East Bay Assembly Hopefuls Could Be Key Vote on Contentious Housing Bills

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Mia Bonta, candidate for state Assembly in District 18, which includes Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro, speaks with students at her campaign headquarters in Oakland on June 23, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Candidates jousting in a special election to represent Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro in the state Assembly could provide key votes later this year on contentious housing proposals currently moving through the California Legislature.

The leading contenders in the 18th District, Democrats Mia Bonta, Janani Ramachandran and Malia Vella, have all vowed to prioritize solutions to the state and regional housing crisis if they emerge victorious in a June 29 special election or a potential Aug. 31 runoff.

But their contrasting approaches on the issue of housing can be seen in their stances on Senate Bills 9 and 10, two proposals aimed at making it easier to build duplexes and small apartment buildings across the state. The bills have reignited familiar debates over how or whether to maintain local decision-making and prioritize low-income housing in the quest to add units to California's lagging supply.

"These bills have received quite a bit of pushback, especially from other regions in the state and I think it's really important that the Bay Area continues to show leadership on working on these issues," said Sidharth Kapur, a member of YIMBY Action East Bay, a group advocating for greater housing supply.

SB 9 would allow the development of up to two duplexes without local reviews or hearings, in neighborhoods in most cities that are currently zoned for single-family homes.

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SB 10 offers cities the option to rezone certain land for the construction of as many as 10 units while bypassing an initial review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The bills are far less sweeping than recent zoning reforms pushed in the Legislature — namely Senate Bill 50, a failed effort last session to force cities to allow more dense construction.

But with the fate of the two proposals now hinging on votes in the Assembly, opponents have ramped up their attacks.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a longtime opponent of bills to increase housing density, has launched a statewide mail campaign asking voters to contact their assemblymember and urge a no vote.

A mailer from Housing is a Human Right, the advocacy arm of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, urges assemblymembers to reject Senate Bills 9 and 10. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

The hope for supporters of the bills, like Kapur, is that a candidate in favor of the legislation can win the District 18 seat before the bills come to the Assembly floor. The seat has been vacant since Rob Bonta, Mia Bonta's husband, was confirmed as the state attorney general in April.

YIMBY Action has endorsed Vella, the current vice mayor of Alameda. Kapur cited her commitment to increasing multifamily housing in Alameda, and her unqualified support of Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10.

"What we've seen sometimes is this tendency to get into situations where we're trying to correct and deal with every single issue in one piece of legislation," Vella said. "And I think with housing, we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Malia Vella, the vice mayor of Alameda, poses for a portrait in Alameda on June 23, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

All three contenders in the eight candidate field have cited the specter of evictions — either in their neighborhoods or own lives — as a motivation for entering the race. But Bonta and Ramachandran said that if elected, they'll push to change the two key housing bills to add protections for renters and low-income residents.

As the only renter of the three, Ramachandran said her experience of providing legal assistance to tenants during the pandemic demonstrated the need for "true tenant warriors" in the state Capitol.

"Janani is the one candidate in the race right now, that if you are a tenant, you should feel confident that she will have your back," said Mark Dias, co-chair of the Oakland Tenants Union, which endorsed Ramachandran.

Ramachandran said she wants changes to Senate Bill 10 requiring that any apartment complex built in newly upzoned land — land rezoned for more dense construction — have units dedicated to affordable housing.

"We need to upzone, but we can't do it without a tenant rights lens," Ramachandran said.

Supporters of the bills say the status quo does nothing to make housing more affordable: Neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family housing have no state requirement for affordability, and barriers to upzoning prevent cities from approving denser housing at any income level. They fear opposition to the legislation plays into the hands of the principle opponents of zoning reform: local governments and groups that don't want any construction of dense housing.

It's hard to build housing for middle-income residents, said Kapur, "if our strategy is that we only want to pass housing bills that are specifically geared towards affordable housing, like large, large projects."

But Bonta said her childhood experience of constant moves and interactions with "some unkind and poorly acting landlords" have convinced her that requirements for affordability and tenant rights can't be divorced from efforts to spur development.

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"The value statement is tenant protections, housing affordability have to drive any kind of housing production offerings that we put forward in the state Legislature," Bonta said.

"On SB 9, I'm going to be looking for and wanting to see explicit indications and commitments to affordability," added Bonta, who said SB 10 "undermines affordable housing requirements in small apartment complexes and also doesn't have the kind of tenant protections that it needs to. I think SB 10 has some additional work that it needs to do in order to be able to get my vote."

On Tuesday, both SB 9 and SB 10 passed the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development.

Both bills face at least one more committee hearing before they can be debated by the full Assembly, which could take place in the weeks before the Sept. 10 deadline to pass legislation.