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  • Jason Tuvia

California Lawmaker Resumes Push for Housing Near Transit Stations

California State Sen. Scott Wiener is reviving legislation aimed at easing a deepening housing crisis by overriding local laws to allow the development of apartments and other high-density housing near transit routes across the most-populous U.S. state.

Senate Bill 50 is a bet that the shortage of affordable housing and the recent defeat of a measure that would have reinstated rent control statewide has increased the chance that Wiener's new proposal will succeed in the California legislature.Wiener said the state, which has a shortage of at least 3.5 million homes, must take bold steps to address the housing crisis and reduce vehicle emissions and ease clogged roads by encouraging new housing near transit stations.

"For too long we have created sprawl by artificially limiting the number of homes that are built near transit and job centers," Wiener said in a statement. "As a result of this restrictive zoning in urbanized areas, people are forced into crushing commutes which undermine our climate goals, and more and more Californians are living in wildfire zones."

Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, introduced the bill this week that would largely supersede local laws to allow developers to build taller and denser residential buildings as high as five stories near Los Angeles Metro Rail, Bay Area Rapid Transit stations and other public transportation lines and ease restrictions on housing construction near heavily used bus stops. While a similar proposal from Wiener was defeated in a state committee last April, the new bill comes on the heels of a high-profile battle over a November ballot measure, known as Proposition 10, that would have repealed the state's prohibition on rent control. The measure was defeated by voters last month but sparked a statewide conversation about increasing the supply of apartments that has helped to change some public sentiment over the issue of high-density development.

Wiener said SB 50, dubbed the More Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability (HOMES) Act, is planned to create new zoning near centers of jobs and public transportation while protecting against displacement of renters. It modifies some of the provisions the previous bill that didn't find overwhelming support, reducing building height limits and requiring more affordable housing units.

The bill is already receiving support from groups and officials who had opposed its previous iteration, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. And California's housing crisis is only growing worse by the day. The Golden State has among the highest rents and housing prices in the country, which has fueled the nation's largest homelessness crisis, with up to 134,000 homeless in the state, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

California cities have long controlled height, density and parking requirements for new residential buildings. Wiener this year sponsored Senate Bill 827, a proposal that drew national attention in allowing construction of buildings up to eight stories tall within half a mile of rail stops. Opponents of the earlier bill warned it would open hundreds of thousands of parcels zoned for single-family housing to mid-rise multifamily construction, further driving up housing prices and encouraging neighborhood gentrification.

In a surprise move, the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee killed the bill at its first hearing in April amid pressure from local governments, tenant's rights groups, affordable housing developers and the Building and Construction Trades Council of California, a powerful lobbying group.

In November, California voters defeated the measure to repeal the state rent control law known as the Costa-Hawkins Act that was also an attempt to address the housing crisis. Opponents of the measure suggested that increasing housing supply would be a better method to address the affordability problem.

Now, affordable housing advocates have called on Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to foster more robust housing policy and achieve his campaign goal of creating 3.5 million housing units by 2025, a rate six times faster than home construction during the past decade.

Proponents say Wiener's new bill might be one way to achieve that goal. The revived bill would still give the state more power over city land-use decisions, allowing developers to circumvent local zoning restrictions to build higher-density apartments, condominiums and townhomes within a half mile of rail transit and a quarter-mile of high-frequency bus stops and unspecified "job rich" areas.

SB 50 would limit parking requirements and prohibit cities from limiting height requirements for new apartment buildings of four to five stories, down from up to eight floors in Wiener's original SB 827 bill. The new bill would also require developers who bypass local zoning restrictions to designate a portion of the new housing as affordable.

"The California Apartment Association is proud to support Senator Wiener's More HOMES Act," association spokeswoman Debra Carlton said in a e-mailed statement. "This bill will help bring greater economic and racial diversity to neighborhoods by allowing new multifamily housing throughout California's urban centers."

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