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Controversial housing bill that challenges single-family zoning is dead for the year

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

A controversial housing bill that called for sweeping changes to California's zoning rules is dead for the year -- a major setback for an ambitious legislative package that aimed to solve the housing crisis, but a triumph for residents worried the zoning overhaul would change their cities for the worse.

Senate Bill 50, which would have allowed fourplexes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes and forced cities to approve taller, denser residential buildings near transit stops, was one of the most-watched -- and hotly debated -- bills of the year. It also was the cornerstone of a group of bills seeking to reform everything from renter protections to residential development, part of an effort to ease the affordable housing shortage that for years has been driving Californian's costs up and quality of life down. The effort has been taking place under a governor who has made housing a priority and specifically asked for housing bills to sign.

But SB 50 divided the state, pitting slow-growth groups against YIMBYs, developers against anti-gentrification advocates, and local mayors against state legislators.

It all came to a head Thursday. Moments before the bill was set to undergo a crucial vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, the committee chair, Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, announced SB 50 would join a handful of measures to become "two-year bills." That means SB 50 will be held for the rest of the year and come back for a vote in January 2020.

"There were legitimate concerns expressed from both large and small cities about the scope of SB 50 as it pertained to bus corridors, historic preservation, the definition of 'jobs rich' neighborhoods and whether it would increase gentrification and discourage light rail expansion as unintended consequences; all of which justified the pause established today by the committee," Portantino wrote in a statement.

But the fact that the committee held SB 50 this year, instead of killing it outright, is significant, said David Garcia, policy director for UC Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation.


"Bills get turned into two-year bills every now and then," he said. "I think that signifies that the goals of the bills are worthy, but they simply couldn't get the support in time for it to move further. But they want to continue the conversation into the next part of the legislative session."

The bill was the second attempt by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, to pass sweeping zoning reform. His similar measure, SB 827, died last year in its first committee hearing.

"While I'm deeply disappointed that the Chair of the Appropriations Committee has decided to postpone SB 50 until 2020 -- since we have a housing crisis right now -- we are one hundred% committed to moving the legislation forward," Wiener wrote in an emailed statement. "We're either serious about solving this crisis, or we aren't. At some point, we will need to make the hard political choices necessary for California to have a bright housing future."

Housing advocates still had reason to cheer Thursday, as several other housing bills made it out of the Appropriations Committee and will advance to the Senate floor. They include SB 329, which would prohibit landlords from discriminating against Section 8 tenants; SB 330, which would prevent cities and counties from imposing new parking requirements for housing developments; SB 5, which would fund affordable housing development at a cost of $200 million per year; and SB 6, which would create a database of local land suitable for residential development.


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