Controversial housing density bill stalls in state Senate

A neighborhood in Carmel Valley.
A neighborhood in Carmel Valley.
(Howard Lipin)

For the third year in a row, a controversial housing bill that would add more density closer to transit corridors and jobs failed to advance from the state Senate.

The bill, SB 50, fell three votes short of passing by the Jan. 30 deadline, with a final tally of 18-15 in the 40-member chamber. The remaining senators abstained.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who voted for SB 50, vowed that there will be another housing production bill this year.

“This is not the end of this story,” she said, adding that “the status quo cannot stand.”

The bill was first introduced in 2018 as SB 827, but did not advance beyond its first committee hearing after strong pushback from local governments across the state. One year later, amended and reintroduced as SB 50, it stalled in committee and was deferred to this year’s legislative session, where it faced a January deadline for Senate approval.

Many city and county government officials, homeowners, and some renters feared that the bill would take away local control over zoning, incentivize evictions and redefine historic neighborhoods if they didn’t meet the bill’s criteria for continued preservation, among other concerns.

In addition to mid-rise apartment buildings near jobs and transit, SB 50 also would have allowed single-family homes to be converted to fourplexes.

An amendment added to the bill last year would have exempted coastal cities with populations less than 50,000, such as Del Mar and Solana Beach.

Encinitas joined the long list of cities opposed to SB 50. Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the bill’s elimination of zoning exclusively for single-family housing would be “so extreme” for a largely suburban city like Encinitas.

“What we need is to be able to work within the existing community’s character,” Blakespear said, adding that she preferred accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units to bolster housing stock in neighborhoods with single-family homes.

Among San Diego’s four-member delegation in the state Senate, Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, whose district includes Encinitas, and Brian Jones, R-Santee, voted against SB 50. Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, joined Atkins in supporting it.

San Diego City Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry, one of the leading Democratic candidates for mayor, has also denounced SB 50.

Strong opposition from Los Angeles also contributed to the bill’s undoing this year, with only one L.A.-area state senator voting for it.

During a news conference after last week’s vote, SB 50 author Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, mentioned the homelessness and affordability issues the state continues to face. He has repeatedly said that cities need to accommodate more density to avoid sprawl that pushes California residents farther away from their jobs, creating longer commutes and undermining goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Fundamentally, this is about addressing California’s debilitating housing shortage,” he said, adding that he will continue to work with state senators and the governor’s office on a housing production bill.

“Sometimes it takes three, four, five years to pass important, impactful policy,” he continued.