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In Debate Over Housing Crisis, Whose Side Will Atkins Take?

State Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, receives congratulations from Sen. Scott...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: State Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, receives congratulations from Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, after her housing measure was approved by the state Assembly on Sept. 14, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.

In Debate Over Housing Crisis, Whose Side Will Atkins Take?

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins has some important decisions to make in the coming days that could shape the debate over the state's response to the housing crisis.

One of the central questions in Sacramento next year is how much the state will chip away at the decades-old tradition of local control over zoning laws. Many cities and counties are fiercely protective of their right to decide where, and how much housing can get built within their borders.

But there is also a growing acknowledgement among experts — and some local governments themselves — that restrictive zoning by cities and counties has contributed to the state's housing crisis. Nearly every city across the state is failing to permit enough new houses, condos and apartments to keep up with population growth, driving up rents and home prices and pushing more Californians into homelessness.

"The level of the crisis calls for us to be willing to come up with new solutions, and to let go of some of the areas where we haven't been willing to give in the past," said Kate Meis, executive director of the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit made up of cities, counties and local elected officials.

Atkins, who was elected senate president pro tem earlier this year, has been a staunch advocate for more funding for low-income housing. But she has not been front and center in the debate over local control, declining to take a position on the year's highest-profile bill that would have given the state more of a say over local zoning rules.

RELATED: California's Housing Crisis Builds Appetite To Limit Local Control

That bill, SB 827, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would have required cities to allow denser and taller apartment and condo buildings near major public transit stops. Despite gaining national attention, the bill died in its first committee hearing amid opposition from some of Wiener's fellow Democrats.

Soon, Atkins will decide whether those Democrats more sympathetic to defending local control will retain positions of influence in the Senate's debate over housing next year, or whether she elevates colleagues like Wiener who are more hawkish on beefing up state oversight. Her committee assignments, typically released in late December, could be a subtle indication of whose side she is on.

Last week Wiener introduced a new version of his bill, now called the More HOMES Act, or SB 50, with some key changes meant to protect low-income neighborhoods from gentrification and force more home building in job-rich communities without good transit service. Wiener said the state needs to set stronger standards so cities cannot get away with blocking new home construction.

"Local control is a good thing when it delivers good results," he said. "What we've seen over the last number of decades in housing is that we have had almost total local control … and we've generated a 3.5 million home deficit."

RELATED: Q&A: State Sen. Toni Atkins On Housing, Single Payer And LGBT Rights Bills

On the same day Wiener introduced his bill, two other senators introduced another bill that may compete for attention: SB 4, which states an intent to "limit restrictive local land use policies" and "encourage increased housing development near transit and job centers." The two senators, Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), both opposed Wiener's first upzoning bill earlier this year.

Beall said via email that the concept for SB 4 originated from housing hearings that he and McGuire held in Northern and Southern California.

"The bill incorporates the ideas and comments we received from the public testimony, housing experts, and builders," he said.

SB 4 is just a "spot bill" with no actual details yet. But Stuart Cohen, executive director of the smart growth advocacy group Transform California, said he expects the bill would not roll back local control as much as Wiener's SB 50.

"I think that Beall and McGuire both want to see an increased state role and oversight, hence this bill," he said. "But I do think it will not be as aggressive as Wiener's bill."

RELATED: California YIMBY Sets High Goals For Housing In 2019

Sens. Beall and McGuire currently hold positions that give them outsize influence over the local control debate in the legislature. Beall chairs the Senate's Housing and Transportation Committee, while McGuire chairs the Government and Finance Committee. Both their SB 4 and Wiener's SB 50 will likely have to pass through both committees before reaching the full Senate.

Atkins declined to comment on whether Beall and McGuire would retain their committee chairmanships but said via email that housing stability was among California's greatest challenges and that the legislature would continue to work toward finding solutions.

"Some proposals have been introduced; there will be more to come after the New Year, and my colleagues and I will assess the totality of them when we see the full picture," Atkins said in a statement. "In any case, we must do more, and everyone with an interest in where and how housing is built will have a role to play."

Wiener said he welcomed Beall and McGuire's participation in the discussion around zoning reform, and that he has a good relationship with both senators. But he added he would not get behind superficial attempts at tackling restrictive or exclusionary zoning laws.

"I just think it's really important that we have a strong zoning reform bill," he said. "And it needs to be a real zoning reform bill, not a bill that's labeled zoning reform but doesn't do very much."

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