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California’s transit-housing bill SB 50 stuck in Limbo until 2020

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“We’re either serious about solving this crisis, or we aren’t,” says Sen. Scott Wiener

An extremely low-angle photo of the dome of the Capitol building in Sacramento. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Update: The Appropriations Committee decided Thursday not to leave SB 50 in suspense forever, but also that it won’t come up for a vote until January of 2020.

In a statement after the hearing, Wiener said he’s “deeply disappointed” by the decision and added, “We have a housing crisis right now. [...] We’re either serious about solving this crisis, or we aren’t.”

Senate Bill 50, the major transit-housing bill by SF-based State Sen. Scott Wiener, risks being stuck in limbo after a Monday hearing left its fate ambiguous.

Wiener’s bill, which would eliminate some zoning restrictions near major transit lines and job centers—and likely result in de facto upzoning of key parcels in major California cities and taller, more dense housing in these areas—faced the senate’s Appropriations Committee this week.

In a brief and speedy hearing, the zoning plan ended up in suspense: In the language of Senate arcana, this means “a bill or set of bills, with a fiscal impact, set aside in Appropriations Committee by a majority of members present and voting” and that “[t]hese bills may be heard at a later hearing.”

That’s a perilous position; sometimes bills in suspense come back for a vote in a short time, but other times suspense can be the kiss of death, as shrewd senate insiders simply let unpopular plans languish there as a means of getting rid of them without a vote.

“It’s the closest thing that the legislature has to a veto power,” former Assemblyman Mike Gatto remarked in 2017.

At a separate hearing today, members of the committee will decide whether to usher SB 50 along or maroon it where it remains—potentially forever.

On Tuesday, Wiener spokesperson Victor Ruiz-Cornejo acknowledged that the Appropriations Committee can turn into a graveyard, telling Curbed SF, “Appropriations and the suspense file are opaque processes.”

Ruiz-Cornejo added, “We should know by Thursday whether the bill will come off suspense and head to the Senate floor for a vote.”

Housing groups like YIMBY Action, which have championed the measure, struck a more urgent tone.

“SB 50 lives or dies tomorrow,” said YIMBY Action Director Laura Foote in email encouraging supporters to pressure lawmakers about the bill.

The SF Housing Action Coalition repeated Foote’s refrain as well.

Last week, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an LA-based non-profit whose housing arm has been aggressively antagonistic about the housing plan, attempted to poke holes in the proposal, claiming in an email to supporters that 35 California cities have come out against Wiener’s proposal, including San Francisco.

SB 50 survived a potentially hazardous April trial in the form of a committee hearing alongside a competing, less aggressive bills from North Bay Sen. Mike McGuire. In the end the two senators merged their legislation, significantly altering SB 50 but also netting McGuire’s vote and co-authorship.

The resulting bill is more complex—observers have composed several visual aids to help sort out the likely effects on different sorts of city properties.

However, none of it will matter if the suspense over the would-be law ends up lasting forever.