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The real story behind SB 50 - The senate bill that will change your neighborhood, forever

If powerful special interests in Sacramento get their way, the State Legislature will effectively eliminate local control of planning and growth, open the door to urbanization of suburban neighborhoods, and outlaw single-family zoned neighborhoods in California by the end of January.

Prominent legislators, such as State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), have been gaming the system and working in concert with corporate-funded lobbyists and “housing policy consultants,” to make sure that pro-development legislation, Senate Bill 50, is passed this month. If the Senate approves SB 50 in the next ten days, and Governor Newsom signs it into law, your community will never be the same, and there will be nothing your locally elected City Council can do about it.

Worse still, the cumulative impacts of SB 50 combined with the slew of new laws Governor Newsom already signed in the fall of 2019 — which include the new Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) laws that allow all single-family zoned lots to approved for triplex development – will be overwhelming.

As Senate Majority Whip Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) recently commented, while accepting a California YIMBY award in Long Beach,

“What most people don’t know is Assembly member Ting’s bill [AB 68], which I had a hand in writing, has literally ended single-family zoning in California. Literally ended it. So tell everybody, you can double housing right now just by building an ADU.”

Senator Skinner in recent weeks has sent intimidating letters to city councils supporting specific pending land use applications, demanding that they comply with her interpretations of new legislation.

The stakes could not be higher for Californians.

Unless we take action, immediately, to stop SB 50, our neighborhoods will be altered, forever, and our homes and backyard privacy could soon be overshadowed by triplexes and dense, mid-rise and high-rise, multifamily housing developments. And existing, local property owners will be the ones to bear the enormous tax burdens needed to provide the roads, schools, infrastructure, and public services to support it.

Why is this happening?

In 2018, at the behest of the real estate development industry, Senator Wiener and principal co-author Senator Skinner attempted to ram Senate Bill 827 through the Senate in Sacramento: a bill to force cities to allow apartments and condominiums of roughly four to eight stories high, within a half mile of rail and ferry stops and near bus stops with frequent service.

SB 827 was backed by big unions, big developers, and powerful corporate and financial interests. In praise of the bill’s aims one developer told NBC Bay Area News,

“The Bay Area needs to look more like Hong Kong and Vancouver, and less like Walnut Creek.”

But SB 827 was opposed by neighborhood organizations and dozens of California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and eventually died in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee on April 17, 2018. Bay Area News Group/Southern California News Group noted in its reporting that SB 827 was

“[a] sweeping bill that would have given the state unprecedented power over local development.”

Undeterred, when the new 2018-20 Senate convened in December of 2018, Senator Wiener introduced Senate Bill 50, a new bill, which was very similar to the unsuccessful SB 827. However, SB 50 also failed to gain sufficient support and was held up by the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2019. In that committee, it was transformed into a “two-year” bill, to be reheard in January of 2020. In anticipation of that, Senator Wiener has worked behind the scenes to ensure a different result the second time around.

Enter the new State Senate leader Toni Atkins and her spouse Jennifer LeSar, a housing policy consultant.

Pay to play

The Los Angeles Times began reporting on the political machinations of the Toni Atkins/Jennifer LeSar relationship in March 2015 (Patrick McGreevy) and again in April 2019 (Liam Dillon). San Francisco journalist Zelda Bronstein also published exposés in January 2019 in the Berkeley Daily Planet and in 48 Hills.

As of December 2018, Jennifer LeSar was a principal of two housing policy consulting firms: LeSar Development Consultants and Estolano LeSar Advisors. The LeSar Development Consultants website promotes Jennifer LeSar as its “President & Founding CEO” and confirms her association with Estolano LeSar Advisors:

Jennifer LeSar is the founding CEO of LeSar Development Consultants and a founding Co-CEO of Estolano LeSar Advisors, two firms working together to grow thriving, healthy and vibrant communities.

State Senator Toni Atkins worked for LeSar’s consulting firm for eighteen months in 2009-2010, but the website removed any evidence of that from the “alumni” page just before Liam Dillon published a scathing exposé in April 2019, in the Los Angeles Times.

CASA/“Committee to House the Bay Area” is an extremely controversial partnership between the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), private real estate development industry interests, and organized labor that promotes new state laws and new taxes to create new, “by right” development entitlements, over the strong objections of city councils and neighborhood associations across the state.

In his April 2019 L.A. Times article, Mr. Dillon writes that:

“In 2018, the year that Atkins’ colleagues elevated her to Senate president pro tem, her spouse’s firms had contracts with 86 public agencies, developers, nonprofits and other clients, the forms indicate, which was more than in any previous year. The year before, LeSar had received a lucrative contract from a Bay Area agency without going through a competitive bidding process — a rare step allowed in emergencies, when a company offers a unique service or when the agency can justify a compelling reason to do so. [Emphasis added]

“LeSar is now in a position to potentially garner even more business as Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders, including her spouse, propose increasingly bold responses to the state’s housing affordability crisis. In the last three years, LeSar’s firms have received $1.3 million from state agencies alone, including contracts to implement one of the state’s largest low-income housing programs, which Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, supports.”

Independent research shows that Mr. Dillon’s claims are correct. SB 827 and SB 50 are among the many new laws that are a product of the CASA Compact, which Ms. LeSar was intimately involved with.

MTC paid Ms. LeSar’s consulting firms in excess of $500,000 of public funds to aid with creation of the CASA Compact in 2017-19, including its recommendations for new legislation in Sacramento.

Mr. Dillon further wrote in his April 2019 L.A. Times article:

“The CASA Compact calls for new state laws to boost protections for tenants, increase apartment construction near transit and help raise more than $1 billion to build low-income housing, among other things. Bay Area legislators have introduced more than a dozen bills that align with the plan, nearly all of it affecting the entire state. …”

“[MTC] officials anticipated the CASA Compact process would lead to state legislation from the beginning. [MTC senior planner Vikrant] Sood said in the June 2017 memo that originally justified LeSar’s hiring that CASA “will yield a package of legislative and funding solutions at the state and regional level.” …”

“No MTC officers publicly opposed hiring LeSar. Following agency rules, then-Executive Director Steve Heminger signed off on the first $200,000 of the contract himself. The agency’s administrative committee, which is made up of Bay Area elected officials, voted unanimously and without comment in December 2017 to increase the amount to $450,000. (The contract value rose to $511,000 when it was extended again at the beginning of this year.)”

MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger explained the hiring of Jennifer LeSar as a CASA consultant in a December 6, 2017 memo:

“In summer 2017, the CASA Co-Chairs requested consultant support from a trusted facilitator to guide the CASA process. In May 2017, the Co-Chairs recommended MTC recruit Jennifer LeSar of ELPA to serve this role, based on her extensive work on a similar effort in San Diego, and her experience working with both non-profit and for-profit housing developers. Based on this recommendation, in June 2017, MTC entered into a sole source, deliverables-based contract with ELPA for $175,000, to support the CASA process between June and October 2017. …

"If approved, ELPA's total budget for providing facilitation services to CASA between June 2017 and December 2018 would increase to $450,000. This is obviously not a small sum, but we have been impressed with the high caliber of this consultant's work given the extreme sensitivity and high profile of the CASA effort.”

MTC’s CASA Compact website confirms LeSar’s role, “Key advisors to CASA include Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors.” And LeSar Development Consultants and Estolano Advisors tout their consulting work for the CASA Compact on their own websites. In turn, the LeSar website promotes to prospective clients the “Metropolitan Transportation Commission Regional Housing Plan” (CASA Compact) as a “relevant project.”

The Estolano website states,

“We were a strategic advisor to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Committee to House the Bay Area. In this role, we supported regional goals of increasing housing production, preserving affordable housing, and protecting vulnerable populations from experiencing housing instability and displacement.”

One might wonder why MTC and its private real estate development industry partners would shower so much favor on Ms. LeSar’s firms. But they knew exactly what they were getting by paying for her “services” as a “housing policy” consulting firm for a matter of “extreme sensitivity and high profile” (as MTC’s Heminger described it in his December 2017 memo) – direct access to Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Sacramento political insiders through her spouse Ms. LeSar.

Tellingly, LeSar Development Consultants prominently places a solo photo of Senator Toni Atkins at the top of its Facebook page. The consulting firm’s Twitter feed salutes milestones in Atkins’ political career with photos of Ms. LeSar beside Ms. Atkins. The implication is obvious: hire Ms. LeSar as a housing policy consultant and gain access to her powerful spouse, Senator Atkins.

Likewise, Ms. LeSar would ensure that her lucrative, no-bid MTC/CASA Compact consulting contract helped to lay the groundwork for SB 50, the same legislation that Toni Atkins later would champion in the Senate, with Senator Wiener serving as the middleman.

How does a bill really become a law? Hire a legislative leader’s spouse for a half-million dollars to propose it and watch that legislative leader remove any and all obstacles to its passage.

In a nutshell, Ms. LeSar “facilitated” SB 50, Senator Wiener carried SB 50, and now Senate President Pro Tem Atkins is poised to ensure that the Legislature passes SB 50, by whatever means necessary.

Toni Atkins’ rising star

After an eighteen-month tenure at her spouse’s LeSar Development Consultants firm, Toni Atkins entered the State Legislature in December 2010 and served as Majority Leader of the State Assembly from September 2012 to May 2014, when she became 69th Speaker of the California State Assembly. She held that position until March 2016, then entered the State Senate in December 2016.

Senator Atkins became State Senate President Pro Tem, the body’s most powerful officer, on March 21, 2018. As Senate President Pro Tem, Atkins is chair of the Rules Committee and exerts considerable influence over the content of all legislation and the process for its consideration.

In December 2018, as Ms. LeSar’s firm was helping craft and promote the CASA Compact, she was also aiding Senator Wiener in his introduction of SB 50. Meanwhile, her spouse, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, would be simultaneously working in Sacramento to change longstanding Senate Rules to “grease the skids” to aid passage of SB 50.

But by the time that the Senate Appropriations Committee heard SB 50 in May 2019, a major political backlash had brewed in city council chambers and neighborhood meetings across the state, fomented by Livable California, Coalition to Preserve L.A., and other grassroots organizations. City governments and neighborhoods strenuously objected to having their local land use controls curtailed through SB 50’s dictates from Sacramento.

It became clear that SB 50 did not have the votes to leave the Appropriations Committee, and on May 13, 2019, the bill was placed in the “suspense” file.

On May 16, 2019 Appropriations Committee Chair Anthony J. Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) issued a statement that said in part,

“There were legitimate concerns expressed from both large and small cities about the scope of SB 50 as it pertained to bus corridors, historic preservation, the definition of ‘jobs rich’ neighborhoods and whether it would increase gentrification and discourage light rail expansion as unintended consequences; all of which justified the pause established today by the committee.”

When Senator Wiener re-introduced Senate Bill 50 this year, it was supposed to come back before the Senate Appropriations Committee, the same body that had deferred to pass it, the year before. But Appropriations Committee Chair Portantino and its members have persisted in their opposition to SB 50.

Meanwhile, Senator Atkins was making other plans.

Much to the surprise of many who have been following this legislation’s progress, on January 17th SB 50 was unceremoniously withdrawn from the Appropriations Committee, in a highly unusual step taken by Senate President Pro Tem Atkins, and reassigned to the Rules Committee, which Senator Atkins chairs.

Senate President Pro Tem Atkins offered the following disingenuous statement on her website, regarding the removing of SB 50 from the Appropriations Committee back to the Rules Committee,

“I believe there is a good faith effort being made to enable California to reach SB 50’s goals of building more affordable homes that increase access to jobs, reduce the time people have to spend in their cars, and help meet California’s climate change targets. To help ensure these conversations continue, I asked the Senate Rules Committee to pull SB 50 back from the Appropriations Committee prior to the January fiscal vote deadline. While many communities still have clear concerns about SB 50, our affordable housing crisis demands we make every attempt to reach agreement on potential solutions. I hope the additional time afforded by this action contributes to the ongoing efforts being made by Senator Wiener, housing advocates, and community leaders.”

What she failed to disclose is that Senator Wiener’s role in ensuring that SB 50 became law had dramatically increased.

If you can’t beat ‘em, cheat ‘em

In December 2018, Transportation and Housing Committee Chair Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Governance and Finance Committee Chair Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) had introduced their own housing legislation, SB 5, as an alternative to Wiener’s SB 50.Senators Wiener and Atkins both wanted their support for the new and improved SB 50.

Senator Atkins’ solution? She abolished the longstanding Senate Transportation and Housing Committee that had held up Wiener’s previous housing legislation, and replaced it with new, separate “Transportation” and “Housing” committees. The Senate approved the new, separate Housing and Transportation Committees through Senate Resolution 9, authored by Senator Atkins, on January 7, 2019. Then she appointed Senator Scott Wiener, her collaborator, as the chair of the newly-created Senate Housing Committee.

The roadblock to Senate passage of the Wiener/LeSar SB 50 was now removed. President Pro Tem Atkins had strategically installed Housing Committee Chair Wiener to promote SB 50 and to dispose of SB 5 and other competing bills.

Lest some readers question whether this sequence of events was as carefully crafted is it’s been presented, consider that on December 21, 2018, even before the Housing Committee’s creation was official, Senator Wiener issued a news release thanking Atkins for appointing him as chair.

Senator Wiener wrote,

“I am deeply honored and humbled to be named Chair of the Senate Housing Committee. I am extremely grateful to our President Pro Tem, Senator Toni Atkins, for the confidence she has placed in me.”

Liam Dillon of the Los Angeles Times immediately recognized the political power play when the deconstruction of the original Transportation and Housing Committee came to light. On December 21, 2018, Dillon issued a series of Twitter tweets:

“Some California housing news — if you're into legislative procedure. @ScottWiener was just named head of a new Senate housing committee. This means he can put his stamp on all housing bills and ensures his #SB50 to increase apartment building around transit will advance

4:41 PM - 21 Dec 2018

“Recall that last year's version of Wiener's bill to increase density around transit failed in the then-Senate Transportation & Housing Committee, which was led by Sen. @Jimbealljr, who opposed the bill. Beall has been named head of a new Senate transportation committee.

4:43 PM - 21 Dec 2018

“Please give an lol for the fact that despite housing and transportation being inexorably linked — especially when it comes to climate change issues — California's state senate just divided the two issues so two senators can hold chairmanships and keep bills away from each other

4:47 PM - 21 Dec 2018

“It is also worth emphasizing that putting @ScottWiener in charge of his own housing committee is a major endorsement by Senate leadership — @SenToniAtkins — of Wiener's approach to housing issues.”

5:10 PM - 21 Dec 2018

As Liam Dillon of the L.A. Times observed correctly, the December 2018 dismantling of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee just days after introduction of SB 50 was extraordinarily significant – and had Atkins’ and Wiener’s fingerprints all over it.

The Housing and Transportation committee had existed for fourteen years. It had been praised for integrating land use, environmental, and transportation decisions in a meaningful way for the first time in California history, instead of keeping “transportation” and “housing/land use” decisions in separate siloes.

The separate siloes, and the fiefdoms of power that go with them, were back.

An end run

After the Legislature enacted a groundbreaking climate change law called Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), in 2006, policymakers sought ways to achieve compliance. The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee recommended and the Legislature passed SB 375 in 2008, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which mandated linkages between transportation and land use decision making by governmental entities across the state.

Apparently, Wiener and Atkins saw this committee – especially its progressive, holistic synthesis of environmental, transportation, and land use concerns in review of bills – as an obstacle to their simplistic plans to “build more everywhere,” especially after the committee disposed of SB 827 in April 2018.

Like SB 827, the bill that the Transportation and Housing Committee killed in 2018, SB 50 dealt with land use linkages to public transportation service. But Atkins has now cut the Transportation committee entirely out of the review process of SB 50, lest the Transportation committee scrutinize the essential transportation aspects too critically for her tastes, and those of Senator Wiener, her consultant spouse Ms. LeSar, and LeSar’s housing and finance industry clients.

The new Senate Housing Committee, chaired by SB 50 co-author Senator Scott Wiener, is now able to operate unilaterally in supporting SB 50, without the Transportation Committee’s interference.

And in an ironic twist, in 2019, the Legislature and Governor Newsom enacted legislation (AB 1487) that makes the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission the governing board of a new Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, with the ultimate goal to impose new regional taxes and “to integrate regional transportation and housing funding and policy decisions within the San Francisco Bay area.”

Soon after Senators Atkins divided “Transportation” and “Housing” into separate Senate committees to create a fiefdom for Wiener in order to aid passage of SB 50, the Legislature has urged regional bodies to integrate “Transportation” with “Housing.”

Atkins referred AB 1487 only to Wiener’s Housing committee and excluded the Transportation committee. Speak of mixed messages. Do as the State Senate says, not as the State Senate does. The absurdity and hypocrisy are astounding and underscore Wiener’s and Atkins’ political expediency concerning SB 50 in service to her spouse’s clients.

On January 6, 2020, an amended version of SB 50 was released and on January 7th, Senators Wiener and Skinner promoted the amended SB 50 at an infamous news conference in Oakland that was interrupted by social justice protestors. So far, these protests have had little effect.

With a January 31st deadline for SB 50 to clear the Senate floor, Atkins, Wiener, Skinner, and their real estate development industry allies will very likely attempt to force SB 50 through the Senate in the remaining days of January.

This would not only be a tragedy for California but also for our democratic process.

If you disagree with this political power grab and you support local decision-making, not developer-driven mandates from Sacramento, please contact your State Senator immediately and ask for a “no” vote on SB 50:

Readers are also urged to phone or send emails to members of the Senate Rules Committee, the bypassed Appropriations Committee, or any of the other State Senators who will be asked to make a floor vote, before February 1st.

-Jason A. Bezis is a Lafayette attorney who is active in community affairs