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California’s transit-housing bill pushing for taller, denser growth clears first hurdle

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“When it comes to housing, California’s system of almost pure local control hasn’t worked,” says State Sen. Scott Wiener

Photo by Ben Bryant/Shutterstock

State Sen. Scott Wiener’s effort to boost housing density near public transit in California has officially progressed farther than last year when his similar bill was killed in a committee.

Wiener and his allies will be able to keep negotiating details of the bill with detractors after the State Senate Committee on housing voted to advance the bill, Senate Bill 50, in a 9-to-1 vote Tuesday.

The bill’s main goal is to change zoning codes to allow residential buildings of greater height and density near rail, bus, and other public transit, though it also includes new tenant protections and affordable housing requirements. It’s one of the more ambitious initiatives to address California’s housing crisis—and one of the most controversial.

SB 50 will face a tougher vote on April 24 in the State Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which is chaired by State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg).

McGuire, who represents the North Coast region, has been pushing an alternative bill, SB 4, which also advanced out of the committee Tuesday. McGuire’s bill would seek to increase housing density near transit but much less aggressively than SB 50.

McGuire will work behind the scenes to reach a compromise with Wiener before April 24, he announced at the hearing. He withheld voting yes or no on the current SB 50 version, but recommended the committee advance both bills so that negotiations could continue.

“This bill is a continuing work in progress,” cautioned Wiener. “Over the past year and half, we have worked with a broad spectrum of for profit and not for profit developers, environmental, labor, religious, disability and senior advocates, to craft a bill to move the dial on housing, so that we move away from housing anxiety and towards housing action.”

The Housing committee’s Tuesday hearing for the bill was important because it showed that SB 50 has a better shot at making it, in some form, compared to last year’s version, which died in its first hearing.

It also showed the current battle lines: Dozens of advocates from across California voiced support or opposition to the bill in rapid-fire succession at the microphone.

The coalition supporting the bill continues to grow as Wiener and allies add in provisions to the bill. The nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, the California Building Industry Association, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council testified in favor of the bill. They were followed by representatives of labor, developer, social justice, affordable housing, and environmental groups, from local YIMBY groups to the Natural Resources Defense Council to Bay Area Rapid Transit.

A few local elected officials, homeowners, and low-income advocacy groups voiced continued opposition. Among those testifying was a representative Housing is a Human Right, a non-profit focused on tenant organizing and concerned about gentrification.

Another objector was a realtor wanting to protect her single-family neighborhood.

More than fifty organizations signed on to a letter to the committee this week outlining their concerns the bill “would further exacerbate the housing challenges experienced by low-income people, people of color, and other vulnerable people, the very populations being hit hardest by California’s affordability crisis.”

Some top bite-sized exchanges from Tuesday’s hearing:

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-East Bay), an original co-author of both SB8 27 and SB 50, thanked Wiener for working with a variety of groups.

“We’re never going to resolve issues of housing and good jobs if we’re not working together. I’m relying on you” to reach a solution, she said.

“Other than that, no pressure,” interjected State Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican from Orange County who voted to advance the bill.

Michael Gunning, a representative for the California Building Industry Association, noted that he rarely finds himself sitting next to Cesar Diaz, from the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a union group, in joint support of a bill. The State Building and Construction Trades Council switched from opposing the bill last year.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion about local control,” said Wiener in his opening remarks, addressing a rallying cry for advocates from mostly rich cities. “It does make adjustments to the state and local decision making balance. Just like we have a balance over public education. Local control isn’t biblical, it’s a good thing when it delivers results, and it usually does deliver good results, and I say this as a former elected local official. When it comes to housing, California’s system of almost pure local control hasn’t worked.”