Anti-Development Activists Killed California's Last Stab at Free Market Housing Reform. Will They Get on Board With This Latest Attempt?

Senate Bill 50 would override restrictive local zoning laws to allow more housing construction near transit.



California is gearing up for another bitter housing policy fight following the introduction of a bill in the state legislature that would preempt local zoning laws in favor of allowing more, denser housing construction.

"For too long we have created sprawl by artificially limiting the number of homes that are built near transit and job centers," said State Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) in a Tuesday Medium post announcing the bill. "As educational and economic opportunities become increasingly concentrated in and near urban areas, we must ensure all of our residents are able to access these opportunities."

Wiener's legislation, Senate Bill 50 (SB 50), would give developers waivers to local zoning laws—called "equitable communities incentives"—that would allow the construction of apartment buildings as tall as 45 feet within a half mile of major transit stops, and as tall as 55 feet within a quarter mile of major transit stops. In order to qualify for these incentives, developers would have to reserve a yet-to-determined percentage of new units for low-income tenants.

If all this sounds familiar, it is because it is essentially the same approach Weiner took in his last, ultimately unsuccessful housing reform bill from earlier this year, Senate Bill 827 (SB 827).

That bill, like SB 50, would have upzoned areas near transit, but was killed in committee back in April after encountering stiff opposition from California's powerful construction trade unions—represented at the state level by the State Building and Construction Trades Council—as well as anti-gentrification groups, and local governments.

Re-introducing such a similar bill just months after the last one went down in flames might sound a bit like the clinical definition of insanity, but there are actually some good reasons to think that SB 50 will succeed where its predecessor failed.

For starters, this new bill includes an explicit requirement that any developer taking advantage of its zoning waivers still abide by local construction wage regulations. That is a major sweetener for trade unions who came out against SB 827 largely because they feared it would allow developers to bypass local requirements that construction workers be paid a prevailing (union) wage.

SB 50 also forbids the use of its "equitable community incentives" for projects being built on land that has been occupied by tenants in the last seven years, or was taken off the rental housing market by the owner in the last 15 years. The idea here is to mollify concerns that any loosening of local zoning laws will give developers carte blanche to level low income housing, and put up dreaded "luxury condos," displacing vulnerable tenants in the process.

Neither of these concessions are ideal policy. Both will certainly blunt the impact of the bill. They are nevertheless both politically astute and probably necessary in order to get any zoning liberalization bill through the legislature.

Indeed, this approach already appears to be winning friends and influencing people. The Construction Trades Council has said it would support SB 50, and its political director, Cesar Diaz, even provided a rosy quote for Weiner's press release announcing the new bill.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reports that low income housing and tenants rights groups—some of whom compared SB 827 to a modern day Trail of Tears, with Wiener playing the role of Andrew Jackson—are playing a wait and see approach this time around.

All told, SB 50 is a far cry from the unfettered property rights agenda that would make up a libertarian housing policy. Yet for all its blemishes, it would still override restrictive local zoning laws to allow for more housing construction.

That reform would go part of the way towards alleviating California's pressing housing shortage and the astronomical rents and home prices that have come with it.