Time Is Ticking on Controversial SB 50 Bill to Boost New Housing in California

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A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train pulls away from the Rockridge station on August 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. A controversial bill that would allow taller more homes to built near train stations and high-frequency bus lines is expected to reach a major milestone this week. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

One of the most watched bills aimed at tackling California's affordable housing shortage is nearing a major vote this week at the state Legislature that will decide whether it lives or dies.

State Sen. Scott Wiener's Senate Bill 50 would require cities to allow taller apartment buildings near train stations, high-frequency bus lines and job centers. It would also allow small duplexes and fourplexes where only single-family homes are now permitted.

First introduced in 2018 as SB 827, the bill challenged cities' authority to determine what gets built and where within their borders.

While opposition to the bill first came from city officials balking at the loss of local control, now the major obstacle to the bill's passage comes from dozens of housing affordability and tenants' rights organizations who contend the bill would further exacerbate growing income inequality throughout the state.

In a letter last week to Wiener, a statewide coalition of housing affordability advocates led by The Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations and others blasted the bill, saying it would encourage more market rate and luxury housing, displacing low-income renters.

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Despite months of negotiating, the groups still worry the bill could harm the communities they represent because it wouldn't build enough affordable housing, said Anya Lawler, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the co-signers of the letter.

"Although we've had a lot of productive conversations on the bill, the version that remains in print is very concerning to us," Lawler said. "We fundamentally believe that in its current form, SB 50 would be damaging to low-income communities and communities of color."

They were joined by another coalition of more than three dozen tenants' rights organizations, including the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and others. In a separate letter last week to Wiener, the groups said the bill would stimulate speculation by Wall Street and hedge fund landlords and incentivize them to keep units vacant in order to drive up prices.

"The lack of truly affordable homes or substantive, enforceable tenant protections in SB 50 leaves too many vulnerable to the whims of the real estate market, which has undermined community stability for generations," the letter reads.

Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco, has made a number of amendments to the bill since it was first introduced, including provisions to protect rental buildings from being torn down and to require that developers set aside up to 25% of new housing units as affordable housing. Local residents will also be given priority to rent or buy 40% of those affordable units. The bill would allow communities with high proportions of low-income residents at least five years to draft their own plans for meeting the bill's requirements before it goes into effect.

To appease officials concerned about a state-led, top-down approach, Wiener added a two-year grace period for municipalities to craft their own plans for allowing new development, so long as the plans achieve the same amount of housing under the bill and don't increase sprawl.

It was that change that helped Milpitas Councilmember Anthony Phan support the bill. Phan joined his fellow councilmembers last week in voting to endorse it.

"I applaud Sen. Wiener’s efforts to address many concerns raised about SB 50 in its previous iteration," Phan said in a statement. "We have devoted significant long-range planning efforts towards transit-oriented development through our Transit Area Specific Plan, and we encourage other cities to embrace what SB 50 is trying to accomplish."

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Whether those changes will be enough to convince senators they have more constituents who support the bill than oppose is too close to call. The bill is expected to go before the Senate for a vote as early as Wednesday and must get through the house before the end of the week or it won't be able to move to the Assembly.

If the bill passes the Senate, lawmakers will be able to make changes, though any changes will be negotiated through Wiener's office. It will have until the end of the legislative session in August to become law.

If it doesn't, the state will have to rethink how it plans to address escalating housing prices, increasing homelessness, and growing income inequality, said Matthew Lewis, a spokesman for California YIMBY and a proponent of the legislation.

Continuing with the status quo "leads to a shrinking population of older, richer people that literally can't sustain itself," Lewis said. "It leads to a catastrophe."