After SB50, Activists Must Push Cities to Boost Housing

by on May 16, 2019

Legislators Backroom Deal Kills New Housing

Today’s  shelving of California’s SB50 came as a shock to me and seemingly everyone following the bill. Yesterday, the day before the Senate Appropriation Committee’s hearing, there were reports that the bill could be killed. But there was not the “all activists to the barricades” call that I would expect if such an outcome was likely.

I find it shameful that a high profile bill like SB50 could be killed in a backroom deal without a committee hearing or floor vote. The committee chair just announces at the start of the meeting that there were some two-year bills, and named SB50 among them.

A true profile in cowardice for legislators who feared casting a vote on the bill. Some taking money from developers feared voting no, while those funded by luxury homeowners feared voting yes. The solution: shelve the bill so nobody has their fingerprints on the outcome.

I’m told Senate leader Toni Atkins could call the bill up for a floor vote by the end of May. But if she wanted a floor vote she wouldn’t have allowed SB50 to be shelved in the first place.

SB50 was technically not killed, but its chances to pass in an election year are slim. I was very optimistic about its passage this year precisely because legislators did not have to face voters. I also assumed that most members wanted to pass something just to get it off their plates.

SB50 was shelved soon after both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times endorsed it. It had the broadest supporting coalition any housing bill has had. The housing crisis is the top concern among voters.

Yet it could not even get a floor vote.

A bill like SB50 could return in 2021. But why would it succeed when it couldn’t even get a floor vote in 2019?

I’ve concluded that a state bill along the lines of SB50 is unlikely. Activists must now push cities to increase density, winning locally what could not be gained statewide.

Cities Must Rezone

Would San Francisco voters in November 2020 pass an initiative to legalize fourplexes citywide? I think so. I also think voters in Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and yes, even Los Angeles would do the same (not sure about San Diego).

If local city councils/boards of supervisors won’t enact such measures, it’s time to go to the ballot. Planning should begin now.

Would these same cities vote to increase heights and density along high volume transit corridors? I’m not as confident but believe the Bay Area cities would.

Here’s what I know for sure. Local “progressives” would be forced to take a stance: do they support fourplexes or exclusionary single family zoning? Do they really support affordable housing in all neighborhoods, or just talk about it because they know zoning in their district bars all new apartments.

Cities passing Green New Deals must be pushed to ban exclusionary zoning as part of the plan. We’ve been talking about how land use issues must be part of local and national Green New Deals, now we must make it happen.

Clearly, a city by city approach means that Palo Alto, Beverly Hills, and Marin County will not be impacted.  But all of the state’s largest cities are politically doable.

AB1481 and AB1482

The premise of the CASA Compact was that a density bill like SB50 would be accompanied by a statewide anti-rent gouging and just cause eviction laws. Will the latter two pass now that SB50 is gone?

Or to put it another way, now that California’s legislative leadership has shown it doesn’t care about building more housing, will it show that it is concerned about protecting tenants? I do not know. But wish I could be more optimistic.

My book, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, argues that progressive cities have the power to expand housing options for the working and middle-class. California cities now get a new chance to prove whether they will.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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