Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, is one of the more active members of the California Legislature in terms of pursuing bills in hopes of easing the state’s housing crisis. But with that drive comes controversy.
As he did last year, Wiener has introduced a bill intended to stimulate home building. Heaven knows California needs more housing units. The shortage has caused prices to increase and created a crisis of affordability.
But not everyone agrees with Wiener’s solutions. Last year his legislation, Senate Bill 827, would have nullified various local restrictions on housing developments built near transit stations and bus stops located on high-traffic routes. It was rejected because localities were opposed to ceding to the state their powers to zone.
Wiener came back this year with Senate Bill 50. Not identical but similar. In the words of Wiener’s office, it “creates new zoning standards for the construction of housing near job centers and public transportation, while protecting against the displacement of renters and vulnerable communities living in those areas.” SB 50 also abolishes “hyper-low-density zoning” found near transportation and job centers while allowing small- to mid-size apartments and affordable housing to be built in these locations.
In shorthand, SB 50 was intended to allow higher, denser housing.
The bill cleared the Senate Housing Committee. But the path ahead wasn’t so wide open.
For instance, says the Los Angeles Times:
The prospect of significant transformation in Palo Alto has exacerbated existing tension over its changing suburban character in the face of an influx of tech jobs and rising housing costs. In recent years, residents have tried to cope with the situation in a variety of ways, including blocking low-income housing and office construction while also making it easier to build second housing units, or casitas, in their backyards.
Other localities had similar reservations about SB 50. Consequently, Weiner amended the bill Wednesday in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. It now includes exemptions for smaller localities. Those with fewer than 600,000 residents will be required to approve denser development near ferry and rail hubs only. The larger cities and counties will have to do the same at ferry and rail stops, as well as bus stations, and job centers.
The amended version also mandates that affordable housing must be included in projects approved by SB 50 rules.
Wiener’s bill was further amended by combining it with Senate Bill 4, which has been described as “similar but more limited.”
Maybe the new bill is all that can be achieved politically, but it seems lawmakers are doing little more than nibbling around the edges on housing.
The biggest hurdle to building new homes, the California Environmental Quality Act, remains untouched. And legislators continue to discourage building by insisting on affordable housing mandates, which have been found to depress construction and increase housing costs. The truth is, given the politics of the state at the moment, a housing bill that doesn’t include a mandate to build “affordable housing” probably has no chance to pass. Lawmakers must appear as if they’re helping low-income Californians even as they work against them.
California’s housing market is not a functioning market, but a maze of red tape wound tightly by layers of public policy that discourages building. There will be no significant improvement until policymakers pursue big, bold initiatives that will unravel the knot.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.