State Sen. Scott Wiener said he will try to bring Senate Bill 50 back for another vote on Thursday, the deadline for its passage out of the Senate. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Wiener bill to dramatically increase homebuilding in the state falls short for third year in a row

California lawmakers failed to pass high-profile legislation on Wednesday to dramatically increase homebuilding in the state — the third year in a row that the effort has stalled .

Senate Bill 50, which would allow construction of mid-rise apartment complexes near transit and job centers and fourplexes in most single-family neighborhoods throughout California, was opposed by state senators who said the measure took too much power away from local governments and failed to sufficiently address low-income housing needs. The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), has argued that allowing more density in already developed areas would help reduce a shortage of homes at the root of the state’s affordability problems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

The bill fell three votes short of passing — with nine Los Angeles-area senators either voting no or abstaining. Wiener said he planned to try to bring the bill back for another vote on Thursday — the deadline for its passage out of the Senate.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) said that SB 50 could increase allowable development across broad swaths of Los Angeles. The bill, he said, wrongfully targets local government officials and single-family homeowners in its attempt to help remedy the state’s housing problems.

” There may be some merit to this notion in limited circumstances, this sweeping generalization both oversimplifies the problem and unnecessarily demeans people who have done nothing more than make homes for themselves, raise a family and play by the rules,” Hertzberg said.

The decision also comes as a blow to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who had argued that lawmakers needed to take action to dramatically increase the supply of housing in California. Though he didn’t endorse the bill, Newsom has said in recent weeks that his staff was working to convince lawmakers to move the legislation forward.

The legislation has exposed deep divisions among Democratic lawmakers. Prior to the vote Wednesday afternoon, Senate Democrats spent nearly three hours meeting in private with the majority of the time discussing the bill’s fate. Deliberation on the Senate floor lasted another two hours. Then, as the first vote on the bill left it four senators short of passage, lawmakers took a half-hour break while SB 50 backers aimed to whip sufficient support.

In a last-minute intervention during the break, the governor’s office attempted to convince at least one Democratic lawmaker to support the bill. But Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa left the meeting and ended up voting against the bill, saying that legislators still had time this year to introduce an alternative measure.

The debate over SB 50, which came to a head on Wednesday, has been brewing for a long time.

Wiener introduced the first iteration of the bill in 2018, contending that the state needed to force local governments to allow more housing to help control the cost of living. He said development near mass transit would make it easier for Californians to drive less, something state environmental officials have said is essential for meeting climate change goals.

But the bill died in its first committee hearing amid deep opposition from advocates representing low-income communities who were worried that increased housing production could fuel gentrification.

Last year, Wiener made numerous changes to the bill aimed at addressing those concerns. The bill now requires housing projects larger than 10 units to contribute funding or space for low-income housing and prohibts developers from demolishing homes on properties where tenants have lived for at least in the prior seven years. The senator gained support from several powerful groups representing labor, environmental, developer, business and real estate interests. But the bill was held without a vote in a committee last spring after concerns from suburban homeowner activists about changes to their communities.

Earlier this month, Wiener announced he was trying again, changing the bill so that local governments would have two years to develop alternative development blueprints before the rules in SB 50 would take effect. Because the bill was held in a Senate committee last year, SB 50 faces a legislative deadline of the end of this month to advance out of the full Senate.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Wiener argued that his colleagues should allow him to continue discussions over the issue, which he said required a response commensurate with the breadth of the state’s housing problems.

“SB 50 will help plant the seeds so that in the future our kids and our grandkids don’t have to have the same pain that people are experiencing today,” Wiener said.

But the changes Wiener made earlier this month didn’t receive enough support to advance the bill. Lawmakers, including 11 of Wiener’s Democratic colleagues, said Wednesday that the bill didn’t do enough to spur affordable housing construction rather than homes built at market rates.

Last week, a coalition of groups representing low-income communities announced their opposition to the bill, even though many had been negotiating with Wiener over changes to address their concerns. And one by one, state senators from the Los Angeles area began telling their constituents they were opposed.

“The supply side of housing production is important. We’ve got to do it,” Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) told her colleagues Wednesday. “But then I say, ‘What about affordable housing?’”

The bill’s stalling hinders Newsom’s efforts to speed housing production in the state. On the campaign trail, the governor pledged to increase annual homebuilding nearly fivefold to levels unseen since at least the mid-1950s. The governor has not yet put forward a plan to increase development to the scale he promised.

When SB 50 was held last year, Newsom said he was “disappointed” that the bill had not advanced and said he was going to get more involved in discussions about the legislation. During a news conference unveiling his state budget proposal earlier this month, the governor waved around a paper he said documented changes to the bill discussed at a meeting with Wiener the previous night. And as recently as last week, Newsom told reporters that his staffers were working to round up votes.

“I’m confident we’ll get something big done,” Newsom said.

Speaking to reporters in Sacramento before the vote Wednesday, the governor said he was committed to passing legislation this year to increase homebuidling no matter what happened with SB 50.

“We are not giving up, we are going to continue to work aggressively to address production in this state,” he said.

By Liam Dillon, Taryn Luna, Los Angeles Times

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