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T Keith Gurnee

Legislative Power vs Legislative Courage

California’s legislature is returning to session on July 27, 2020 to consider nine housing bills that will forever change every city, county, town, village and neighborhood for the worse. The force behind these developer-backed bills is Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (San Diego).

Never mind that these bills are an attempt to solve the wrong problem. After all, California doesn’t have a market-rate housing crisis, it has a housing affordability crisis. Yet driven by a false narrative, these bills will give market rate and luxury housing developers a green light to override local zoning and land use requirements while dramatically slashing the legislature’s commitment to affordable housing.

Senate Atkins’ power is nearly absolute. After losing her battle over SB 50 in the Senate last January, she empaneled a special seven-member Senate committee (all pro-development advocates) to write five of the nine harmful housing bills, all of which will be acted upon within the next 40 days.

Atkins authored SB 1120, herself, just one of the nine bills that deserve to be nixed. Co-authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, SB 1120 would essentially end single-family zoning in California and make residential zoned neighborhoods ripe for national real estate investors, such as New York based Blackstone (the largest single investor in single-family homes in the country), to swoop in, buy up existing homes, split the properties into two lots as small as 1200 sq. ft., and build a home on each new lot.

Then, a developer could add two ADUs onto each new home, if they are in conformance with local ordinance minimums. That’s as many as six units where one home once stood, all without yards, none required to be affordable, and all without any parking requirements if within one-half mile of a bus stop.

Senate Pro Tempore Atkins enjoys the significant powers to make all legislative committee assignments, to set staff budgets for every State Senator, and even to assign all office spaces to legislators. Any legislators who would dare go against her wishes would likely find themselves serving in unimportant committees and banished to the least desirable offices in Sacramento with their staff budgets reduced.

In this atmosphere of fear, legislative courage has all but evaporated. A State Senator inclined to oppose such bills recently confided to constituents that the threat of Atkins’ political reprisals was very real. Warned of such reprisals, that legislator is prepared to cave in to support bills that they would otherwise justly oppose.

It’s sad state of affairs. With public involvement and transparency missing in action in today’s legislative process, due to the coronavirus, political courage also seems to be MIA.

Nix the Nine…

Will any Senators or Assembly members dare to oppose these nine bills? Will Senators like Steve Glazer, Anthony Portantino, Holly Mitchell, and others rise to the occasion and demonstrate the courage they exhibited in defeating SB 50?

If they do so, it would embody the essence of true political courage: to do the right thing instead of business as usual.

We need legislation that really addresses housing disadvantaged Californians who are most in need, not endless giveaways to major corporate, banking, and development interests.

T. Keith Gurnee is a Member of the Board of Directors of Livable California