After Failure, California Senate Leader Vows to Pass Bill to Boost Housing Production

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A worker walks amid luxury high-rise apartments under construction in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2019. (Credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

A worker walks amid luxury high-rise apartments under construction in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2019. (Credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

Desperate for more housing in the nation’s most populous state, the leader of the California Senate committed Thursday to passing a law this year to boost production in a state facing a shortage of 3.5 million homes.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ comments came moments after the Senate failed to pass the most ambitious housing bill in memory: One that would have forced local governments to let developers build small apartment buildings in some neighborhoods reserved for single family homes.

The bill took on what has become the biggest issue in California: A housing shortage that is sending rents and home prices soaring while contributing to the state’s growing homeless population, the largest in the country.

Senate Bill 50, authored by San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener, failed to pass Wednesday after a lengthy debate. Wiener brought the bill back up for a vote Thursday, but it still fell three votes shy of passage despite more than an hour of negotiations on the floor while senators sat idle at their desks.

After the vote, Atkins took the rare step of addressing her colleagues about the bill, saying: “This is not the end of this story.”

“I want to personally commit to each and every one of you, to the people of California, that a housing production bill to help alleviate our housing crisis will happen this year,” Atkins said. “It is time now for all sides to step up.”

Atkins did not say what a new housing production bill would look like. The last day lawmakers can introduce new legislation this year is Feb. 21.

Because the bill was held over from last year, it has to pass the Senate by Friday to have a chance at becoming law this year. But the Senate finished work on Thursday and will not meet Friday.

“The defeat of SB 50 is just another reminder that California has failed on housing,” Wiener told reporters after the vote.

The bill needed 21 votes to pass, but only got 18. Fifteen senators voted against it, including seven lawmakers from Los Angeles.

Wiener said after the vote the politics around housing and land use in Los Angeles County — the most populous county in the country — are challenging.

“The aggressive, bold action that we need is going to be controversial, no matter what it is,” he said.

The measure would have allowed developers to build five-story apartment buildings within a half-mile of rail stations and ferry terminals. Smaller apartment buildings could have been built within a quarter-mile of bus stops on a frequent bus line or a census tract that officials say has lots of available jobs.

Developers would be allowed to build those apartments in areas where local zoning laws don’t allow them, including neighborhoods filled with single-family homes. That’s why many local governments opposed the bill.

The League of California Cities, which opposed Senate Bill 50, pledged to continue working on how to “increase housing supply across the state,” adding that “any solution will require a long-term state funding commitment that matches the scale of a crisis that has been decades in the making.”

Meanwhile, the state Senate will soon consider a proposal to require cities and counties devote more land for the construction of multi-family homes for middle class earners. That legislation passed the California Assembly after amendments over the past year. Wiener is a co-author.

The bill requires at least 25% of a metropolitan area’s local housing need for moderate-income and above moderate-income earners be constructed in multi-family zones, with homes like duplexes and town homes.

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