Major California housing bill shelved, stalling push for denser, transit-oriented development

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State legislation that sought to ramp up housing creation along the North Bay’s commuter rail line and pave the way for denser residential development near transit stops statewide ran into a dead end Thursday in Sacramento, where top lawmakers shelved the bill this for this year.

The designation of Senate Bill 50 as a “two-year bill” prevents it from advancing out of committee before January, stalling what was seen as the most aggressive current effort in the Legislature to combat California’s housing crisis.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, a vocal advocate for stronger state intervention to spur housing development, bemoaned the decision.

“California’s failed housing policy is pushing people into homelessness, poverty, and two-hour commutes, is pushing working families out of their communities and out of the state entirely, and is undermining California’s climate goals,” Wiener said in a statement. “We need to do things differently when it comes to housing.”

SB 50 would allow denser development on vacant plots in many single-family neighborhoods and open the door for taller buildings along railways like the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system and bus lines. It gained new life last month, when Wiener and Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, reached a deal to consolidate their housing bills into the single proposal that was shelved Thursday.

McGuire was not available for an interview to discuss the bill he co-wrote. His spokeswoman said he was “disappointed” with SB 50’s fate and provided a prepared statement from the senator.

“We worked hard with local elected leaders to bring a balanced approach that delivered on the promise of affordable workforce housing without a one-size-fits-all solution,” McGuire said in the statement. “It’s going to take courage and strategic action to get us out of the crisis we’re in. Advancing housing policy in the state Legislature has always been a heavy lift and we are committed to continue our work on affordable housing in the months to come.”

Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, who chairs the appropriations committee, said the decision to postpone SB 50 was made despite the bill’s good intentions. In a statement, he cited qualms that SB 50 as written could increase gentrification and depress light-rail expansion amid a list of “legitimate concerns expressed from both large and small cities ... all of which justified the pause today by the committee.”

Sonoma and Marin counties would be treated differently than Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, and cities such as Oakland, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg all would be subject to different rules, under the compromise legislation put forward by Wiener and McGuire.

The bill would empower developers of apartments within a half-mile of one of Santa Rosa’s two rail stations to erect taller buildings than would be allowed otherwise. It would also prohibit cities like Santa Rosa from imposing parking requirements on developers within a quarter-mile of a SMART station, among other provisions.

Santa Rosa officials have downplayed the impact of the landmark housing bill on the city, pointing to existing local pro-growth policies passed in recent months. That didn’t change with Thursday’s news that the bill wasn’t going anywhere in 2019.

“Santa Rosa’s doing a lot of things that were going to be included in SB 50,” said Mayor Tom Schwedhelm. “Although, I would like more cities to follow our lead, so it’s somewhat disappointing” that the bill was delayed.

Now is a time to take some risks when it comes to housing policy, Schwedhelm added.

The City Council recently set a goal of having 500 new units under construction in downtown Santa Rosa by Nov. 2020, after which council members could evaluate whether their housing policies are working as intended.

“That is the wild card — what is the magic recipe?” Schwedhelm said. “Apparently, in Sacramento, it wasn’t SB 50.”

Sonoma County needs up to 30,000 new units over the next five years to meet its housing needs, according to an estimate put forward last year by county officials.

Yet from 2011 to 2018, only a total of 5,000 new houses and apartments were built in the county — and the 2017 fires destroyed an even greater number here in a single day.

State officials reported last year that California needed more than 1.8 million new homes by 2025 to keep up with projected population growth. A 2016 study from McKinsey Global Institute, part of the prominent consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said California should build as many as 3.5 million new homes by 2025 — a goal that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has adopted as his own.

“I am disappointed by the committee’s decision,” Newsom said in a statement Thursday. “The cost of housing — both for homeowners and renters — is the defining quality-of-life concern for people across this state. Housing costs and rising rents threaten to erode our state’s long-term prosperity.”

The bill met with a chillier reception in Petaluma, which is about a third of Santa Rosa’s size but would be subject to many of the same SB 50 rules.

The Petaluma City Council was set to consider a letter of partial opposition to SB 50 at its Monday meeting, but the letter was pulled off its agenda Thursday after state lawmakers scuttled the bill, according to city staff.

Councilman Mike Healy, the letter’s primary drafter, said the bill wasn’t all bad for places like Petaluma, but he balked at provisions limiting how many parking spaces the city could require, which he said would worsen already troublesome neighborhood parking situations.

“We’re willing to put up with some of the provisions of SB 50, but the parking requirements are pretty choking,” Healy said.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, was dismayed about the bill’s demise this year in the face of the statewide housing crisis.

He acknowledged angst from smaller cities in the face of top-down mandates, but argued that if local officials don’t “push our comfort zone a little bit,” they wouldn’t be able to solve the housing crisis anytime soon.

“I think there’s a whole generation of people who would like to live in Sonoma County and the Bay Area who are being priced out and will never get that opportunity,” he said. “I think that’s a shame.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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