Why Further Compromise on SB 50 is a Bad Idea

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

California lawmakers are good at cutting deals on legislation.  They’re famous (or infamous) for it. Especially when there is a lot of pressure on them.  They happen to be under that kind of pressure now.

State legislators deserve to be under pressure.  For 30 years California has failed to produce enough housing – to keep pace with the state’s burgeoning household formation.  During that time the “solutions” lawmakers put forward have been wrong-headed and, at best, half-baked. They haven’t improved local permitting at all.  They’ve actually made things worse by making the housing-approval process more complicated or asking housing to do too much.

Take solar systems, for example.  Beginning this year, the Legislature mandated that rooftop solar panels are required on every new home built in California.  Adding to the price of a home somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000 – which is what solar systems cost – in a state where the median home price is already more than twice the national median, and climbing, is absurd.  Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of commercial rooftops remain vacant.  

But, the worst thing that legislators do when it comes to tough bills, like SB 50, is to water them down to the point that the original measures are unrecognizable.  Lawmakers call it “building consensus”. Such is a common occurrence in California lawmaking and rarely does anything good come from it. At best, it leads to confused outcomes.  At worst, it produces vague laws that are later understood widely and differently as they are implemented by state bureaucrats.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher best defined consensus, saying:

“(It is) the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.” 

With SB 50, after being subject to varying interpretations and introductory negotiations last year, the legislation – which sought to change local zoning to promote the building of housing around transit hubs – was emasculated by amendments.  Then, to get the bill passed by the first policy committee, author, Senator Scott Wiener, took several additional amendments. (Sometimes, a bill is referred to multiple policy committees – undergoing further changes – as this one did in the Senate.)  Next stop was the fiscal committee, where the bill was amended again. Then it went to the Senate floor, making further changes in an effort to get sufficient votes, which it failed to do just weeks ago.

Had the bill succeeded, it would have moved to the lower house of the Legislature where it would have faced a process identical to that of the Senate, with expected pressure on the author to amend the legislation some more.  

After so many stops – at which there is ample, almost an expected opportunity for amendment – the final product (bill) nearly always looks nothing like the one the author introduced at the start of the session several months earlier.  That outcome is almost assured when the measure deals with a politically sensitive issue – which is certainly the case with SB 50. Nevertheless, after it’s signed into law the author reliably issues a press release to say thanks to his or her legislation “the problem is solved.”

Before it was defeated on the Senate floor on January 31 of this year, SB 50 had made a half-dozen detours – counting a similar measure, SB 827, introduced during the 2017-18 session – and forced author Wiener to amend his bill several times.  In its final form, SB 50’s initial requirement – that cities and counties allow high-rise construction around their transit hubs – had long disappeared. But, despite extensive amendments, the bill’s zoning reforms were still too much for the opposition and it subsequently went nowhere.  

Indeed, although Senator Wiener’s concession that allowed communities to adopt an alternative to the bill’s transit-hub zoning mandate – called a “local flexibility plan” – the powerful League of California Cities (“the League”), among other things, objected to having the plan reviewed by the state at all.  In this case, the plan was to be reviewed by the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

Furthermore, in addition to the League’s objections to the bill as being too vague, it also criticized the seeming gift of power to override local zoning the measure stood to give to developers, its big-city/small city distinctions and the potential mis-match between “jobs rich communities” and the measure’s transit requirements.  The League took the lead in killing the bill.

SB 50 ought to be forgotten and a new approach – one that cities and counties can embrace – should be adopted.  Give them something they want, need. If proponents really want to see stepped up housing production for a long period of time no expense is too great.

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