Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: The Last Days of SB50, California’s Doomed Upzoning Bill

A controversial bill promoting higher-density housing near transit stops was defeated in a vote by California’s state senate on Thursday. State Bill 50—whose multi-year journey through the state’s lawmaking machinery has been closely watched by housing and transit advocates nationwide—fell three votes short of heading to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom.

Upon SB50’s death, the attempt to “upzone” large swaths of California in order to produce more housing and relieve the state’s severe affordability crisis has failed to emerge as law for the third year running.

Senator Scott Wiener, the author of SB50, has been championing its approach to California’s housing shortage since 2018, and declared on Thursday that he would persevere. “I remain fully committed to advancing a strong housing production bill this year,” he tweeted. “Stay tuned.”

With some of the highest rents and home prices in the U.S., California cities have struggled to address affordability challenges and swelling homeless populations. The state legislative analyst’s office estimates that California must double the pace of construction to mitigate such problems.

SB50 offered a market-based solution. It proposed to rewrite local zoning laws to allow multi-unit buildings in areas previously reserved for single-family homes. Such neighborhoods comprise an estimated 80 percent of residential land in California. Of those, only communities with frequent transit access or a glut of high-paying jobs would undergo zoning changes under the bill. Sparsely populated areas and areas at risk of gentrification would be subject to more gradual change. The bill aimed to generate more housing at theoretically lower costs, situated in places amenable to car-free mobility.

Other states and cities have had success with upzoning measures recently, including Oregon, which passed a statewide ban on single-family homes in large cities last year, and Minneapolis, where the city council approved similar code reforms. Lawmakers in Maryland, Virginia, and Austin, Texas have signaled interest in such proposals as well.

But lawmakers’ efforts to legalize multi-unit housing in California have confronted stiff opposition from multiple fronts. Wiener began his push for higher-density housing in the form of an earlier bill, SB827, in 2018. That proposal died in senate chambers because housing activists were concerned that it was overly broad and would harm communities already vulnerable to housing displacement. Introduced in 2019, SB50 was designed to address those fears by setting aside portions of new development and developer funding for affordable housing. It gained a wide range of influential supporters, including labor, environmental, business, and real estate organizations.

But in the face of opposition from suburban homeowner groups—a powerful contingent of largely wealthy, white, older Californians concerned about loss of local control and changes to neighborhood character—the bill was squelched by a bureaucratic procedure that delayed a vote until this year. The 2020 iteration featured changes that would allow cities and counties two years to devise their own plans to spur housing development, as long as they met SB50’s density requirements. “They want to be able to have some flexibility to increase the density in their community in their own way,” Wiener told Los Angeles magazine earlier this month.

But after hours of closed-door debate on Wednesday among Senate Democrats, and another two hours of discussion on the senate floor, the vote split along not partisan but geographic lines: Eight Los Angeles-area Democrats voted against it, following a statement of opposition by a coalition of low-income community advocates. “SB50 does not generate affordable housing at a level commensurate with the incentives it provides,” they wrote. As it stood, the bill required new developments larger than 10 units to offer funding or space for below-market-priced housing, and blocks the demolition of properties where tenants have dwelled for seven or more years.

Sustained resistance by housing preservation groups and homeowners also pressured Southern California lawmakers to vote against the bill. Others found novel reasons to oppose SB50: One senator from Calabasas, in exurban L.A. County, said that he feared it would allow more homes to be built in the path of wildfire, even though the bill explicitly prohibits it.

Indeed, Wiener promoted the bill as a way to fight the global climate crisis worsening California’s wildfires, in addition to closing its housing gap. “[H]ousing built in urban areas, near transit, jobs and services… can reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year co-authored by Daniel Kammen, a UC Berkeley energy scholar. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment California, and Fossil-Free California have all backed the legislation.

As of late morning on Thursday, state senators were still debating the bill in their chambers. But it failed to get the three supporters it needed in a follow-up vote.

What now? In his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Newsom promised to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, accelerating construction to levels unseen since the 1950s. The death of SB50 now restricts his ability to meet that pledge. The governor did not take a clear position on the bill, although he told reporters on Wednesday that if it did not pass, his administration would “not give up” on building more housing.

“I want to see a big production bump. The spirit of SB50 is something I support,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “We continue to work with leadership, different constituencies and we’re hoping to get something big done.”

This story has been updated.