Bay Area Legislators Talk About Housing Legislation at the Capitol
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Before anyone else had arrived, protestors were already lined up outside of SPUR’s San Francisco headquarters. A megaphone lay waiting on the railing staff had set up to ensure a clear space for attendees to enter. “No More Market Rate Housing,” and “Keep Families in S.F.” read their signs.
By the time the panelists arrived to talk about current legislation on housing at the state capital, the megaphone was being deployed. Outside, the protestors sang: “We will, we will STOP YOU!” The singers belonged to several different groups that oppose legislation introduced by their representatives to make it easier, and faster, to build more housing.
Meanwhile, inside SPUR, those representatives talked about the challenges of getting anything done in Sacramento. Every member of the panel had at some point served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and had worked on housing issues for many years. Finding agreement in Sacramento, they said, was much more complex than city politics.
They took the protest in stride. “This is San Francisco,” said Assemblymember David Chiu. “This is how we do politics.”
In addition to Chiu, the panel featured moderator Katy Tang, Assemblymember Phil Ting and Senator Scott Wiener. Among other subjects they talked about the rapidly changing landscape of public opinion on housing in California, and the importance of creating a broad coalition to address the housing crisis from multiple angles at once.
Chiu said that San Francisco has been engaging with the multidimensional issues of housing–or, arguing over housing–for far longer than the rest of the state, including Sacramento. “Five years ago, steeply rising rents had not yet impacted the rest of the state; it has now,” he says. Referring to the protestors outside, he said that “in many other cities these discussions don’t even happen–it’s just ‘no.’ It’s not surprising we’re short on housing.” Many communities in the state, he said, want no change at all. “It’s the dominant way of thinking on this issue.”
At the same time, opinions have been changing. Senator Wiener spoke about how much more difficult it is to make policy and pass legislation in Sacramento, where each bill has to pass multiple committees and two houses of the legislature before facing a potential veto from the governor, which was a very real possibility under former Governor Jerry Brown. It’s less certain what approach Governor Newsom will take.
At the same time, the bills that are succeeding demonstrate what Wiener sees as a “shift” in public opinion. Statewide polling is showing a lot more support for aggressive housing policies, he said. This may be due in part to an increase in the portion of renters in California, as well as a growing realization that the housing crisis is not just affecting strangers. S.B. 50, he said–the bill that was a main focus for some of the protestors outside–“would have been dead in a minute, five years ago. This year, it got past two committees, with ALMOST unanimous votes.”
Its stalling out in the Appropriations Committee was not necessarily a sign of failure, according to Wiener. Any complex bill takes multiple efforts to get passed in the legislature. California is “so complex, so diverse politically that we can’t expect to do it all at once,” he said. “It takes a lot of time.”
And because elected officials are cautious, since taking risks doesn’t pay off for them, “voters are often ahead of them on issues,” he said.
Moderator Tang asked the panelists what influence, if any, the CASA Compact has had on legislation. CASA, or the Committee to House the Bay Area, is “a coalition of major employers, for-profit and nonprofit housing developers, labor and environmental leaders, public policy and affordable housing advocates, transportation experts, charitable foundations and elected officials,” according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which spearheaded the compact. The coalition has agreed to a set of policy recommendations to “increase housing production at all levels, preserve existing affordable housing, and protect vulnerable populations from housing instability and displacement.”
The CASA ideas “have pushed the conversation forward,” said Chiu, “and many of them have been incorporated into various pieces of state legislation. The key notion is its ‘all of the above’ tactic–that we need to address housing from every angle at once. Production, preservation, and protection are all now getting the debate they’re due.”
Assemblymember Ting agreed. Normally, separate pieces of legislation each have a set audience. Realtors and developers support bills promoting and streamlining housing production, and tenants tend to support bills on renter protections. “CASA makes it clear that you can’t just support one issue,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons the tone [of housing debates] has changed.”
Senator Wiener said that the CASA Compact “crystalized a coalition in favor of more housing.” It also “flushed out the opposition: the people that believe all is okay because they are housed, and that people who are struggling should go to Denver.” He pointed out that CASA created common ground for pro-development, labor, housing advocacy, apartment owners, and environmental groups–even AARP and UC students. “Groups that hadn’t necessarily worked together are doing so on this,” he added.
Assemblymember Chiu later returned to the importance of this coalition. When Senator Wiener’s key legislation, S.B. 50, stalled in committee, he said, it became harder to get some of his legislation on renter protections passed. That’s because without the promise of production streamlining pushed in S.B. 50, the coalition around tenant protections weakened.
The three lawmakers, and several others, are still working on a range of housing bills, in various stages of the process. Although S.B. 50 is finished for this session, Wiener plans to bring it back in January after more discussions on some of the objections people have to it.
Other bills in the works include S.B. 592, which closes loopholes in the Housing Accountability Act. It forces cities to follow their own zoning rules, prohibiting them from changing the rules in the middle of a project’s progress, and adds Accessory Dwelling Units–in-law units–to the Act. Livable California, one of the groups protesting outside, say that it would allow “luxury” housing projects to bypass a city’s General Plan and zoning ordinance, but the bill makes it clear those two publicly-approved documents must be followed.
Streamlining the process of creating ADUs is the subject of a couple of bills, A.B. 68 and 69, from Assemblymember Ting. He said “the mood on in-laws has changed dramatically” since his days on the S.F. Board of Supervisors, when many of his constituents adamantly opposed even talking about them.
Assemblymember Chiu is working tenant protections–“there hasn’t been a successful major tenant protection bill in years,” he said. A.B. 1482 would cap rent increases to prevent gouging–although the caps are so high, and the bill so short-lived (it would sunset after three years), that it wouldn’t do much to hold down rents overall. It would also extend the just cause protections that tenants in San Francisco have–that is, tenants can only be evicted for specific reasons, such as causing problems for other tenants or the landlord.
Wiener is also working on S.B. 48, which would streamline the approval of navigation centers. Such centers offer service to people who find themselves living on the street, and have been vehemently opposed in cities throughout the state. “There’s money for them,” said Wiener, “and we want it to be deployed.” He said the ideas behind the bill had been absorbed into the budget process, and are moving forward.
Tying up the discussion, Tang asked what the future holds for housing policy. Assemblymember Chiu named homelessness as a major focus for him. “This is the moral issue of our day,” he said. “How do we deal with people living on the streets?”
Wiener spoke of the impact of a bill passed in the last legislative session. S.B. 35, which streamlines affordable housing, “is yielding thousands of new housing units,” he said. He quoted a tweet from Berkeley city councilmember Lori Droste, who wrote that “65 percent (158) of the affordable units approved in Berkeley (244) over the past 2.5 years are a result of S.B. 35 streamlining.”
Wow! 65% (158) of the affordable units approved in Berkeley (244) over the past 2.5 years are a result of SB35 streamlining. Thanks @Scott_Wiener @NancySkinnerCA @anniefryman What else can we streamline? We can’t wait for five years for affordable housing. We need it now! pic.twitter.com/xsheQEktC9
— Lori Droste (@loridroste) July 16, 2019
“What else can we streamline?” she added in the tweet. “We can’t wait for five years for affordable housing. We need it now!”
“The critiques leveled at S.B. 50,” said Wiener, “are the exact same critiques they made against S.B. 35, which has proven to be one of the most powerful engines for affordable housing production in the state.”
“We need to make sure we have strong protections, to avoid unintended consequences,” he said. But then, that’s the thing about policy. When you make a mistake, he said, you go back and fix it.