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Opinion

Editorial: SB 50 is dead. Again. L.A. lawmakers need to stop stonewalling and come up with a housing solution

Downtown housing construction
Construction in downtown Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

Once again, Los Angeles-area lawmakers have come together in Sacramento to block Senate Bill 50, which was the most significant and far-reaching bill proposed this year to help address California’s dire housing shortage. And they did it without offering any meaningful alternative proposal.

The controversial bill died after falling just three votes short of passing the Senate — with nine Los Angeles-area senators either voting no or abstaining, The Times reported. It’s the third time in two years that San Francisco Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener’s effort to overhaul zoning rules statewide has failed.

How did the politics of housing become so contentious and complicated? Even though poll after poll shows that housing and homelessness are Californians’ top concerns, legislators are still incapable of reaching a rational, mutually acceptable compromise that would address the state’s housing crisis.

For years, California has failed to construct enough housing to keep up with population growth. A USC analysis conducted in 2018 said that the state needed to build 2.5 million new housing units by 2025 to meet demand, and that it is not nearly on track to do so. Part of the problem is that local 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 crisis has fallen on the poorest, most vulnerable renters.

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SB 50 was an attempt to get at the roots of that problem. It would have allowed mid-rise apartment buildings to be constructed anywhere within half a mile of major transit stops or in “jobs-rich” areas, overriding local zoning laws even in single-family neighborhoods. The bill would have required any project over 10 units to pay a fee toward affordable housing development or reserve 15-25% of its units for low-income residents. If a city could come up with an alternative way to kick-start development that resulted in at least as much housing, the bill allowed them to substitute their own zoning plans.

SB 50 also would have allowed the conversion of existing single-family homes into fourplexes anywhere in the state. That’s a big change, and it made many communities deeply uncomfortable. However, California would be following the lead of other cities and states that have eliminated single-family zoning to help reduce racial segregation and economic disparities. Single-family zoning was adopted in the last century as a way to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group, and the inequities continue today.

Some 75% of the city of Los Angeles is zoned for single-family homes. That’s not unique. Cities across California have reserved much of their residential land for single-family houses. Many people are understandably worried about the changes that could come to their communities if single-family zoning were to disappear.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how the state will be able to build enough affordable housing and ensure access to high-quality jobs, schools and transit when so much land is off-limits to apartments, condos and townhomes.

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In Sacramento on Wednesday, L.A.-area leaders were full of reasons to kill the bill.

Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) implied that it 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 that 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.

Some of these are reasonable concerns. Certainly there was a lot more negotiating to be done on the bill before it would have been ready for final approval. But to shoot it down at this relatively early stage invites the question: What are Los Angeles-area lawmakers proposing instead?

So far, most high-impact housing bills have been proposed by Bay Area lawmakers. L.A. legislators have been content to offer critiques from the sidelines.

Immediately following the vote Thursday, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) pledged that there will be another bill this session designed to boost the production of housing. She told her colleagues to bring their ideas and their solutions. It’s time for L.A. leaders to join the conversation on housing. That means proposing reforms to ease zoning constraints and make it easier to build housing for all income levels.


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