Why California Killed Its ‘Upzoning’ Bill. Again.

California desperately needs more affordable housing. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California famously has a housing supply and affordability crisis underway, and the preeminent idea for dealing with it has been to undercut local zoning regulations that restrict the quantity, type and location of housing construction. Newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom initially proposed withholding state transportation funds from jurisdictions that get in the way of new housing goals, but soon back downed (for the time being, anyway). A more ambitious state bill (often described as “upzoning” legislation because it encourages more high-rise housing near transit centers) aimed at the twin challenges of housing supply and climate change was blocked by a coalition of opponents last year.

That legislation, now known as SB 50, was revised by its sponsor, San Francisco state senator Scott Wiener, to take into account the complaints of low-income housing advocates and looked to be in much stronger shape this year. Its basic approach is to preempt local zoning rules regulating high-density housing near transit centers, in order to encourage both more multi-family housing and fewer cars on the road (and shorter commutes). Vocal opposition (aside from conservatives favoring a complete free market in housing) this year was largely limited to local governments, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

Though cities and counties remained opposed to Wiener’s efforts this year, the legislator secured backing from the powerful State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, the labor group representing construction workers. He was also in negotiations with tenant organizations over potential changes to the bill, and found additional new supporters including environmental and other labor groups that hadn’t weighed in last year.

But SB 50 was killed for this year’s legislative session by the chairman of the senate’s appropriations committee, Democrat Anthony Portantino, who represents a wealthy suburban bedroom community near Los Angeles where increased housing density is not super-popular. Wiener and other supporters were convinced that the bill would have passed the full senate had it not been sidetracked by Portantino (whose own “solution” to the housing problem is to authorize specialty “California Housing Crisis Awareness” license plates).

Perhaps this, er, construction accident in the movement to deal with NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) obstruction of new housing construction will galvanize supporters. Newsom, who had been notably neutral towards SB 50, expressed “disappointment” at its demise, and might get off the sidelines, given the priority he has assigned to the housing crisis. According to a pro-SB 50 group, public support for it is already running at better than 2-1 levels.

If Democrats can ever achieve a consensus on housing policy, they can do as they wish at present, since the Donkey Party has supermajorities in both chambers in the legislature. But as Portantino’s lethal action showed, suburbanites from both parties are wary of disturbing the status quo in housing patterns, and some may even be luxuriating in the sky-high home purchase and rent prices in the Golden State (the median home price in California is $549,000 and the median monthly rent is $2800). There’s never been a city or county government anywhere that will welcome state preemption of their powers, particularly over something as fundamental as land use. So the road to enactment of “upzoning” legislation remains rocky and winding. If you’re homeless in California, or are struggling to afford a mortgage payment or rent, help is not quite yet on the way.

Why California Killed Its ‘Upzoning’ Bill. Again.