Closely Watched California Housing Bill SB 50 Now Officially Dead

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State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, authored SB 50, a bill that would significantly increase housing construction across the state. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

A flurry of last-minute votes Thursday wasn't enough to save Senate Bill 50, one of California's most controversial and closely watched housing bills.

The vote remained unchanged from Wednesday, when it failed to earn the majority 21 votes it needed to pass. Only 18 senators voted on Thursday in favor of the bill, 15 voted against and six were absent or abstained.

The bill's sponsor, San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener, said he was "deeply disappointed" in the outcome of the bill but vowed to try again.

"SB 50 does represent an aggressive reform of the status quo and it signaled to a lot of people the state was serious about addressing the housing crisis," Wiener told reporters Thursday following the vote. "But I also believe we will pivot quickly and get something big done this year."

Wiener didn't specify what he plans but said he would work with the governor's office and legislative leadership to introduce new legislation to boost housing construction throughout the state. And just hours after the vote Thursday, he introduced two placeholder housing bills.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom took heat after the bill's defeat for campaigning on the promise to stimulate more housing construction but declining to endorse a bill that could have helped address the housing shortage. Newsom said in a statement Thursday the Legislature must pass a "historic housing production bill."

State senators in opposition, many from Southern California, argued the legislation took too much power away from city and county governments, which typically have the final say in what gets built within their jurisdictions. Other legislators also argued the bill would encourage too much market-rate and luxury housing without assurances there would be enough affordable housing produced for rent-burdened, low- and middle-income residents.

Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles on Wednesday summarized in one sentence the equity concerns of many housing justice activists who opposed the bill: "Who has the privilege of living where?"

SB 50 would have enabled more housing construction by forcing cities to authorize four- and five-story apartment buildings near train stations, along major bus lines and in job-rich neighborhoods. It would also allow duplexes and fourplexes where only single-family homes are currently permitted. Proponents of the bill saw it as one of the most significant ways to dramatically increase housing production throughout the state.

Despite the bill's failure, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said California still needs to build more housing if it wants to tackle its housing affordability problem. A 2016 McKinsey report estimated California needs to build 3.5 million homes to keep pace with its population.

In a statement following the vote, Atkins called out senators who voted against the bill but haven't presented alternatives.

"The opponents of SB 50 have real concerns, but have offered no substantive alternative with the same kind of scope of SB 50," she said. "Things have to change. We need to reset the conversation."

This post has been updated.