All Bark and No Bite

The flaws and failures of Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50

by Didi Miller

The U.S. Senate wasn’t the only legislature suffering from an inability to compromise — California had also felt the brunt of unyielding adversaries in the heat of its housing crisis. California State Senator Scott Wiener, San Francisco’s district representative, brought his wildly disputed transit rezoning Senate Bill 50 (SB 50) to the floor on January 6, marking his third attempt at opening up single-family tracts for multi-unit complexes and reigniting fiery debates over whether the bill is a solution to California’s housing crisis, or a harbinger of discrimination, displacement and gentrification. On January 29, the California Senate voted against SB 50, citing the bill’s failure to adequately address low-income housing needs. A second vote the following day also failed.

Wiener’s bill went through a three-fold process of revisions; his first major victory in his transit rezoning initiative was the enactment of Senate Bill 35, in late 2017, which streamlined housing development in cities where mandatory construction had not yet been met. SB 827 followed suit, aiming to centralize land zoning power near high frequency transit stations, but was rejected by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in 2018. 

Senate Bill 50 was the completion of the three-stepped proposal, essentially an amended version of SB 35. The proposed amendments allegedly addressed concerns expressed by both the powerful real estate lobbyists in Sacramento as well as housing activists, but many in the latter party feel that SB 50 was just a third failure at taking into consideration the very voices of the people whom the bill will directly affect — low-income communities.

The flexibility clause in the new bill would have provided local governments with up to two years to either accept the proposed changes or to come up with their own plan that will “increase overall feasible housing” in high transit areas. While this helped alleviate some of the Sacramento lobbyists’ complaints, it did little to address the concerns of low-income people.

The primary points of contention over SB 50 brought forward by tenants-rights activists were that the new bill would not only catalyze and streamline gentrification, but also further racially based income disparities and low-income displacement. While the bill might have enabled the override of flagrantly exclusionary municipalities (like Beverly Hills), it also risked pulling low-income and primarily black communities further into the limelight of real estate speculation. 

The core of the dispute boiled down to a faith in market trends (favored by Wiener, his constituents and many moderates) versus a wariness and justifiable mistrust of market forces (found in homeless activist and tenants’-rights communities). Because the bill proposed the construction of new, potentially luxury apartments, Leslie Dreyer, an anti-eviction organizer with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, argued it would only exacerbate the dislocation of low-income, minority, immigrant and senior residents. Dreyer told KPFA’s UpFront, “It’s going to incentivize speculation, which spurs more displacement and more evictions, which leads to more homelessness.” 

But SB 50 proponents held that the influx of livable space will help tilt the supply-and-demand crisis of Bay Area housing. The Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey speculated in an article on the bill that SB 50 would “force wealthy suburbs to permit the construction of apartment buildings and duplexes,” making “housing…more plentiful, and thus cheaper.”

This understanding of the housing market, however, neglects the racial and income-based discrimination rampant in the San Francisco real estate market. Even if the production of homes in certain high transit areas were to increase from three apartments per tract to four — which would have theoretically created one more livable space for every three homes — the amount of people being displaced by the market forces festering around the new properties would far outweigh any available housing. Because SB 50 never guaranteed rent control or housing security to low-income people, the ensuing bidding war would have threatened to drive out current tenants who would be unable to keep up with higher rents. 

Another disappointing shortcoming of SB 50 was its preservation of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995, which both protects landlords’ rights to raise rents to market rates once a tenant moves out as well as preventing municipalities from setting rent limits or establishing rent control on units built after February 1995. By leaving Costa Hawkins activated, SB 50 wouldn’t have provided any real protection against housing harassment; as the California Tenant And Housing Justice coalition pointed out, SB 50 “doesn’t save tenants already on the verge of being priced out.”

The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, along with over four-dozen tenants’ rights organization’s signatories (including this paper’s publisher, the Coalition on Homelessness), recently sent a letter to the California Senate and Assembly, and Gov. Gavin Newsom. The letter enumerated a list of grievances that SB 50 failed to address. One of the coalition’s main areas of discontent was the shortsightedness and integrity-lacking proposed amendments: “Wiener’s amendments claiming to give sensitive communities five years and cities two years to make alternative plans to SB 50’s zoning deregulation, which advances a majority of market-rate units, are disingenuous if not accompanied by additional state funds to build a majority of deeply affordable units to suit the true housing needs of these areas.” 

While Wiener avoided bringing legislation aiding the low-income and vulnerable to the Senate floor, California’s housing crisis still rages on. Substantive steps toward a statewide housing legislation can only happen by including the needs and voices of directly affected people — not just Big Real Estate.