CA Senate candidates talk housing during Sunnyvale forum
Three of six candidates for California’s Senate District 13 seat talked about the Bay Area's housing woes and their solutions Tuesday night. From left to right: Kyra Kazantzis, executive director for Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits moderated the panel; Shelly Masur, a Redwood City councilmember; Michael Brownrigg, a Burlingame city councilmember; and Sally Lieber, a former state assemblymember. Picture by Janice Bitters.

As Democratic presidential hopefuls debated national issues Tuesday night, a trio of candidates vying for California’s Senate District 13 seat gathered in a little room inside Sunnyvale’s Elks Lodge to make their case to local voters.

SV at Home Action Fund hosted the candidate forum, grilling the contenders on issues around housing, including their stance on high-profile bills like Senate Bill 50, whether to bring back the state’s redevelopment agencies, Proposition 13 and reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

The district Senate race may not have as many contenders as the presidency, but with six announced candidates for the 2020 election, voters have options when it comes to who should represent residents along the Peninsula between South San Francisco and Sunnyvale.

Three of the six candidates made it to the forum, including Michael Brownrigg, a Burlingame city councilmember; Shelly Masur, a Redwood city councilmember; and Sally Lieber, a former state assemblymember. The event was moderated by Kyra Kazantzis, executive director for Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits.

Round two on SB 50

One of the hottest topics over the past year has been Senate Bill 50, which would mandate that cities allow higher density housing development along high-frequency transit lines.

Candidates threw varying levels of support behind the controversial bill, which didn’t get a vote this year, but will be up for discussion in the coming legislative session. Each offered ideas for making the controversial bill more palatable to lawmakers and voters in its second round.

Masur, who has been endorsed by SB 50 author Sen. Scott Wiener, said she supports the bill with two modifications. She wants city leaders to have an option with a strict timeline to make their own plan for how to increase density around transit. Masur also wants to remove the exemption in the bill for counties with fewer than 600,000 residents.

“I just don’t think that’s right,” she said of the exemption. “If we’re going to meet the governor’s goal of 3.5 million new homes, we cannot put it all on 15 counties in the state.”

Brownrigg said he doesn’t support the bill today because he prefers to work with the individual cities to build density where it makes sense for that municipality. That may not be next to transit lines, he said.

“SB 50 would tell Mountain View that it should put its density on Caltrain or on El Camino, but where are the jobs in Mountain View?” he asked. “They’re on the Bay Side by Google; that’s where the density should go.”

Lieber said the bill “kind of sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room in the Legislature this year,” but added she’s glad it’ll get a second chance to be refined.

“A change that I’m really looking for is an increased percentage of affordable housing and affordable at all levels, including extremely low income housing and supportive housing being in there,” she said.

CEQA streamlining and reviving redevelopment

Meanwhile, both Masur and Brownrigg said they’d be in favor of bringing back the state’s redevelopment agencies with a tweak or two, but Lieber said it wasn’t the right time. Redevelopment agencies are a source of funds for affordable housing around the country, but former Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the programs in California in 2012 to close a funding gap for schools and other services.

“There was legislation on bringing back redevelopment, and it sank like a stone,” Lieber said. “Taking money away from the schools to put it into other things is just not the right thing to do right now.”

Similarly, Masur and Brownrigg said they’d be open to streamlining CEQA, which is sometimes weaponized to stop or delay development under the guise of environmental concerns. But Lieber said she would not be “in favor of standing in to block anyone’s access to the courts.”

When it comes to creating additional state financing for affordable housing, both Lieber and Masur said they’d support that initiative through various means, including grants or one-time funds. Brownrigg, meanwhile, advocated for a model that would function more like a revolving loan from the state.

“What I’d really like to do is think about ways to structure the capital into the private developer whereby over time the money could come back to the state,” he said. “Not everything has to be a grant.”

Seeing eye-to-eye on new taxes

The three agreed, however, that California should amend its constitution to lower the two-thirds voter threshold to approve affordable housing tax revenue measures to just 55 percent and that Proposition 13 — which limits property tax increases for property owners — should be changed to a “split roll.” That means the law would apply to homeowners, but commercial property owners would see greater property tax increases.

Finally, each said they are bracing for an economic downturn in the state, as the Bay Area enters its 10th consecutive year of economic growth. Each advocated for diversifying California’s income sources.

“The state relies on personal income tax and capital gains tax, that is why as soon as we hit a recession, we go down like that,” Masur said, snapping her fingers.

The three candidates who didn’t make the event included Josh Becker, a former venture capitalist and CEO who has been endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Alex Glew, an engineer and business owner and the lone Republican candidate in the race; and Annie Olivia, a Millbrae councilmember.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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