After seeing their ambitious plans to address the housing crisis derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, state lawmakers concluded their legislative session Monday with little progress on a topic that many continue to call out as a top priority.
During a marathon session that stretched from morning to midnight and featured dozens of votes, frayed nerves and a partisan Senate squabble, the Legislature came up short on advancing the most ambitious housing bill on the table, Senate Bill 1120. Authored by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, the bill would have allowed homeowners to subdivide their homes and build duplexes in single-family zones.
Though the Atkins bill received approval in the Assembly just minutes before midnight, it did not return to the Senate in time for the final vote that would have been necessary to advance it to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk.
A similar fate befell a proposal by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, to reform the state's density-bonus law by adding incentives for construction of affordable housing and exempting cities from charging development impact fees for these units. The proposal, known as SB 1085, passed in the Assembly by a 67-3 vote on Monday but did not return to the Senate in time for a concurrence vote.
Both housing bills proved contentious in the final weeks of the legislative session, with San Francisco supervisors voting to formally oppose SB 1085 and various groups coming out against SB 1120, with some characterizing it as an affront to local control and others arguing that it would primarily benefit developers and speculators.
Proponents of Atkins' bill called it a modest proposal that gives homeowners more flexibility and builds on the state's recent successes in encouraging accessory dwelling units. Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, said the new housing will be "small-scale units that are easy to build" and that will also "create equity for homeowners who want to help us solve this housing crisis."
Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, disputed the idea that the new units will be "affordable" and called the bill "an invitation into small communities by developers and speculators." The state, she said, should instead consider ways to develop "non-market, price-guaranteed housing" developments that teachers, grocery workers and California's working-class families deserve.
"I don't think we should be asking for an invasion by developers into communities across the state because we are too lazy, quite frankly, to have more meaningful conversations about how we're protecting communities and finding ways to build housing that people truly can afford," Kamlager said.
Others saw the failure of SB 1120 to advance, despite passing in both chambers of the Legislature, as a significant defeat. Randy Shaw, director of San Francisco's Tenderloin Housing Clinic and editor of Beyond Chron wrote in a Sept. 1 post that "when it came to taking major steps toward building more housing — the actions candidate Newsom promoted during his 2018 campaign — the governor and legislature failed miserably."
"Do legislators believe the pandemic has ended California's housing shortage? Their actions are consistent with such a misguided view," Shaw wrote.
Brian Hanlon, president and CEO of California YIMBY, said in a statement that California was "on the cusp of passing significant housing reform last night but the Legislature snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."
"Californians don't have the luxury of waiting out the housing crisis; our elected leaders shouldn't hold them hostage to politics any longer," Hanlon said.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Livable California, which last year vehemently opposed Senate Bill 50, celebrated the defeat of SB 1120, even despite the vote of support in the Assembly.
"We'll take the technical win!" the group said in a newsletter.
The sheer multitude of bills, many of them dealing with COVID-19, created tension between the two parties in the Senate, particularly after the Democrats proposed limiting the number of speakers and the speaking time allotted, for each bill. Republicans, most of whom were ordered to participate virtually as a COVID-19 precaution (this was because state Sen. Brian Jones, R-Santee, tested positive for the virus), strongly objected and claimed they were being silenced.
"Not only do you kick us out of the Chamber for no good reason, but now you're going to not allow us to debate and speak on behalf of our constituents," said state Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore.
Unlike Senate Bill 50, a proposal by Sen. Scott Wiener to allow more housing density in jobs-rich and transit friendly areas that fizzled in January, the latest slate of housing bills did not generate either strong support or heavy opposition in Palo Alto. Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who strongly opposed SB 50, advocated against bills such as SB 1085 and SB 1120, as did Livable California. The council, however, did not hold any discussions or take any formal positions about the various housing measures.
Nonetheless, the council is considering its own zoning reforms to encourage residential construction. The most notable of these is the revival of the "planned community" zone, which will allow residential builders to exceed zoning and development standards in exchange for providing affordable housing. The zoning designation had been used in the city for decades to create affordable housing as well as mixed-use developments before the council agreed in 2014 to effectively abolish it.
In agreeing to revive what will now be known as "planned home" zoning, the city is explicitly acknowledging that affordable housing is a public benefit that would justify the zoning exemptions. The council is scheduled to consider the affordability requirements for qualifying projects on Sept. 28.