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Pivotal transit-housing bill fails Senate vote [Updated]

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Third time isn’t a charm

A flag with an illustration of a bear and the words “California Republic” flying in front of a building with a prominent white dome. Via Shutterstock

Update: The legislation failed again on an identical Thursday vote. Wiener afterward called it “a huge missed opportunity to take [a] meaningful and serious step to address California’s massive and debilitating housing shortage.”

Update: On Wednesday, Senate Bill 50 finally moved ahead for a vote in the full senate, and although Wiener’s bill did carry a majority of votes, it still did not accrue enough support to pass.

The final count Wednesday evening was 18-15 in favor; senate rules say legislation needs at least 21 votes in order to pass. Six senators abstained from casting a vote. As predicted, SoCal-based Senator Holly Mitchell’s “no” vote was pivotal, as several LA-area Democrats joined her in turning the plan down.

The senate plans to take the bill up again Thursday, leaving Wiener with effectively just a few hours to find the three additional votes he needs before Friday’s deadline.

Time is running out for Senate Bill 50, the transit-housing bill from SF-based State Sen. Scott Wiener that would effectively upzone huge swaths of Bay Area cities to help create more dense housing in neighborhoods traditionally allergic to such development.

Wiener must push the bill through a senate vote by January 31 or lose it all.

When he reintroduced the bill at the beginning of the year, Wiener made yet another series of amendments and concessions, granting greater control over zoning changes to cities in hopes of putting longstanding objections from local municipalities (most notably San Francisco) to bed.

Those changes have yielded some positive results for bill backers; groups like the United Ways of California, the Coalition for Clean Air, United Farm Workers of America, and the city of Milpitas all endorsed the measure.

Additionally, while few cities back the plan, individual lawmakers from San Jose, Mountain View, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Alameda County, and San Mateo, among others, all expressed support in recent weeks.

“Instead of the very real fear of falling into homelessness, families should be able to live, work, learn, and play in communities they call home,” the United Ways said in a statement last week.

“There is a consensus building in favor of SB 50,” said the state senator, noting that the bill “would be a boon for affordable housing.”

However, critics of the bill have long complained that the plan does nothing directly to create affordable housing on its own. And a potentially key group of state senators, including SoCal-based Senator Holly Mitchell, now say they’re against SB 50.

Last week, a bevy of SF notables, like GLIDE Memorial Church and the Chinatown Community Development Center, penned a letter to Wiener, telling the lawmaker to can the plan, saying that SB 50 will “exacerbate the housing challenges experienced by low-income people, people of color, and other vulnerable people.”

Tenant groups have feared all along that, despite anti-displacement language put into the bill, landlords will become motivated to demolish existing homes (and oust their renters) to build larger buildings.

It’s been a tough suspicion to allay, since encouraging taller and denser housing in key areas is the point of the bill. Via social media, tenant groups are pushing Californians to call their state senators and decry the bill.

Wiener responded this month with yet another amendment, one requiring that any new buildings created under its largesse reserve 40 percent of affordable homes for people living in a half-mile radius.

But this failed to convince some skeptics. A paper from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center For Housing Innovation analyzing the likely affects of the bill criticized some of the safeguards, arguing that the protections in place “would turn a reasonably feasible project into a marginal one” that developers are less likely to pursue.

If passed, SB 50 will require California cities to zone for buildings up to four or five stories on many parcels near major transit lines and job centers.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant that could be in San Francisco, where some 70 percent of the land is limited to single-family residential zoning and where many locals jealously guard the right to build, but also where bus lines lace nearly the entire city.

Wiener hoped to pass the bill last year, but it was held up in committee until 2020. Although recently rescued from the limbo of senate rules arcana, the housing plan still labors under a time-limit burden to pass a senate floor vote this month.

If approved this week, it will have to weather votes in the California State Assembly.