Controversial housing bill SB 50 falls short in Senate vote

Senate Bill 50, the controversial zoning reform bill supporters
hoped would help ease the state’s housing crisis, fell three
votes short in the Senate on Wednesday — but could be back for
another vote Thursday.

The bill, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would
force cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes even in
neighborhoods currently zoned only for single-family homes, four-
to five-story apartments near transit stops and smaller apartments
near job centers. Coastal communities and communities in counties
with populations of less than 600,000 people would be allowed to
set shorter height limits.

The bill needed to pass out of the Senate by Friday to move
forward this year. But it fell short in an 18-15 vote. The Senate
voted for reconsideration of the bill, which means it could return

The goal was to get more homes built and alleviate the housing
shortage by increasing density in cities around the state, Wiener
said. On the Senate floor Wednesday, he invoked the millions of
Californians struggling with sky-high rent and home prices that are
forcing them to leave the communities where they grew up, spend
hours commuting to job centers where they can’t afford to live,
or even sleep in their cars because they have nowhere else to. And
those Californians — those voters — want solutions, he

“They want us to take bold action. They want us to stop the
pain,” Wiener said. “We have an opportunity today to do that.
This isn’t a silver bullet — there are many other things we
need to do. But this is a big step, and it will send a profoundly
powerful message to the people of California that we as their
elected representatives get it, and we will continue to move the
dial to make this situation better.”

During a two-hour debate, nearly two dozen legislators spoke
about the bill. Each agreed that the state is experiencing a
housing crisis, but many doubted whether SB 50 would help.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, said SB 50 assumes all cities
have been standing in the way of homebuilding, and turns
single-family homeowners into the enemy — a sweeping
generalization that oversimplifies the problem. Addressing the
housing crisis is urgent he said, but getting it right is just as

“Too often all of us are consumed by the immediate issue at
hand and we blind ourselves to the unforgiving law of unintended
consequences,” he said.

Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, worried the bill would
not do enough to ramp up affordable housing production.
Developments built under SB 50 would have to be between 15 and 25%
affordable — but only if the project is larger than 10 units.

“Let’s call it what it is,” Durazo said. “It’s a
market housing production bill.”

Sen. Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, whose home was destroyed in the
2018 Woolsey fire, worried the bill would lead to development in
fire-prone areas. The bill includes exemptions for high-risk fire
areas, but Stern said those exemptions have “holes you could
drive a truck through.”

“I can’t in good conscience support this bill today knowing
that I’m making the problem worse,” he said.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley; Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose and
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, voted for the bill.

Wiener acknowledged SB 50 was still a work in progress and said
he is continuing to meet with a coalition of housing equity groups
to work on its affordability provisions.

“We’re not all the way there yet on this bill, but we will
get there and I’m 100% committed to continued broad
engagement,” he said.

Wednesday’s wide-ranging debate showcased the controversy that
has surrounded Wiener’s zoning reform efforts for two years.
Still, a recent poll conducted for this news organization and the
Silicon Valley Leadership Group shows strong support for the bill
in the Bay Area. Among residents polled in Alameda, Contra Costa,
Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, 68% supported
requiring local governments to allow taller, denser and more
affordable housing near job centers and major transit stops. Just
28% opposed the idea. The results come from interviews conducted
with 1,257 people earlier this month, online and via phone.

Wiener made his first attempt to overhaul California’s zoning
rules with SB 827 in 2018, but the bill died in its first committee
hearing. The senator was back again in 2019 with SB 50, which
cleared its first two committee hearings. But the bill
got stuck in the Senate Appropriations Committee
in May, when
committee chair, Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge,
abruptly announced it would become a “two-year” bill, not
eligible for another vote until 2020.

Wiener brought the bill back this month, with a few
changes intended to make the legislation more palatable
opponents. Under the new version, cities would have at least two
years to craft their own plans as an alternative to SB 50, as long
as they provided for an equal amount of density — a nod to city
officials who had argued the bill strips their local control. The
amendments also give low-income residents near new developments
first priority for affordable homes in those buildings — a nod to
housing equity activists who had argued SB 50 would lead to
gentrification and displacement.

But the amendments weren’t enough for groups like the League
of California Cities and Livable California, which continued to
oppose the bill. Last week, a host of tenant groups, including the
San Francisco and Oakland tenants unions, Causa Justa Just Cause,
Tenants Together and the Alliance of Californians for Community
Empowerment (ACCE) sent an open letter to legislators and the
governor opposing SB 50.

SB 50 appeared to face a rough road forward, particularly after
Portantino — who single-handedly killed the measure last year —
expressed his reservations. The bill needed his OK to make it out
of the Appropriations Committee this year, but he seemed
disinclined to give it.

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“Given that the criteria in the latest amendments create a nearly
impossible threshold for cities to meet, the amendments seem like
more theater than an implementable plan to truly engender broad
support,” Portantino, who voted against the bill Wednesday, wrote
in a statement earlier this month.

But in a last-minute twist, Senate President Pro Tem Toni
Atkins, D-San Diego, intervened and helped smooth the way for SB 50
to pass. She plucked the bill from the Appropriations Committee and
placed it into her committee — the Rules Committee — where it
moved seamlessly to a Senate floor vote.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Controversial housing bill SB 50 falls short in Senate vote