Landmark California Housing Bill Stalls in State Legislature

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A landmark housing reform bill has stalled in the California Legislature, disappointing the state’s housing activists and bringing joy to the hearts of NIMBYs everywhere.

On Thursday, the chair of the California Senate’s Appropriations Committee Anthony Portantino (D–La Cañada Flintridge) said that SB 50 would not be getting a vote in his committee as expected. Instead, the bill would be held for the rest of the year. In other words, it won’t be brought up for any votes until January 2020 at the earliest.

SB 50 would legalize the construction of quadplexes (four-unit homes) by-right statewide. In other words, local governments would have much less discretion to withhold construction permits for these small-scale developments.

It would also upzone residential land near frequently serviced transit stops and job centers, allowing apartment buildings to be constructed where only single-family homes are currently allowed.

Lifting restrictions on larger, denser housing has proven exceedingly controversial, especially when it’s done at the state level. Opponents of the bill include the city councils of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the state’s motley collection of anti-development activists.

Nevertheless, support from developers, unions, and pro-density housing activists had been enough to shepherd SB 50 through the committee process. It earned bipartisan approval in both the Senate’s Housing Committee and its Government and Finance Committee.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco), the bill’s sponsor, is disappointed with the decision. “We have a housing crisis right now,” he says in a statement. “The status quo isn’t working. California’s failed housing policy is pushing people into homelessness, poverty, and two-hour commutes.”

Wiener says he’s committed to picking the bill up again next year. But this week’s news is nevertheless an unmistakable blow—especially given how many concessions and amendments had already been folded into the legislation to ensure its passage.

Weiner’s bill included explicit requirements that developers who take advantage of SB 50’s upzoning provisions must still abide by local wage and benefit regulations, a concession to the building trade unions that had been instrumental in killing off the senator’s previous upzoning bill back in 2018.

To win over skeptical low-income tenant groups—who fear that upzoning will bring gentrification and displacement—Weiner also included strict demolition controls and affordability requirements.

In April, the bill was amended even more to exempt smaller coastal communities and existing historic preservation districts from the relaxed development regulations.

If this heavily compromised version of the legislation is still running into roadblocks, the bill will probably be watered down even more.

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