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Reflections on SB 50 going down in flames

While the mainstream media was deep into mourning the defeat of Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 50 -- critical headlines from as far away as The New York Times, declaring California, Mired in a Housing Crisis, Rejects an Effort to Ease It -- the good news is that the majority of the State Senate, with little thanks to most Bay Area legislators, saw through the misguided legislation and rejected Senate Bill 50.

They recognized that a vote for SB 50 did not address our housing needs, without creating significant unintended consequences. They had the wisdom to avoid a promised cure that would have killed the patient. They stopped it from getting the 21 votes it needed to lumber to the Assembly for further deliberation.

Additional good news is most Senators noticed that both the San Francisco and Los Angeles Boards of Supervisors also opposed SB 50. And their vote acknowledged the position of the League of California Cities, the most respected professional body representing California communities.

And there is yet one other element of good news. A knowledgeable colleague in Sacramento told me days before the final vote that Sacramento hallways were crowded with well-paid, pro-development, pro-investor, and pro-real estate lobbyists schmoozing with Senators, in the hope of pressuring them to vote for SB 50. Proportionate to power and money, there were only a handful of grassroots lobbying groups there, but still, the voices of constituents prevailed.

David won over Goliath.

The SB 50 Backstory

The CASA Compact

In 2017, backed by a well-funded marketing campaign, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and their go-along–to-get-along lackey, The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), created and promoted the CASA Compact. CASA (the acronym doesn’t stand for anything) was an elaborate 18-month long process that promoted “regional planning” at the behest of Bay Area power-brokers. Except for the largest Bay Area cities, the majority of the 101 cities of the Bay Area weren’t included.

The CASA goal was clear: Propose an elaborate package of housing legislation that Bay Area legislators would push through during the 2018-2019 sessions. They built their marketing around what they called “The three P’s: Preservation, Protection, and Production: each being equal components to their proposal to end “the housing affordability crisis.”

But a fatal flaw of their effort was that Senator Wiener’s SB 50 neither preserved, nor protected, nor provided affordable housing.

The Tangled History of Senators Toni Atkins, Scott Wiener, Mike McGuire, Nancy Skinner & Others

In a recent investigative piece, Attorney Jason Bezis traces the story of Senator Atkins’—the Senate’s President Pro Tem and SB50’s principal proponent, and her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, a principal of two housing policy consulting firms in Southern California. Among Mr. Bezis’s findings were that

These Bay Area Senators, and others who sponsored CASA housing bills, worked in concert with the corporate-funded lobbyists, “housing policy consultants,” and YIMBY leaders to try to pass pro-development legislation. And they went to great lengths to do so.

In 2018 Wiener and Skinner, at the behest of the real estate development industry, tried to ram SB827 through the Senate. Like SB50, it would have forced cities to allow corporate-owned apartments and condominiums of four to eight stories, within a half mile of rail and ferry stops and near bus stops with frequent service.

It failed to pass out of committee in Sacramento.

In 2019, Wiener et al brought it back as SB 50 with only minor changes. In May of 2019, it too was shelved, this time by the Appropriations Committee and turned into a two-year bill.

Colleagues in support of finding solutions to the housing problem thought Senator Wiener might use the time before coming back in January 2020 to solicit input, work with elected officials, the League of CA Cities, and others to find real solutions.

He did not.

Instead, in 2020, SB 50 was back in the Appropriations Committee. Senator Portantino, the Appropriations Chair, was reported to say Wiener had not talked to him about the bill. Cities and agencies opposed to the bill in 2019 continued their opposition. Letters, calls, and emails showed growing opposition.

Fearing that 2019 might repeat itself and SB 50 would languish and die in the Appropriations Committee, Senator Atkins made a bold move. She pulled the bill out of Appropriations and tucked it under the safety of the Rules Committee, which she chaired.

Her action assured the bill would make it to the Senate Floor where it needed 21 votes to pass.

From the Rules Committee to the Senate Floor

On Wednesday, June 29, SB 50 came to the Senate Floor. After hours of passionate speeches, it failed to get 21 votes. The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle (1/30/20) declared, High-profile housing bill fails to pass in Senate.

However, the failed vote didn’t mean the end of the process. Wiener and Atkins still had a few tricks up their sleeve. If a bill doesn’t pass, the Senate can take a vote to allow the authors more time to do lobbying of their own. This is called “reconsideration.” The Senate vote unanimously to allow the bill to come back the next day because a decision on it had to meet a legislative deadline of January 31.

Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over and Expecting a Different Result

On Thursday, January 30th, the same bill, unchanged, came up for the “reconsidered” vote. This vote also failed by the same margin. This gave Senators Wiener and Atkins another 40 minutes to try private persuasion—and who knows what promises—to try to get the vote needed for SB 50 to pass.

The clerk called the role three more times in an attempt to get the required 21 Ayes. The votes never materialized. SB 50 had failed.

SB 50 had been authored by Senator Wiener and six coauthors: Caballero, Hueso, McGuire, Moorlach, Roth, and Skinner. From the start, the bill had a third of the 21 needed votes, just from the authors, and still they couldn’t muster enough support. That ought to tell them something.

The additional “Yes” votes came from: Atkins, Beall, Dahle, Galgiani, Gonzalez, Hurtado, Leyva, Monning, Nielsen, Pan, and Wieckowski.

“No” votes came from Allen, Bates, Borgeas, Dodd, Durazo, Glazer, Hertzberg, Hill, Jackson, Jones, Mitchell, Portantino, Rubio, Stern, and Wilk.

The “No Vote Recorded” (NVR) entries included Archuleta, Bradford, Chang, Grove, Morrell, and Umberg.

Final Outcome: Ayes: 18; Noes: 15; No Vote Recorded: 6

Rising from the Ashes

Drawing from my experience as a mother, teacher, executive director, board member, and consultant, I’ve learned the value of taking time to reflect, regroup, and gather “lessons learned” from a setback.

Not Senator Wiener. Before the day was over, Wiener had announced two new housing bills: SB 889 “Density Bonuses” and SB 902 “General Plan.” For the time being, the bills are basically blank “placeholders,” with the capacity to pour the contents of SB 50 into these new bills.

What can we learn from the SB 50 experience?

What’s the real crisis we face here? Is it a housing crisis that could be solved if we just came up with better legislation? Or is the real crisis about wealth, income, and economic disparity? Or is this an even deeper crisis of cultural and values?

The needle trends towards the latter two of the three. The SB 50 fiasco and Wiener’s whip-lash response to immediately pile on still more unexamined housing legislation will not solve anything. The so-called “housing crisis” isn’t limited to California. It is everywhere. As I advocated in a recent Commentary in CalMatters, in response to our shared socioeconomic inequities, we’re called on to take a break and listen to each other.

As sweet as it is to win a David & Goliath battle, it’s important to remember that the battles keep coming back over and over again. The victory over SB 50 will be fleeting unless we continue to be diligent.

The outcome of the battles between the big and powerful with limitless resources against the small and vulnerable, with a resource as seemingly insignificant as a sling shot, is not always what you’d expect. So, stay in the game and don’t give up.