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California Senate kills key legislation that would have stimulated homebuilding

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Moments after Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial housing bill failed to make it out of the California Senate — for the third time since 2018 — Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, made a promise from the Senate floor.

“I want to personally commit to each and every one of you, to the people of California,” Atkins said Thursday, “that a housing production bill to help alleviate our housing crisis will happen this year.”

The bold statement came after what Atkins called “an incredible couple of days” of political debate and maneuvering to try to secure approval of Senate Bill 50, which would have overridden local zoning rules to allow midrise apartments near transit lines and stimulate building townhomes in single-family neighborhoods.

The bill, which Atkins called “the highest-profile piece of legislation that I can remember in years,” failed an initial Senate vote Wednesday. It died in a final reconsideration vote on Thursday.

Supporters portrayed it as a big but necessary step toward reducing the state’s housing shortage — and helping to curb carbon emissions from long-distance driving — by fostering residential development in dense urban corridors. Opponents decried it as state overreach into local land-use rules.

There is broad agreement California’s extraordinary cost of living and escalating homeless problem is rooted in a shortage of housing in general and a dearth of affordable housing in particular.

The North Coast’s two senators were divided on the bill, with Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, voting in favor and Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, opposing it.

Sen. Dodd said he received a great deal of opposition to the bill from constituents in Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Vallejo, Fairfield, Vacaville, and other communities. Dodd also expressed concern about the way the bill was pulled out of the Senate appropriations committee by Atkins in a last ditch effort to save it.

Dodd said there were too many Democrats in the Senate who thought the bill needed more work and that’s ultimately why it died.

Dodd insisted Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the principal architect of the measure, and other supporters can take the “really strong parts” of the defeated legislation and work with opponents to draft another bill that could pass during this legislative session.

“We will have lost no time whatsoever, if we get it done by the end of this legislative session,” he said.

Dodd said he was swayed by many in his own party who thought the bill did not adequately “address affordable housing in any significant way.” He hopes “the bones” of SB 50 will be brought back to legislators and local governments statewide to come together on drafting a stronger bill.

“We got to find a compromise, a happy medium that will frankly force cities that have ignored their housing requirements,” Dodd said, “but not penalize cities like Rohnert Park and Petaluma that have done a wonderful job of building homes. There’s certainly a way to do that.”

Sen. McGuire said the big legislative defeat should not discourage California lawmakers trying to address the state’s housing crunch. He said one of the biggest blows to affordable housing was the elimination of redevelopment agencies across the state back in 2012.

Those agencies used to spend more than $1 billion on affordable housing across the state, he said. McGuire said he’s introduced a bill (Senate Bill 795) with Sen. Jim Beall, who supported SB 50, and Sen. Anthony Portantino, who opposed it, that would generate $1 billion a year for workforce affordable housing.

McGuire said this legislation would create a permanent affordable housing fund to build homes in big and small cities statewide. The bill allows local governments to reduce their contributions to the state education revenue augmentation fund.

“Some of the greatest demand for affordable housing is in our neck of the woods,” McGuire said, adding that the League of California Cities, which had opposed failed SB 50, supports SB 795.

Meanwhile, the main opposition to Wiener’s defeated legislation came from county and city government officials who argued the bill took away their control over local zoning rules and undermined their ability to regulate housing growth.

Also, there were a number of liberal Democrats in the Senate who opposed the measure. There were not enough renter protections in the bill and it didn’t adequately address the affordable housing crisis. In the end, Wiener’s assurances that changes to the bill addressed these concerns were not enough to save it.

Reaction to the bill’s demise Thursday from leaders in the North Bay was mixed.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said he applauded Wiener’s “tenacity in trying to do something” to change policies to pave the way for higher density housing around transit stations.

Rabbitt said he was sympathetic to the idea of local control, but he said “there’s a balance that needs to be struck” to get local governments to meet their obligations under regional housing requirements.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said local governments need to do everything possible to get homes built.

“I’m all for local control, but we got to move the needle,” Schwedhelm said. “We are in an emergency situation and we need to change things. ... We’re looking for a perfect solution, but let’s not let perfection get in the way of progress.”

Amber Szoboszlai, co-chair of North Bay Organizing Project’s Petaluma chapter, said her organization opposed SB 50 because it failed to meet the demands of tenants rights groups. Szoboszlai said the groups were concerned the legislation would have simply led to the construction of more luxury apartments — even though there is no shortage of them.

“We’re actually not building enough housing for those that need,” she said.

After the bill’s defeat, Gov. Gavin Newsom released a statement citing Sen. Atkins’ Senate floor promise.

“California’s housing affordability crisis demands our state pass a historic housing production bill,” Newsom wrote. “I applaud Senate President pro Tempore Atkins for vowing to continue this fight and working to pass a major housing production bill by year’s end.”

Newsom campaigned on a promise to usher in reforms that would lead to the construction of 3.5 million homes by 2025. That output would be more than quadruple the current building rate, and the governor has started referring to it as a “stretch goal.”

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