The California Senate failed to pass the zoning law altering Senate Bill 50, falling three votes short of the 21 needed.
Three votes short of passage
SB 50, authored and introduced by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would have forced local municipalities to allow for denser residential buildings near places of mass transit and job centers, as well as more multiple family homes currently zoned for single families.
The Senate had debated SB 50 for more than two hours on Wednesday. Many Senators argued in favor of higher-density housing to combat the housing crisis, expressed how many constituents wanted more housing near mass transit stops, and called out some local zoning measures on purposely keeping out higher-density housing.
“We have a policy in California that it’s not a priority to have enough housing for those who need it,” argued Senator Wiener in the Senate on Wednesday. “Restrictive zoning puts a hard cap on our ability to get out of this housing crisis.”
Opponents of the bill fired back with worries of radical neighborhood alterations, infrastructure issues, and worries that gentrification would start the cycle all over again.
“Housing policy is not neat or clean,” stated Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) on the Senate floor. “The issue of gentrification is a core fear.”
The Senate then voted 18-15 to pass the bill. Falling short, supporters quickly scrambled to get it re-introduced the next day for reconsideration. However the Senate vote again fell short on Thursday, effectively killing SB 50 for good.
A vote two years in the making
SB 50 had a long and contentious history in Sacramento. The bill rose out of the ashes of a similar bill sponsored by Senator Wiener, SB 827. After it fizzled out in 2018 due to many of the same density concerns, SB 50 was made as an improvement over the former bill. It added more concessions for those who were concerned about being ‘forced’ to build new higher-density housing even if the city didn’t wish to approve it.
The bill soon found even more people opposing it than before. Numerous Senators, led by Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) managed to postpone it it due to concerns about how most of the housing built would be market-rate high-income housing as opposed to the low-income housing needed to combat the housing crisis.
“This bill doesn’t build affordable housing,” stated Senator Portantino last year. “I prefer to actually fund affordable housing.”
After a touch and go April and May filled with readings, re-readings, and Committee Votes, SB 50 was postponed again until the next year.
Earlier this month the bill came back amidst protests against it. Housing organizations who were originally for the bill had begun speaking out against it as it still didn’t address the problem of not designating built units as being low or medium income.
The vote on Thursday morning marked the final time that the bill has been stopped since being introduced in 2018.
A rare coming together of Republican and urban Democrat Senators
Republicans were joined by many urban Democrats in stopping the bill in a rare show of a Democratic split over such a high-profile issue.
“A lot of the Democratic Senators represent areas that have been flooded by new places with crazy high incomes,” noted developer accountant Charles Berg. “A lot of those places, like LA and San Francisco, also have seen older neighborhoods climb high in prices. A lot of formerly low-income Hispanic areas of LA went to more wealthier people, as did former low-income Asian and Hispanic neighborhoods in San Francisco. They’re filled with Silicon Valley types now.”
“Housing advocates who want more housing have been screaming at them why they’re voting that way, but the bill failed to address it time and time again. I had to consistently keep up on it for my boss. But they kept trying to appease local governments, like the last changes allowed local governments to be more choosy on which projects are approved. That does nothing when it’s all high-income housing putting in bids with maybe a handful of low-income units being added in to allow even more high price units.”
Former city planner Henry Mueller added in another issue that gave many Senators pause for voting on SB 50.
“Many cities in the [districts] of the Senators are not prepared for this based on current infrastructure,” explained Mueller. “You can’t widen roads in most places, and that puts a huge strain on cities. They say they want them to take public transit, but let’s be honest. This is California. It’s still largely car dominated.”
“Besides the extra strain on other utilities and the increased danger for pedestrians, the car issue has always bothered me. Every plan they put forward just assumed people would take the Metro or the bus or BART. But that’s never the case. People drive because it’s often more convenient, even with traffic and gas prices.”
“You want people to take mass transit because the buildings are so close to the lines? Build a new high-density building with no parking spaces and don’t allow street parking for anyone in the building. Let’s see how well units would sell then.”
Supporters vow to try again soon
Supporters of the bill were chagrined by the Wednesday and Thursday votes, but also vowed that a similar bill would be passed sometime this year.
“SB 50 did not pass the Senate today,” tweeted Senator Wiener. “I’m so grateful to the coalition that moved the bill forward, as well as my amazing colleagues who voted to end CA’s broken housing status quo. I remain fully committed to advancing a strong housing production bill this year. Stay tuned.”
#SB50 did not pass the Senate today. I’m so grateful to the coalition that moved the bill forward, as well as my amazing colleagues who voted to end CA’s broken housing status quo.
I remain fully committed to advancing a strong housing production bill this year.
— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) January 30, 2020
Another supporter, Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), also gave a statement saying that it wasn’t over.
“This is not the end of this story,” said Senator Atkins in a statement on Thursday. “Now it is time for all sides to step up. Everyone will need to get ready to come to the table. A housing production bill will succeed this year.”
SB 50 had until the January 31st deadline to pass the Senate to stay alive. Efforts by SB 50 supporters to make a new housing bill with similar language is currently underway with a hope for an introduction later this year.