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Editorial: In shelving SB 50, Legislature bypasses yet another chance to tackle housing crisis

By Editorial Board

May 23, 2019 12:33 a.m.

Hoping for change is a mistake in California – especially on the housing front.

The Golden State was on the verge of a breakthrough in its housing affordability crisis. After years of wrangling over specifics, legislators seemed set to pass Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, which would have eased zoning restrictions in parts of the state, paving the way for denser housing in transit corridors and “jobs rich” areas.

Then everything came crashing down, thanks to Sen. Anthony Portantino. Portantino, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee arbitrarily and unilaterally shelved the bill for the year, saying he preferred incentives over mandates and that he worried about the bill causing gentrification.

And so any hope at fixing the state’s housing crisis evaporates for another year. In the meantime, fret not – Portantino has a miracle idea to solve homelessness.

Vanity plates.

The senator introduced a bill last month that would authorize the creation of a “California Housing Crisis Awareness” specialized license plate program. Revenue made from issuing these plates would apparently aid a fund that helps moderate-income Californians buy homes.

You can’t make this stuff up.

This whole charade proves two things about California’s Legislature: It doesn’t understand the gravity or comprehend the urgency of the state’s acute housing crisis.

More than half the state’s renters are rent-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on paying for the roof over their heads. The number of rent-burdened tenants has increased by 3.7 million since 2000. The median price of a home is $548,000, almost two and a half times the national average. And 22% of the country’s homeless population resides in California, a state that has 12% of the national population.

None of this is normal. In fact, it calls for drastic action. Even SB 50 was not drastic enough. Rather it was the result of years of compromise: Wiener’s first attempt at a bill died quickly after opposition from community activists and labor unions. His second iteration came after he worked with them on a compromise, giving certain “sensitive communities” a grace period from the bill to avoid gentrification.

Even that wasn’t enough, since Wiener had to still amend the bill to match the needs of smaller counties and coastal communities. Even the watered-down bill couldn’t please everyone, with some legislators from suburbs still opposing its sanded-down teeth.

Legislators like Portantino have vouched for broadening the conversation before passing anything. But these legislators had years to voice their concerns and work with Wiener to advance a bill that assuaged their concerns. Killing SB 50 in committee was the path of least resistance.

Now we’re stuck with some flashy license plates and the farcical legislator who proposed them.

Certainly, fixing California’s nonsensical zoning laws would only address part of the problem. Providing housing for low-income and homeless individuals is part of the wholesale solution.

But existing zoning laws prevent headway on these fronts as well. And there can’t be any progress until these laws are amended, as much as they are cherished by homeowners who want to preserve the cache of single-family neighborhoods.

The moment calls for decisive political action – not punting on viable solutions. Legislators could have done nearly anything to alleviate California’s crippling housing crisis.

Instead, they gave us vanity plates.

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