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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 Wiener, D-San Francisco, after her housing measure was approved by the state Assembly on Sept. 14, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.
Associated Press
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?
In Debate Over Housing Crisis, Whose Side Will Atkins Take? GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

You can draw a straight line between California's housing crisis to a number of critical issues affecting all who live in the Golden State. Climate change wildfires homelessness jobs and the economy in the coming days. San Diego Democrat and State Senate President Pro Tem Tony Atkins is expected to make some important decisions that could shape how state lawmakers figure out how to get more affordable homes built closer to jobs. K PBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen joins me now to talk about this. Hi Andrew. Hi. So we didn't hear the word crisis when we're talking about housing in California. Remind us what makes it a crisis. You know I've read so many stories about record high housing costs record high rents. I feel like I've lost count and I suspect a lot of our listeners have as well. Housing exactly hasn't been cheap in California for a while but it really has reached new levels of unaffordability for many people. So there are people in California who are working full time but they are still homeless because they can't find a place that they can afford. There are seniors and the disabled people others on fixed incomes that are incredibly burdened by the high rents that they're having to pay. So as you mentioned homelessness is one side effect of the housing crisis. Of course there's also the environmental crisis. People are forced to live far from where they work so they have these hour long commutes that increases our greenhouse gas emissions traffic congestion and just overall quality of life. Nobody wants to sit you know in a car for two hours getting to work. So there are many reasons why housing is so expensive in California but one that most experts agree on is a central reason for it is simply that we have not built enough housing to accommodate our growing population and we haven't been doing so for quite a long time. So tell us about the role Tony Atkins will play this week in guiding the direction the state will headed to address that problem. Yes so Atkins was elected Senate President Pro Tem earlier this year so she's the leader of the Democrats in the Senate and she has the power to appoint her colleagues to committees. And why does that matter. It's kind of a very wonky and inside baseball thing. You know who's chairing some committee or whatever but committee appointments can be actually a pretty big deal. So the chair of a committee in the Senate or in the assembly is as it were can prioritize certain bills over others they can exert some level of influence over how bills are amended so they can maybe watered them down or beef them up and the who is chairing these committees and who is on these committees you know many of the different senators have different ideas about how the state should be tackling the housing crisis. So you know there have been cases where certain housing bills have not even made it out of committee they've just simply died in committee and they never reach. You know they never really see the light of day. So these appointments to committees which are likely to happen this week they may happen. You know they typically happened before the years over at least could be an an important indication of where the Senate will be going next year. Wow. So run through some of the high profile housing bills that have been introduced in Sacramento so far. Yeah there are several bills that have been introduced tackling various angles of the housing crisis. A couple of bills have been reintroduced to bring back redevelopment programs so these are programs that allow cities to capture a certain amount of property tax growth and then dedicate it to various purposes. And this was in California for a long time a big source of local dollars for affordable housing so subsidized affordable housing for low income folks and redevelopment programs across the state were eliminated by the state legislature and the governor during the financial crisis of the of that 2009 2010. So there are several bills now in the state legislature that are trying to bring it back in some form. We've also seen some tenant protection bills so you know trying to protect tenants from eviction bills to streamline the production of grainy flats or casitas as they're sometimes called. You know these little houses in people's backyards. And I think that the likely the most watched Bill this coming year will be SB 50 which was introduced by Senator Scott Wiener from San Francisco. And this would overrule certain local land use restrictions on land near public transit stops. So cities would not be allowed to put limits on density they wouldn't be allowed to require minimum parking minimum number of parking spots per home that is built they couldn't set height limits lower than between 45 and 55 feet depending on where the land is and the premise really is that cities and counties have made it extraordinarily difficult and very expensive to build housing. I spoke with Senator Wiener about his bill and here's what he said. Local control is a good way to deliver good result. And what we've the last number of decades of pounding that we have had almost total local government being held back and we've driven that car and we've generated reported by millions of dollars. So the system we have isn't working. We need a better balance and stronger boundaries to ensure that utilities are upheld. You know I wanted to ask if you think Senate bill 50 will impact San Diego any differently than anywhere else in the state. Yeah so I think Mayor Kevin Faulconer has gotten a lot of credit for being pretty aggressive at updating these outdated zoning laws and zoning ordinances that are on the books more so than other cities in the state. So he's updating community plans in Mission Valley Kearny Mesa and Clermont right now trying to increase the allowable density in certain areas mainly close to public transit stops. He's already done that for Northpark and and Golden Hill and Santa CGIAR as well. That being said the community plant updates tend to be a very long and drawn out process it involves a lot of community outreach and it's unclear at this point at least whether this has been increasing allowable home building to the extent that's actually necessary to get San Diego and the region out of the housing crisis. We also haven't seen final versions of some of the community plan updates so you know whether or not they'll actually do any meaningful up zoning as it's called in those neighborhoods. We don't know. I think one big impact that SB 50 could have is not necessarily on the city of San Diego but on some of our suburbs particularly the coastal cities like and Sinitta Solano Beach and Carlsbad. Those cities are far behind. There are housing production goals and they do have some pretty restrictive development rules but they do have coaster stations as well. So we could see a lot of potential for new housing growth in those coastal cities around the train stations. So then with all of this talk over local control what does Tony Atkins say about that debate. Yeah Atkins has not really been outspoken one way or another on this specific issue of local control over housing. She's been a major advocate to be clear about low income housing more funding for affordable housing. She offered a big bill in 2017. That's going to provide hundreds of millions of dollars for low income housing in the state. But she never had the opportunity to vote on the previous version of Senator Wiener's bill SB 8 27 because it died so quickly. She declined to take a position on that bill even when it was still being debated. So I think that the committee appointments that she is likely to come out with pretty soon could be some indication of where she stands on this issue will she elevate Senator Weiner and some of his allies in the Senate to greater positions of influence in those committees or will she keep the committees as they are and protect the senators who are more skeptical of this idea of the state stepping in and taking back some of that control over land use something a lot of people will be waiting to see. I've been speaking with KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen and Andrew thank you. Thank you.

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."