SB 50 authors need to be better allies of tenants, low-income people and people of color

By Jackie Fielder and Deepa Varma

By Jackie Fielder and Deepa Varma

As affordable housing advocates and women of color living in Senator Scott Wiener’s district, we write to challenge Senator Wiener to become a better ally of unhoused people, housing insecure people, low-income people and people of color by making significant changes to Senate Bill 50.

A huge impetus for this bill has been Wiener’s passion for transit-oriented development. We share that vision as well, but we cannot simply rezone for transit-oriented development while ignoring the fact that low-income Californians rely on transit the most. Urbanist pro-housing allies need to do a better job of listening to low income people and people of color before legislating or advocating on their behalf.

Senator Wiener has proudly described how a previous bill, Senate Bill 35, overrides local controls to build housing, much like SB 50. Some affordable housing successes are trickling out of SB 35, particularly in the wealthiest parts of the state that have been resistant to building more housing.

However, one of SB 35’s supposed success stories is a large corporate-developed project in Berkeley. Some of those who objected to the project were native Ohlone people whose sacred shell mounds would be permanently desecrated by the project. In September a Superior Court judge in Alameda agreed with Native American claims and blocked the project. Last week, the corporate developers filed an appeal of that decision based upon SB 35’s power to override local objections. This shows how well-intended yet top-down urbanist policies can hit exclusionary suburb targets like Beverly Hills but also dragnet communities of color back to the frontlines of displacement and gentrification. Treating marginalized people like the Ohlone as “collateral damage” to fulfill a grand urbanist vision is unacceptable. Here are some specific changes we believe are necessary to keep SB 50 from doing serious damage to our communities.

Stronger voice for “sensitive” communities. Wiener claims that one of the primary aims of SB 50 is to promote housing construction in wealthy, segregated enclaves which currently prohibit affordable housing. We fully support that aim. But one glaring problem is that SB 50’s considerations for “sensitive communities” were written — and are apparently being amended — without community input from those “sensitive communities.” While the senator has been to Palo Alto for a neighborhood forum on the law, he has yet to hold one in a “sensitive community” in his own district. By shifting the standard democratic community planning process to Sacramento, SB 50 makes decision-making even more inaccessible for low-income communities and communities of color, while privileging real estate lobbyists of the California Real Estate Association and landlords of the California Apartment Association. Invite marginalized communities to the policy making table.

Real tenant protections. SB 50 proclaims to protect rent-controlled units, yet barely over a dozen California cities have any rent control, and what they do have is severely limited by the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. Furthermore, the “anti-demolition” clause, which is supposed to protect tenant housing, is actually an invitation for real estate speculators to vacate currently rented housing and hold it off the market for some years in anticipation of windfall profits later. As we are seeing with the Black-women-led Moms 4 Housing collective in Oakland, speculators will sit on vacancies while thousands go unhoused. SB 50’s vacancy protection is limited and also nearly impossible to effectively enforce in the majority of California cities that lack demolition protections and rental registries. This must be fixed.

More funding for affordable housing. Sacramento can’t demand that cities meet their below-market rate housing goals without confronting the conditions for real estate speculation, which largely hinge on racism and classism — hitching crumbs of lower-income housing to gigantic projects for predominately white and wealthy individuals in gentrifying communities of color. We need to prioritize the construction of subsidized housing at the scale required to house no-, very-low, and low-income people and people of color being displaced from urban core communities. Furthermore, in the fifth largest economy in the world, housing for low-income people should not mean less housing for middle-income people. We have all the resources we need to uphold housing a human right, not a zero-sum game. SB 50–and the conventional approach to affordable housing—takes that myth as a premise, and allows real estate investors to build the housing supply that best suits their investment returns, not the collective social need. Equitable zoning must be accompanied with equitable funding to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Unless SB 50’s backers get serious about fixing its language – while at the same time repealing the Ellis Act and Costa Hawkins, which are blocking affordable housing and rent control – we remain allied with low-income communities and communities of color here and around the state in strong opposition. Marginalized communities are not collateral for an urbanist vision, they are partners out of this affordable housing crisis.

Jackie Fielder is a San Francisco State University lecturer, community organizer, and Democratic candidate for State Senate, District 11. Deepa Varma is executive director for the San Francisco Tenants Union.

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