Is third time a charm for state’s high-density housing bill?

Senate Bill 50, which would allow for taller construction near transit and fourplexes in many single-family neighborhoods, faces a critical Friday vote

Jan.January 28, 2020 12:30 PM
CA State Sen. Scott Wiener pushes for high-density housing to solve homeless crisis (Credit: Getty Images)
CA State Sen. Scott Wiener pushes for high-density housing to solve homeless crisis (Credit: Getty Images)

Three years ago, state Sen. Scott Wiener crafted a bill to make it easier for developers to build taller, high-density housing to help address California’s deepening housing and homeless crisis. The measure would promote the construction of residential developments near transit and employment hubs, and allow fourplexes in many single-family neighborhoods.

The Senate turned back that version and then another one. This week, the San Francisco Democrat is trying to get support for the latest incarnation of the bill, called SB 50.

Wiener has until Friday to win the Senate’s approval or the measure dies. Even if the bill is approved by the upper chamber, it would still have to pass the Assembly, where its support remains murky.

Support has come mainly from developers, environmental groups and the unionized building trades. This week, Wiener has been tweeting about gaining momentum, with support in recent days coming from the Coalition for Clean Air, the United Way of California and United Farmer Workers.

But opposition is intense — particularly in San Francisco and the Bay Area, as well as in Los Angeles. Previously, single-family homeowners were among its sharpest critics.

One powerful opponent is state Sen. Holly Mitchell of L.A., who chairs the budget committee. She is aligned with a coalition of local and state groups representing low-income communities and neighborhoods wary of gentrification. Mitchell is also running for a spot on the the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

An estimated 59,000 homeless people are in L.A. County and thousands more families are one missed paycheck away from being out on the street, experts say.

And even after Wiener tweaked SB 50 with a series of amendments, anti-gentrification groups continue to oppose it, based on their fears that poor and working-class renters will be priced out of the new housing.

To address some of those concerns, SB 50’s current version requires developers of housing projects with more than 10 units to contribute funding or space for nearby low-income housing. It also prohibits the demolition of existing rental units where tenants have lived for seven or more years.

San Francisco politicians generally remain opposed to the measure, but Wiener has had a powerful ally in Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who removed the bill from a committee chaired by one of its opponents, and set in motion the negotiations that must be completed before Friday’s crucial vote.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not taken a position on SB 50, but his staff has encouraged talks over additional amendments. In October, Newson signed five bills that cut the red tape on converting garages and freestanding backyard homes into accessory dwelling units, to facilitate residential construction.

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