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Sacramento, other California cities could get denser housing after lawmakers strike deal

These are some of the issues behind California’s housing crisis

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.
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California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

A high-profile housing bill that would force cities and counties to allow construction of more tall apartment buildings moved forward Wednesday after California lawmakers agreed to narrow the proposal by exempting small counties from some requirements.

The bill would allow more apartments and other types of “high density” housing near transit hubs like rail stops and areas with high concentrations of jobs.

It would diminish local government’s power to set rules about what types of buildings can be built where, a process called zoning. Many city officials spoke against the plan during the hearing.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, the bill’s author, struck a deal with Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents a coastal Northern California district, to lessen the bill’s requirements in counties with fewer than 600,000 people, including Marin and San Luis Obispo.

It would subject the 15 largest counties in the state, including Sacramento and Los Angeles, to more stringent rules.

Lawmakers voted Wednesday to advance the bill out of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

The state’s largest counties would be forced to allow taller buildings with more units within half a mile of rail and ferry stations and within one-fourth of a mile from some bus stops and “job rich areas,” Wiener said.

In smaller counties, the bill would force cities with more than 50,000 people to approve more high density housing near rail and ferry stops. It would allow “fourplex” buildings throughout the state.

The bill still needs approval from both chambers of the Legislature and the governor before it can become law. Gov. Gavin Newsom has characterized the state’s lack of affordable housing as a crisis, and urged local governments to plan for more development.

Shanti Singh of Tenants Together, a California group that advocates for renters’ rights, said she worries the bill will hurt marginalized communities and exacerbate displacement.

“We have too many deep concerns about SB50’s impacts… on low-income incomes and communities of color,” she told lawmakers during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

Dozens spoke in opposition, arguing the bill would increase gentrification and prioritize luxury housing over affordable homes.

Nancy Alvarado traveled to the Capitol from Santa Monica to oppose the bill. She lives in subsidized housing and volunteers with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a health care nonprofit that has backed rent control policies and restrictions on large developments.

“They are building new buildings, and it’s going to make rich people richer,” Alvarado told The Bee. “They are going to make money for people that have the money. It’s all about business. “

Advocates of the plan say building new housing is necessary to address the state’s massive housing shortage. A report from the state’s housing department from last year estimated the state needs about 1.8 million new homes by 2025 to house California’s growing population.

Wiener says he’s still working on adding more protections against gentrification and displacement to the bill, which already includes some guards against demolishing existing buildings to make way for newly allowed larger ones. It also includes some provisions to delay implementation in segregated and low-income areas.

It’s the Democrat’s second attempt to force more construction of high-density housing around transit. His previous effort failed last year in its first committee. McGuire, a Democrat, said lawmakers will continue to hammer out the details, but that the compromise is an important step toward addressing the state’s housing issues.

“No community should see dramatic change, but every community should see some change,” McGuire said. “This bill is trying to strike that balance.”

Hannah Wiley contributed reporting.

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