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California Senate Fails to Pass Divisive Housing Bill

Update: Bill Seeking to Increase Apartment Development Could Get Another Chance

San Diego and other California cities hope to further encourage development along mass transit lines. (Photo: Tommas Golia & Ken Robak - Overlooking Caster Business Park)

By Randyl Drummer CoStar News

January 29, 2020 | 05:00 P.M.

(This story was updated on Jan. 29 with the results of a second vote.)

The California Senate failed to get enough votes to pass a bill aimed at boosting the state's housing supply by overriding local zoning laws to encourage multifamily construction near public transit.

Senate Bill 50 failed on a 18-15 vote on Wednesday because, even though it had the majority of votes, it still fell three votes short of the 21-vote majority needed to move forward to the state Assembly. But it could return for another vote Thursday before Friday's legislative deadline.

Even the support of the politically powerful California Association of Realtors could not achieve Senate passage of the bill in a vote that revealed a property development divide in the state Capitol. Lawmakers are trying to balance a statewide desire to build more housing in the nation's most populous state, where skyrocketing prices have fueled a worsening homelessness problem, with the rights of local governments to control land use in their communities.

The bill, authored by San Francisco Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener, was locked in a legislative struggle Wednesday afternoon as supporters and opponents tried to muster undecided votes. The Senate voted to allow reconsideration of the bill as early as Thursday morning.

Six senators had not voted when the Senate adjourned Wednesday afternoon, with most of the opposing votes coming from Republicans and senators representing Southern California districts.

The vote came just three weeks after the bill was amended by Wiener to allow cities and neighborhoods to come up with their own plan within two years to encourage construction of apartments and other high-density housing.

The bill garnered significant support midday Wednesday despite the opposition of Los Angeles-area senators who said the bill wouldn't generate enough affordable housing and might displace lower-income residents. Lawmakers said they worried that it could destroy the historic character of their neighborhoods.

Wiener’s transit-oriented housing bill aims to reverse decades of local zoning control that has favored sprawling single-family housing suburbs over taller and most densely populated multifamily development. Up to three-quarters of the Golden State's developable land is zoned for single-family dwellings, according to a 2018 study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at University of California, Berkeley.

The Association of Realtors said in a statement Wednesday that it "remains committed to seeing SB 50 cross the finish line."

Wiener's bill "recognizes that increasing supply is essential to solving California’s housing crisis" and has "moved housing supply to the top of the agenda in this state," the association's statement reads.

A Senate committee in April 2018 killed Senate Bill 827, Wiener’s first attempt to encourage construction of residential buildings up to eight stories tall within half a mile of rail stops, under pressure from local governments, tenant's rights groups and affordable housing developers.

Wiener revived the measure as SB 50 in December 2018, betting that the state’s worsening affordable housing shortage and homelessness problem would increase the legislation’s chances of success.

SB 50 stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee within six months when its chairman Sen. Anthony Portantino, whose district includes Pasadena, La Cañada-Flintridge, Upland and many other upscale bedroom communities in Southern California, declined to allow a vote, ensuring that the bill would not be eligible for consideration until this year.

Wiener resurrected the bill again this month, adding changes that give cities and counties two years to develop their own plans to boost development before the state zoning mandates take effect. The move reignited opposition from local community activists who said the law would allow development interests to flood their neighborhoods with expensive luxury housing, as well as criticism from groups representing lower-income communities who argued it would further drive up housing prices and encourage neighborhood gentrification.

Wiener won a powerful ally on Jan. 17 when Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins of San Diego moved the bill out of Portantino’s appropriations committee, where it died last year, to the Rules Committee chaired by Atkins. She moved the bill out of the committee this week, making it eligible for a Senate floor vote prior to the Jan. 31 legislative deadline for bills to advance to the state Assembly.

“I believe there is a good faith effort being made to enable California to reach SB 50’s goals of building more affordable homes that increase access to jobs, reduce the time people have to spend in their cars, and help meet California’s climate change targets,” Adkins said in a statement.

Dozens of groups representing both sides of the issue flooded social media and held public protests as the Friday deadline approached. Developers, environmental groups and the labor unions endorsed the amended bill, while a coalition of local and state groups representing low-income communities and neighborhoods vowed to defeat the legislation.

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