City Council to examine opposing one of California’s boldest housing bills—and that’s not a good look

The housing crisis is nothing to scoff at: It has prompted lawsuits against cities by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It has sparked enough rage from single-family dwellers that it led Long Beach to pass a downsized Land Use Element update. And it has led to repeated policy attempts to alleviate what is becoming, second to climate change, the state’s most pressing issue.

One of the most adamant of those policy-shifters has been Sen. Scott Wiener, and Long Beach councilmembers Al Austin and Stacy Mungo have drafted up an agenda opposing his most recent bill proposal, Senate Bill 50. Neither has yet to garner another pledge of support from any fellow councilmember; agenda items can be supported by up to four councilmembers but as of today, no one has signed onto it. Each of the councilmembers asked for comment about the item either didn’t respond or said they need better analysis before formally declaring a position—and that makes sense because, on a political level, Wiener’s pro-housing positions are not to be easily dismissed.

He’s trying to get Article 34 off the California Constitution, an archaic amendment adopted by voters in 1950 and states that, legally, “no low-rent housing project” can be constructed without electoral approval of a majority of voters.

Last year, he introduced SB 827, a bill aimed at increasing density near transit centers by reducing or eliminating certain legal barriers. It ultimately failed, largely because of its impact in vulnerable, marginalized communities. For example, in terms of the Los Angeles landscape, SB 827 failed because many of the communities rich in transit were those that had long been disinvested, like Inglewood and other South Central communities. These communities had spent the better part of the past 20 years crafting a development plan that fit their needs—and SB 827 ultimately gave unilateral control to the state over possible developments in the hearts of these communities.

This is where Mungo and Austin’s agenda comes in: Wiener is attempting, once again, to create a bill that will increase housing. SB 50, a more enlightened version of SB 827, is definitively aggressive:

  • SB 50 standards will be applied to sites within a half-mile of fixed-rail and a quarter-mile of high-frequency bus stops; within these boundaries, no city can limit density (e.g., ban apartment building construction or create hyper-low density). Additionally, a city cannot impose certain maximum height limits within a half-mile of fixed rail.
  • SB 50 defers to local design standards, setback rules, demolition standards (unless they are too weak), and height limits (except near fixed rail stops).
  • SB 50 also includes the following provisions to protect renters and low-income communities and create more access to publicly funded services:
    • Tenant protections: Establishes strict tenant protections to ensure long-time residents will not be displaced from their communities, including a prohibition on demolishing buildings currently or recently occupied by renters or where Ellis Act evictions have occurred.
    • Affordable housing: Establishes affordability standards to ensure that projects are mixed income.
    • Sensitive communities: Allows for delayed implementation in sensitive communities at risk of gentrification and displacement, in order to allow for local planning to reduce displacement.
    • Job-rich communities: Proposes a new “job-rich housing project” incentive to ensure that communities with easy access to jobs and in neighborhoods with high-performing public schools allow a broader range of housing choices for people of all income levels, even in the absence of high-quality transit.

Perhaps most bold (and, for those against density, including Mungo and Austin, misunderstood) portions of the bill is its updated forging Sen. Mike McGuire’s SB 4. Effectively, the newly-minted bipartisan bill adds a fascinating caveat: It expands property owners’ rights by allowing any property owner to subdivide or remodel a single-family house and to turn it into a fourplex.

“SB 50 is supported by a diverse group who understands we have to be forward thinking,” said 2nd District Councilmember Jeannine Pearce. “We cannot, on one hand, say we care about ending homelessness and the dislocation of residents and on the other continue to say no to innovative solutions like this.”

In their memorandum, Mungo and Austin claim that SB 50 will take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to land use for housing and “preempt local zoning laws to allow higher density housing” in certain areas, including single-family neighborhoods.

This is, at best, an elementary perspective; not to mention, they’re worried about the single-family zoning caveat and little else.

First, the owners of single-family homes should be able to do what they want with their property and fourplexes are not seven-story complexes. They’re two stories—often the height of many single-family homes—and it actually helps to alleviate the housing crisis. No one is going to come in unilaterally and start throwing up apartment complexes in the middle of precious suburbia.

Perhaps most amusing is that, when it comes to the idea of rent stabilization, politicians like Mungo (who is also a landlord) are quick to jump to the fact that such policies strip property owners of their rights. However, when it comes to a policy which allows property owners to do what they wish with their property—in this case, increasing the supply of much-needed housing—suddenly that provides property owners too many rights.

Now, it will allow higher density in transit- and job-rich areas; that they are correct about. What is funny about their concern over this is that the transit-rich areas of Long Beach are precisely the areas that aren’t part of their districts: Metro’s Blue Line runs through absolutely zero blocks of the 5th District while running along about a 3,000-foot stretch in the 7th District.

Even more, it shows the glaring naïveté about the direct connection between housing and climate change: As of right now, California is not meeting its policies to lower carbon emissions and that is directly connected to our lack of housing near jobs and transit.

On top of that, Mungo and Austin claim that SB 50 “focuses mainly on the creation of market-rate housing.” Again, SB 50 actually forces developers to deal with affordability. Not only does it override cities that lack an inclusionary ordinance—SB 50 requires that any building with more than 10 units make a quarter of the units affordable or pay into an affordable housing fund—It would also bar developers from building on property that has been occupied by renters in the past seven years, a much-needed displacement prevention provision.

“SB 50 promotes equity by allowing those of us with modest incomes to live near modern and healthier mobility options,” Pearce said. “And when prioritizing housing options like this, we need to realize its effect on homelessness. This may help us reduce the rates of families and individuals falling behind and into homelessness. I applaud this effort and cannot wait to see how it impacts communities like mine in Long Beach.”

Could the bill be better? Yes—much better. Wiener could tie the affordability mandate in SB 50 to existing density bonus laws. He could skip developers having the option to pay into an affordable housing fund and just simply require them to build affordable units period.

And we can still do that. But we need to take the step forward in order to do it.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.