesday in Sacramento.

Aside from Mar and the other critics, there is a competing measure moving through Legislature in Senate Bill 4. The measure by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Marin County, also encourages denser housing near transit but in cities that have produced fewer housing units than jobs over the past 10 years. McGuire’s version focuses on vacant residential lots and stays more in line with local governments’ existing regulations.  

McGuire said during the hearing he is working with Wiener on the competing bills and hopes to have a resolution by the time the bills are next heard April 24 in the Government and Finance Committee.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, capped the debate by saying it’s time to scrap California’s old zoning laws that she believes are driving the state’s homelessness problem.

“The fact is that our 30 to 40-year suppression of building housing in California has come back to haunt us,” Skinner said. “Scarcity drives up prices. The driving-up of prices then drives people out and creates homelessness.”

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