Update: SB50 failed in its final vote Thursday to advance to the Assembly.
A controversial housing measure fell three votes short in the California Senate on Wednesday, delivering at least a temporary setback, if not a fatal blow, to Senate Bill 50.
The bill calls for boosting apartments and other high-density housing near job and transit centers.
State Senators voted 18 to 15 in favor, but it needs 21 votes to pass out of the chamber. It is eligible for another vote on Thursday, and a spokesperson for the bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, said he would work to find three more votes.
Officially known as the More HOMES Act of 2020, the bill would require cities and counties to allow new construction of apartments, duplexes and triplexes near job and transit centers. Supporters acknowledge that most new units would be priced at market rate, but the bill requires up to a quarter to be affordable.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill argued it would strip local zoning control while others said not go far enough in creating affordable housing.
Several said they worried SB 50 would gentrify working-class neighborhoods and drive-out low-income renters.
“There is a legitimate fear in those communities,” said Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino, whose district includes wealthy suburban communities in the Los Angeles area.
Portantino shot down SB 50 last year when he held the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“We must have a broader conversation about how we dig ourselves out of the housing crisis we are in,” said Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, who also opposed the bill over concerns it doesn’t do enough to address housing affordability.
Backers described SB 50 as a bold way to break through California’s restrictive rules for zoning, or where housing can be built, which they blamed for the state’s severe affordable housing shortage and, at least in part, for its homelessness crisis.
“When it comes to housing in California, we can no longer afford our broken status quo,” Wiener, the bill’s author, told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “They want us to stop the pain. … SB 50 will help plant the seed so that our kids and grandkids don’t have to have the same pain as we’ve experienced today.”
Slow-growth groups and some suburban lawmakers have opposed the bill saying it strips local zoning control from cities and counties, and could transform single-family neighborhoods into dense, urban population districts with towering apartments. Tenant groups have also opposed it over fears it would spur gentrification and displace low-income renters. Many have said it doesn’t require enough affordable housing.
The bill would make the biggest changes in neighborhoods within a half mile of rail stations, ferry terminals and other transit hubs. It would greenlight the “upzoning” of mid-rise apartment towers of four or five stories. In spots farther from transit and jobs, it would permit dividing homes into duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in areas previously zoned for single-family homes.
Some supporters said it was time to fix a problem the Legislature has helped create.
“We have a housing crisis but it’s been self-imposed by this body,” said Republican Sen. John Moorlach of Orange County, a co-sponsor of the bill. The Senate, he said, has passed “bills that have made it very difficult for well-meaning developers.”
The bill has failed in previous years. But Wiener made a significant change to the legislation this month: giving local governments two years to come up with plans for increasing density while still meeting the goals of boosting housing production near jobs and transit.
During the floor debate, Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose offered “qualified support” for the bill, noting much of the housing built under SB 50 would be market rate and that California must make greater investments in affordable housing.
“I’m going to support this bill today with the caveat that we don’t forget the 150,000 people without a home and those who are only a few steps behind them,” Beall said, citing the most recent federal estimate for California’s homeless population.
Several senators who opposed SB 50 on Wednesday said work should not stop on the bill and encouraged Wiener to continue to make improvements.
If it passes the Senate, SB 50 must still be approved by the Assembly and Gov. Gavin Newsom before it can become law. It would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.
Earlier this month, CapRadio’s PolitiFact California examined some the heated, often exaggerated claims about how SB 50 would ease the state’s affordable housing crisis — or possibly make it worse.
It found several of these arguments — made at demonstrations, speeches and on social media — are oversimplified or taken out of context.
Those include the claim by supporters that by boosting supply of new market-rate housing, the bill will help drive down California’s exorbitant housing costs for the middle class. Housing experts said SB 50 could moderate some of the state’s extreme price increases, but would not necessarily bring prices down.
PolitiFact California also examined the argument by opponents that SB 50 would spur "luxury" condos and apartments. It found that’s overstated given the bill’s requirement that between 15 percent and 25 percent of the units built as a result of the bill be set aside for affordable housing.
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