Opinion: L.A. politicians killed SB 50. So what’s their plan to fix the housing crisis? They don’t have one

A building at the corner of 12th and Grand is under construction in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 3.
(Los Angeles Times)

Once again, it appears that Los Angeles-area lawmakers have collectively blocked Senate Bill 50, the most significant housing bill in California. Even worse, they did it without offering any meaningful proposal that could reverse the state’s debilitating housing shortage.

The bill fell three votes short of passing the Senate — with nine Los Angeles-area senators either voting no or abstaining, The Times reported. For the Assembly to have the chance to amend and improve the bill, some no-vote senators will have to switch to “yes.” (We’re looking at you, Democratic Sens. Steven Bradford, Bob Archuleta and Tom Umberg.)

SB 50 is an attempt to get at the root cause of the state’s housing and homelessness crises. Namely, California has, for years, failed to construct enough housing to keep up with population growth. Part of the problem is that zoning restrictions dramatically limit the number of homes that can be built. That’s created a shortage that has driven up prices, and the brunt of the cost increase has fallen on the poorest, most vulnerable renters.

Ideas and commentary on building a livable, sustainable Los Angeles.

SB 50 would override local zoning laws to allow mid-rise apartment buildings to be constructed within half a mile of major transit stops or in “jobs-rich” areas, even in single-family neighborhoods. The bill requires that any project over 10 units pay a fee toward affordable housing development or reserve 15-25% of its units for low-income residents. And, if cities have a better way to kickstart development, the bill allows them to adopt their own zoning plans.


The bill would allow the conversion of existing single-family homes into fourplexes anywhere in the state.

Those are big changes. However, California would be following the lead of other cities and states that have eliminated single-family zoning to help reduce racial and economic disparities. As Sen. Bradford (D-Gardena) noted during Wednesday’s hearing, single-family zoning was adopted in the last century as an attempt to circumvent fair-housing laws. It allowed cities to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group, and the inequities continue today. Bradford, by the way, abstained during the SB 50 vote; he could change his mind today.

Some 75% of the city of Los Angeles is zoned for single-family homes. And many of the surrounding cities are also primarily single-family neighborhoods. It’s hard to imagine how the region will be able to build enough affordable housing and ensure access to high-quality jobs, schools and transit when so much land if off-limits to apartments, condos and townhomes.

Yet L.A.-area leaders were full of reasons to kill the bill.

Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) implied the bill would force development in high fire-risk areas. Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) worried about historic preservation. Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) complained the bill would impose weaker requirements on less populated counties. Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) bemoaned the fact that it would delay implementation for two years.

OK. So what’s your alternative?

The vast majority of high-impact housing bills have come from Bay Area lawmakers. L.A. legislators have been content to offer critiques from the sidelines. It’s long past time for L.A. leaders to actually lead on housing. That means proposing reforms to ease zoning constraints and make it easier to actually build housing for all income levels.