South Bay leaders react to the defeat of ambitious housing bill
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2020, file photo, California Sen. Scott Wiener, left, shakes hands with a man after a rally for more housing outside of City Hall in Oakland, Calif. California lawmakers have failed to pass the most ambitious proposal yet to combat a growing housing crisis in the nation's most populous state, voting down legislation Wednesday, Jan. 29, that would have overridden local zoning laws to let developers to build small apartment buildings in neighborhoods reserved for single-family homes. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

South Bay lawmakers and advocates are reacting with mixed feelings after one Bay Area Senator’s attempt to tackle the housing crisis was evicted from the Senate floor this week.

Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50 is officially dead, as the debate between regulating city housing requirements, maintaining local control and ensuring tenant protections proved to be too controversial to round up enough votes.

The high-profile bill would have required local governments such as Santa Clara County to change land use laws to allow for more high-density housing near both mass transportation hubs and job centers, through streamlined permitting and approval of multi-unit complexes.

The San Francisco lawmaker’s intent was that this change in land use would combat not only the rising rate of housing costs and homeless residents, but also simultaneously work to reduce emissions from long commutes, as people are living farther away from where they work.

“What (SB 50) does is it goes to the heart of one of the foundational problems that we have with housing, which is that we don’t zone for enough of it,” Wiener said during an exclusive fireside chat with San José Spotlight last year. This is an evident problem locally, as 94 percent of San Jose is zoned for single-family homes.

But after two days of debate, the bill was rejected in a 18-15 vote Wednesday, with many senators abstaining. Initially introduced Dec. 2018 as SB 827, this is the second time the legislation has failed to pass the Senate.

However, while SB 50 may be dead, the idea is still kicking. Wiener has already submitted two placeholder bills in the hopes of getting a new, tweaked bill back for Senate committee consideration in the coming months. Some of those amendments may include more flexible construction options and extended timelines for local governments to create plans tailored to their needs.

San Jose Sen. Jim Beall, who voted in favor of the legislation Wednesday, said those potential changes are why he gave the bill a “qualified yes.”

“My concern was about displacement of the poorest residents and making sure that the governor, along with this bill, has a proposal for ongoing funding for the unmet affordable housing needs of California,” Beall said in an interview, noting that without longterm funding, SB 50 wouldn’t be a full solution. “You can’t have this problem solved in one year, because it’s probably decades of neglect in terms of not addressing the problem.”

The soon-to-be termed out Senator said housing has always been a political issue, pointing to the long history of prejudiced and discriminatory housing laws previous allowed in California. While it’s no longer legal, he said some of the end results of that red-lined zoning and racially deed-restrictive housing is still present today, even in younger cities like San Jose.

Additionally, Beall said Wiener is also fighting an uphill battle against single-family zoned communities that don’t want the status quo to change. While all those troubles are ironed out in “SB 50 2.0,” Beall said he looks forward to seeing what Wiener and his staff bring back to the Senate.

“It wasn’t like we were totally against the bill,” Beall said. “It’s not over. This is a tough issue, and it takes a long time.”

Sandy Jamison, the new president of the San Jose-based Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, said she was surprised to hear the bill was struck down.

“I think the state needs to get serious about housing. They need to start finding solutions to solving the housing crunch,” Jamison said. “The California Association of Realtors worked really hard on drafting that bill with Senator Wiener, and it’s just so disappointing to see it get voted down at this stage.”

While she is confident it’ll be brought back to address some of the senator’s concerns – such as affordability – she doesn’t think finding interested tenants to occupy the dense housing allowed by the bill would’ve been a problem.

“(These max-density complexes) would not have been empty. I believe they would have sold, and filled up fairly quickly,” Jamison said, adding that people looking for affordable options would be drawn to the nearby public transit options. “It would have been a great solution, for sure.”

But some South Bay critics of SB 50 want the whole bill scrapped all together.

Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said legislators need to go back to the drawing board after talking to tenants affected by rising rents and housing costs, citing Moms4Housing as a timely example.

Instead, Perry said, groups like tech and real estate companies were the ones consulted for the ideation of the bill.

“The problem with SB 50 is that they want the homebuilding to be led by the real estate industry and the developers,” Perry said. “We feel that they’re the ones who got us into this mess. Why would you put them in charge of solving it?”

Perry also echoed Beall’s concerns of displacement, saying that communities near transit lines are often home to those who are lower income or working class. The threat of those neighborhoods being demolished for new development – combined with the potential for being replaced by high-rise, non-affordable complexes – made this a no-go for the Affordable Housing Network.

“If it was all low-income housing, we would support it,” Perry said. “But if the foundation of a bill is wrong, you can’t amend it to make a better foundation.”

Perry’s foundation, instead, would be based on social or cooperative ownership and direct conversations with low-income residents asking for solutions they want. But until that approach is taken, he’s glad this week’s vote did not allow the bill to head to the Assembly.

“We’re relieved that they decided not to go down the wrong direction,” Perry said. “But now we need them to… get funds for housing that is truly affordable for the people that need it.”

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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