Senate Bill 50 Dies in the Senate: Now What?
The “4-Plex Bill” Meant to Address the Housing Crisis Couldn’t Muster Enough Support
Much to the relief of local land-use control advocates and cities throughout California, Senate Bill 50 failed to pass the state Senate last week and died on the Floor.
Many in the municipal world were closely following SB 50 since its introduction. It failed to pass in 2019 but was made a 2-year bill. The bill then failed to garner enough support in 2020 either. By ordinary procedures, SB 50 was dead. But in a rare move last week, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins pulled the bill out of the Appropriations Committee, where it was held, and moved it to the Rules Committee, which put the bill under her direct control. Atkins then sent the bill directly to the Floor, bypassing the Appropriations Committee. After much debate, with bipartisan opposition, the bill eventually failed to garner the support needed and died… for now.
As originally proposed, SB 50 would have had the effect of upzoning many single-family neighborhoods, creating incentives for developers to build apartments and condominiums near transit stations. Additionally, it would have waived or relaxed local parking requirements and density restrictions for developers under certain circumstances. Although some amendments were considered, municipalities continued to oppose the bill, as it seriously infringed on local land use control.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author, has indicated that he believes local governments exercise “extreme local control” over housing developments, which is impeding the development of housing across the State.
Although good news for now, Atkins announced immediately following the vote that she intends to meet with stakeholders and introduce new legislation, which could be as early as this session, to encourage homebuilding and address the affordability crisis in California.
There were a number of factors leading to SB 50’s demise. Opposition from the left came from housing affordability groups, such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which opposed the bill because it relied on market-rate housing construction to address the housing shortage. These groups feared low-income tenants will be vulnerable in high-rent areas and didn’t see adequate protections in SB 50. They argued these regulations might do more harm than good in exclusive neighborhoods. A future bill could attempt to get support from these groups, and garner progressive Democrat votes, by including requirements for affordable housing. This type of change would endanger the support SB 50 had from pro-business groups, such as the California Building Industry Association, the Orange County Business Council and several chambers of commerce.
SB 50 was also opposed by local governments who believed it would undermine legitimate General Plan Housing Elements approved by the Department of Housing and Community Development. SB 50 treated all affected cities as bad actors and overrides local planning, regardless of efforts made to address the housing shortage. Additionally, the language in SB 50 that defined where it may have applied was vague. For example, state agencies get to determine what constitutes a “jobs-rich area,” which means no one could foresee where SB 50’s provisions will apply. Wiener could address these issues by writing definitions into the bill instead of leaving it up to state agencies.
Finally, the attempts to amend the bill were insufficient to overcome the opposition it faced. For example, an amendment made Jan. 6 included language allowing all local agencies draft their own “local flexibility plans,” but there were inadequate criteria to define what plans would be acceptable alternatives. The criteria would be drafted sometime in the future by two state agencies (Office of Planning and Research and HCD), which left local governments with no assurance that they could chart their own course — even if they were supportive of SB 50’s goals. A future version of SB 50 could blunt some opposition by specifying a clear pathway for local agencies to achieve SB 50’s goals in a way that works in their communities.
To stay abreast of new developments in California housing legislation, please contact one of the authors listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
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