If the California Legislature can't compromise on housing, rent control is in our future

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, left, talks with Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol.
Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, left, talks with Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol. AP

Members of the Legislature certainly talk a good game about solving the housing crisis, insisting they’re eager to speed up residential construction, spare cash-strapped tenants from surging rental prices and stop poor people from sliding into homelessness.

But talk is as cheap as the cost of inaction is high. And on Tuesday, the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee managed to accomplish both by voting to kill a bill that could have made a real dent in the housing crisis and put a much-needed damper on a statewide ballot initiative to expand rent control by repealing the 1995 Costa-Hawkins act.

Only four members of the 13-member Senate Transportation and Housing Committee voted for Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 827, which would have forced cities to allow more apartment buildings to be built near transit stops. Democrats voted against it, as did Republicans.

Their biggest gripe? That SB 827 had the nerve to wrest control away from local officials around the state, bypassing strict zoning codes that shun density by only allowing the construction of single-family homes near train and bus stops. This is especially true in cities along the coast, where rental prices happen to be the highest and housing is in the shortest supply.

"The status quo isn't working and we need to do things differently," Wiener warned Tuesday, watching his bill go down in flames in its first legislative hearing. "We need an enormous amount of new housing at all income levels."

Indeed, California is, by some estimates, 4 million housing units behind in meeting the needs of the current population, saying nothing of where future residents will live. The state is building a fraction of what it should be building. Already millions of Californians are housing insecure because they spend more than half of their income on rent, and many others with the means to move have left the state altogether in search of a cheaper cost of living.

And yet, all of the usual suspects came out on Tuesday to defend the status quo.

A parade of officials from Los Angeles to Beverly Hills to West Hollywood to Salinas to San Francisco spoke up against SB 827, citing tired NIMBY lines about hating apartment buildings, and being unable to shape the "character" of neighborhoods or preserve historic buildings.

Despite Wiener’s decision to add more requirements for developers to reserve units in their new apartment buildings for low-income residents, it wasn’t enough to convince others. SB 827 got pre-emptively labeled a “pro-gentrification” bill, with advocates for tenants’ rights attacking the developers who supported the bill as just trying to make money, and accusing the Legislature of creating a path for more displacement by allowing developers to put up “luxury condos” under the guise of helping poor people.

The influential state construction workers' union, which donates heavily to Democratic lawmakers, also had a beef with the bill over labor standards.

At this point, it’s clear that all sides of the housing debate are deeply entrenched, and that trust and constructive communication are nearing an all-time low. Nevertheless, as Wiener pointed out after SB 827 was voted down, the housing crisis "is not going away" and it's not sustainable.

If the Legislature doesn't act, be sure that desperate voters will. That means rent control could become the law in Sacramento and many other cities across California, likely chilling housing construction, deterring landlords from improving their properties and causing who knows what other unintended consequences. Ballot initiatives are blunt instruments for making policy.

A far better option would be for lawmakers and stakeholders in the housing debate to reach a compromise on some meaningful legislation. It's a tall order, but there is a middle ground. Shutting down debate over a bill as logical and promising as SB 827 just isn’t the way to find it.