BREAKING: SB 50 Voted Down By State Senators Representing Affluent Suburbs

Final vote today kills major climate-land use legislation to legalize apartments near transit

The California State Senate this morning (after an initial vote last night) narrowly and finally voted to kill SB 50, a major climate-land use bill that would have allowed apartment buildings near major transit stops and job centers, as well as fourplex conversions statewide. Despite high-profile opposition from some low-income tenants groups, the senators voting against the bill largely represent affluent suburbs.

To illustrate the geographical divide, a Twitter user put together this map of the senate districts and votes, with purple opposed, green in support (light for Democrat and dark for Republican), and blue abstaining:


As you can see, the “opposed” senators largely cluster along on the affluent coastal and suburban areas. This dynamic is particularly apparent in the San Francisco Bay Area, where representatives of the urban core supported the bill (including bill author Sen. Scott Wiener and Sen. Nancy Skinner). But the senators representing the suburban, high-income Silicon Valley communities (Sen. Jerry Hill), affluent East Bay suburbs (Sen. Steve Glazer), and the Napa area (Sen. Bill Dodd) were all opposed.

Meanwhile, Southern California Democrats representing high-income coastal suburbs were almost uniformly opposed:

  • Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, representing Santa Barbara communities;
  • Sen. Henry Stern, representing Malibu and suburbs north of urban Los Angeles;
  • Sen. Ben Allen, representing the Westside of Los Angeles, including Manhattan Beach and Beverly Hills;
  • Sen. Anthony Portantino, representing La Cañada Flintridge and who had unilaterally shelved the bill last year in his committee; and
  • Sen. Bob Hertzberg, representing the San Fernando Valley.

Notably, there were some standout “profiles in courage” votes in favor of the bill, including:

  • Sen. Lena Gonzalez from Long Beach, despite opposition from city leaders in her district;
  • Sen. Brian Dahle from the conservative, northern inland part of the state, who recognized the damage sprawl does to farmland;
  • Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel who spoke passionately about the inequality and devastating commutes wrought by exclusive local land use policies; and
  • Sen. John Moorlach of coastal Orange County, a Republican (and bill co-author) who appreciated the legislation giving more property rights to landowners.

What were the argument of opponents? They largely involved these issues:

The bill will not produce enough affordable housing.” The bill actually contained strong minimum requirements that projects receiving benefits under the bill include affordable units. As a result, SB 50-type reform would have resulted in the biggest boost to subsidized affordable units in the state’s history, at possibly a seven-fold increase.

SB 50 takes away local control.” Actually, the bill would give low-income communities at risk of gentrification five years to develop local plans for infill housing and two years for other communities to plan to meet these standards. Locals would be free to set more aggressive standards on affordability and relax restrictions even more if they wanted to do so. SB 50 also did not alter local permit approval processes. Furthermore, for senators who profess to care about the housing shortage, local control is the single biggest cause of the shortage, particularly through restrictive zoning.

The bill will lead to gentrification and displacement.” This is a real concern that the bill addressed with numerous provisions to protect against new developments displacing low-income tenants (a massive, ongoing problem that predates SB 50 and is made worse by the exclusionary housing policies SB 50 was designed to prevent). Local governments were free to go beyond those protections. Second, as UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation documented, any projects under the bill only “pencil” in high-income areas where developers get higher returns. Finally, as the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley (in collaboration with researchers at UCLA and Portland State) found, new market-rate and affordable housing at a regional scale reduces gentrification and displacement overall.

Finally, Sen. Henry Stern uniquely argued against the bill for encouraging development in high-fire zones. It was an odd argument, considering that the SB 50 zones around transit are in some of the only non-fire, urban zones in the state, while the bill contained explicit language preventing application in high-severity zones. Furthermore, encouraging growth in infill areas reduces pressure to sprawl into the same wildlands Sen. Stern is worried about. Yet Sen. Stern was convinced that the protections weren’t strong enough and conceivably was worried that the provision in the bill allowing conversion of single-family homes into fourplexes would put more people into harms way. Given this logic, will Sen. Stern now support a bill banning new construction in high-fire zones? Or would he have supported the bill with an amendment banning such construction? He did not respond to these questions on his Facebook page.

So what’s next? The bill or some form of it could be brought back this legislative session as a “gut-and-amend” of an existing bill. Indeed, Senate pro tem Toni Atkins vowed right after the vote that a “production” bill to increase housing construction in the state will come before the legislature this year. Supporters could potentially try a more limited approach to mandatory upzoning, such as exempting controversial parts of the state from the bill.

Otherwise, given the long-term problem and entrenched opposition to change, the fact that such a landmark bill only fell three votes short is an accomplishment. Since the problem will only get worse, the political pressure to act will increase. That means that something like SB 50 will ultimately pass in California. It will be too late for those priced out in the near term, and possibly too late to address our 2030 climate goals, which will require reduced driving miles from building homes closer to jobs and transit, absent major technological innovation. But it will happen, because reforming our land use governance — as SB 50 uniquely offered — is the only way to solve this problem.


Reader Comments

12 Replies to “BREAKING: SB 50 Voted Down By State Senators Representing Affluent Suburbs”

  1. Hi again.

    Exactly *which* problem are you hoping will be solved?

    The affordable housing crisis, or the CC one?

    Without knowing why exactly you liked this bill so much, it’s hard to debate.

  2. Hi Ethan,

    With respect, I disagree with you about SB 50. If all this bill did was incentivize additional housing near transit, then there would not have been such fierce opposition.

    My opposition was based on:

    (1) Elimination of single family zoning in California. There has already been statewide upzoning due to ADUs. An additional statewide upzoning to four-plexes and apartment towers would likely have a massive impact on existing communities at all income levels, and that impact was barely studied or even discussed. The elimination of single family zoned neighborhoods was not even mentioned in your post.

    (2) Exemption for developments of under 10 units from affordability requirements. This raised a huge red flag for those of us active in local planning/zoning conversations and led me to conclude this bill was a giveaway to for-profit developers who want to build high density MARKET-RATE housing without regard to local zoning/planning rules or affordability concerns.

    This bill was rightly defeated by a coalition of communities. I hope the next version respects the integrity and diversity of existing communities and does not just transfer power from communities to for-profit developers.

    I would love it if CLEE would look at policies to incentivize job creation closer to the many communities that ARE currently affordable as well as better transit connections. Further, with our budget surplus, why aren’t we restoring community development funds and working with nonprofit developers to provide more affordable housing options?

    Finally, I wanted to note that a lot of new mixed-use housing is being built in Contra Costa close to transit, particularly at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, and that could be a great model/case study.

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Heather,
      On your specific points, I did mention the statewide fourplex provision in my post, though I did not refer to it as “ending single family zone” (I figured that was implied, and the ADU legislation already ended it in some ways). If that provision was a deal-breaker for you, so be it. For my part, I expected that the provision would be modified in any final bill. From a climate perspective, it would be better to limit fourplex conversions to low-VMT areas.

      On the affordability front, what level of mandatory affordable units would you have wanted to be included for projects under 10 units? 1 affordable unit per 10? 2 units? And would that have changed your opinion of the bill to support it?

      From my perspective, any additional affordability requirements limit where and what types of projects get built. They’re important to include, but they come with a cost of higher prices/rents and fewer units built overall. Meanwhile, keep in mind this was a statewide minimum standard. Locals were free to add higher inclusionary requirements.

      As for a CLEE research project on bringing jobs to housing, it’s something to consider. But we certainly want to avoid “job sprawl” as well.


    2. Heather, I just wanted to say that I agree with you that we should be putting our energy into directly preserving and creating more affordable housing.

      Sb 50 if nothing else seemed to me to be a very kludgey way to try to get affordable housing … which led me and many others to conclude that affordability really wasn’t the point. (Perhaps that is wrong though.)

  3. *Nice write-up!*
    Not enough is said about how the would-be beneficiaries of expanded lower-income supply oppose sea-change with the same ferocity parochial suburbs and homeowners do. Progressives polarize politics.
    Hey activists: “Gentrify This.”

  4. This may be a bit out of left field, but, I’ve speculated that there is a gender split on this bill.

    Could be similar to how African-Americans are more risk averse in their prezzy choices.

    I guess we won’t know for a long time.

  5. Btw … another way to describe that map is, the areas where sb 50 might’ve been invoked were against it, and the other areas did not care one way or the other (so the legislators went with the prevailing winds).

    I’m not saying I know for sure that that’s what happened … but it seems like just as valid a way of describing it.

  6. Some say Southern California’s housing issues stem directly from “overpopulation”, but is there any evidence whatsoever of so called overpopulation in Southern California?

    1. It depends on your perspective. For example, there hasn’t been enough water here for the population for decades, maybe even a century. There are many infrastructure and natural hazard issues. So to answer your question, we’d need to know your criteria first.

  7. Jerry Hill is terming out. Too bad he wouldn’t vote for SB 50.

    And Heather, unless it’s changed from previous versions, the fourplex in single family residential can’t be an bigger than a single family house would, so “apartment tower” as you describe it is a misnomer.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

READ more