The Road to Getting SB 50 Right (And Why We Are Currently Opposing the Bill)

Renter’s Day LA Coalition protest, 2017. Photo credit: Mike Dennis @fraudfix

In 2016, ACT-LA co-anchored Build Better LA, a historic labor/community coalition that campaigned for and passed Measure JJJ in Los Angeles. The measure created the Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program (TOC Program), which allows residential and mixed-use development projects within a half mile from major transit stops to build more densely and include fewer parking spaces, in exchange for making a significant percentage of the on-site units affordable to very-low and extremely-low income households. It was the first program of its kind to require units for extremely-low income households, which is our County’s biggest housing need. This program has become the single largest source of affordable housing in LA by far, leading to thousands of units of housing for very-low and extremely-low income households in just the first two years of implementation.

Yes on Measure JJJ & Build Better LA coalition action, 2016. Photo credit: Mike Dennis @fraudfix

The introduction of SB 827 in 2018, and later SB 50 in 2019 by State Senator Scott Wiener concerned those of us who had been carefully crafting affordable housing requirements locally. The early versions of Senator Wiener’s bill threatened to undermine LA’s newly enacted TOC Program as well as recently passed community plans such as the People’s Plan of South LA and to exacerbate gentrification pressures in low-income communities of color. For that reason, we opposed SB 827 and decided to carefully monitor and respond to future bills aimed at upzoning and increased housing production.

Instead of simply opposing SB 827, ACT-LA was proactive in advancing an affirmative vision for equitable and inclusive land use policy. Along with our housing equity partners across California, ACT-LA leaders developed an equitable development policy framework for state housing and land use reforms. We shared this framework with Senator Wiener in late 2018, and he expressed his commitment to listen to low-income residents impacted by our state’s housing affordability crisis as he crafted a new upzoning bill for the 2019 legislative session.

Since SB 50 was introduced, ACT-LA has been a key voice in challenging the bill author and co-sponsors to include strong and enforceable provisions that prevent direct displacement, support community planning in sensitive communities, and include strong affordable housing standards with deep affordability levels. Our coalition has always prioritized a comprehensive strategy that advances both affordable housing production and tenant protection policies together, which is why we have always pushed for anything akin to SB 50 being pursued as part of a package together with state action on Ellis reform or Costa Hawkins repeal.

Renter’s Day LA Coalition protest, 2017. Photo credit: Mike Dennis @fraudfix

For over 16 months, we have dedicated hundreds of hours to comment letters and conversations with the bill author, co-sponsors, and consultants to provide amendments to the bill, including strong affordable housing proposals and recommendations for defining and protecting sensitive communities.

Our coalition shared an initial affordability proposal that was modeled after LA City’s TOC Affordable Housing Incentive Program and builds off the state Density Bonus Law, and in May 2019 submitted a revised proposal informed by experts hired by the author’s office. That same month, SB 50 was put on hold after it failed to go up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, becoming a 2-year bill that would not be discussed again until early 2020. Throughout this time, our coalition has negotiated in good faith and made sure that the views and concerns of community groups working on the ground were well represented.

Where We Have Made Progress

Our coalition has made notable progress in our years-long engagement with Senator Wiener and his staff. In contrast to SB 827, SB 50 includes a provision to make all parcels occupied by tenants during the last 7 years ineligible for the bill’s incentives, preventing the direct displacement of renters. SB 50 also includes the concept of protecting Sensitive Communities, though important details on how this will work still need to be resolved. And conversations with Senator Wiener’s office have yielded great progress and conceptual agreement on several components of a value-capture affordable housing program — however, we have not been able to reach full agreement on this structure and no actual amendments have been made to the bill.

Where We Still Have Concerns

In early January, new amendments to SB 50 were announced. Some of these amendments appear to be intended to appease local governments who oppose the bill, but after a year of conversations, affordable housing amendments are still unresolved. While we remain in dialogue with Senator Wiener’s office about affordability requirements, the reality is that as this bill moves to the Senate floor we have not yet seen a commitment to the amendments necessary to adequately strengthen the bill’s affordable housing provisions.

The Senator’s office conditioned acceptance of our affordable housing standards on a provision that would enable the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to lower affordable housing requirements only a year after the requirements kick in. We cannot accept this. One year is not sufficient time to assess such impacts. And it is not clear enough which standards would be used to make those decisions even after passage of more time.

Furthermore, in its current form, the bill does not significantly protect communities most at risk of gentrification and displacement. For this reason, we have been advocating for improved bill language for sensitive communities provisions. Our coalition believes that areas of the state identified as sensitive communities should be permanently exempt from SB 50 upzoning mandates unless these communities decide to opt in to SB 50 and that instead the state should prioritize community-based planning in sensitive communities to allow for more self-determination and engagement in areas that have historically been marginalized and where top-down solutions have exacerbated inequities.

Without clear commitment from the bill author to adopt our affordable housing proposal in full and include enforceable provisions to avoid SB 50 leading to gentrification in sensitive communities, SB 50 remains inadequate. It won’t meet our primary goal of ensuring that development near transit is accessible to core transit riders.

Data shows that very-low and extremely-low income households are the predominant riders of transit. Gentrification and displacement of low-income households to far-out suburbs leads to drops in ridership and undermines our fight against climate change and air pollution. Displacement also harms workers and families who need to access transit and job centers.

Build Better LA Coalition, 2016. Photo credit: ACT-LA @all4transit

SB 50 still has a long way to go before receiving the endorsement from the housing equity community. Our state’s dual crises of unaffordability and homelessness requires bold housing policy that will produce a significant amount of deeply affordable housing, preserve existing low-income and affordable housing, while also protecting tenants and preventing displacement.

For these reasons, our coalition is currently opposing SB 50 unless it is amended to reflect the concerns our members and partners have consistently raised. Read the oppose unless amended letter signed by housing equity groups across California here.

Alliance for Community Transit strives to create a more affordable and equitable Los Angeles.

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