Major California housing measure fails in state Senate
By Jeremy B. White
01/29/2020 08:22 PM EST
SACRAMENTO — Nationally watched housing legislation that would compel California cities and counties to zone for multi-story housing near transit and job centers perished in the state Senate on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 50’s failure marks a resounding defeat for the overarching effort to dig out of California’s housing crisis by getting tough on local zoning. A growing chorus of critics that includes Gov. Gavin Newsom has faulted cities and counties for refusing to allow multi-unit developments, rather than just single-family houses, calling it a fundamental impediment to building enough homes.
The 18-15 rejection on the Senate floor underscored the limits of a Democratic supermajority when it comes to contentious housing issues that tend to correspond more to geography than party. Several Democrats rejected the bill — most of them representing the Los Angeles area — as they cited concerns about gentrification and displacement and pushback from local governments.
A multimillion-unit shortfall of homes has fueled an existential housing crisis in California, with both rents and the cost of new houses climbing out of reach for many. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and allies who support his SB 50 largely lay a construction shortfall at the feet of local governments that resist building multi-unit dwellings, preferring an idyllic landscape of single-family homes. They argue that a resultant housing crunch pushes up prices while exacerbating climate change by forcing people into long commutes.
Restrictive zoning ensures that housing is perpetually expensive and out of reach for most Californians,” Wiener said. We’ve made a choice that the way a neighborhood looks, that views are more important than who’s actually able to live in a neighborhood.”
The so-called YIMBY” movement, for Yes in My Backyard,” has become an ascendant force in California politics, enlisting business groups and technology companies. Newsom has embraced its rhetoric in arguing, like Wiener, that local governments shoulder much of the blame for the housing crunch and said on Wednesday that he supports SB 50’s spirit.” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who revived the stalled measure, urged its passage.
But opposition has been fierce, flowing in particular from local governments and homeowners who see Sacramento as trying to trample on their affairs and remap neighborhoods. They have found common cause with tenants’ groups and advocates for low-income Californians who fear the bill will mostly spur luxury development, displacing Californians who are already struggling to make rent.
Resistant lawmakers have been concentrated in the sprawling city and county of Los Angeles. Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) warned about blooming developments at risk of wildfires. Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) lashed the bill’s supporters for demeaning” local governments and homeowners who have done nothing more than make homes for themselves, raise a family and play by the rules.”
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said her constituents are worried resoundingly” about gentrification and keeping their homes. Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) questioned amendments giving some areas like affluent Marin County more wiggle room.
While Angelenos dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to housing development, others do not have to live up to the same standards,” Durazo said.
The governor’s potential role has hung over the debate. In separate remarks Wednesday, Newsom alluded to the political pressure generated by SB 50, noting that most people are focusing on SB 50 as a proxy for whether or not you got anything done” on housing. Pressed by reporters, he declined to weigh in on the bill beyond repeatedly vowing that We’re going to get something big done on production.”
We’ve been working very hard to make sure we can get the requisite votes, and if this falls short, we’re not giving up, we’re going to continue to work aggressively to address production in this state,” Newsom said.
Years of effort laid the foundation for SB 50’s first test before the full state Senate. An initial 2018 version perished without clearing a single committee. Last year, a compromise giving more leeway to suburban areas like Marin County secured the Democratic votes needed for the bill to pass a pair of Senate committees.
But it ran aground last year in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) cited local pushback in halting the measure. Wiener’s office introduced amendments this year that give local cities and counties more autonomy to craft their own housing plans.
Then came a critical jolt: the bill was on the cusp of expiring this year if it could not get a Senate vote by the end of January. Under pressure to intervene, Atkins rerouted the measure out of the committee Portantino chairs and toward Wednesday’s full Senate vote.