California measure pushing for more housing faces hurdles

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Nikia Durgin, who raps under the name Qing Qi, yells at a rally outside of City Hall in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. California Sen. Scott Wiener announced amendments to a closely-watched bill that would allow more housing to be built near public transportation. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Facing a shortage of 3.5 million houses, some California lawmakers want developers to build more apartments and other housing closer to public transportation — even if it means overriding local zoning laws.

The legislation is aimed at attacking a housing crisis in California, which has some of the nation’s highest home prices and an alarming growth in homelessness. The problem was on display Tuesday when supporters of homeless women living illegally in a vacant Oakland home interrupted a news conference on the measure to protest their plight.

But some local governments object to the proposal because they say the state should not tell them how to manage growth in their communities.

A similar proposal stalled in the Legislature last year. But state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, announced changes Tuesday to the measure designed to win over skeptical local government officials.

The new bill would exempt local governments from the law but only if they come up with their own rules to build more housing. Those rules would still require approval from two state agencies.

Most local governments would have two years to come up with the rules. If they don’t, the law would apply to them beginning in 2023. Other neighborhoods deemed at risk for gentrification would have more time — up to five years — to develop rules.

“(This bill) will help end this crisis by forcing cities to zone for more housing exactly where it should be: near job centers and near public transit,” Wiener said. “I’m optimistic that our growing coalition will help move this important housing reform bill forward.”

The bill must pass the Senate by Jan. 31 for it to have a chance to become law this year. But it’s stuck in the Appropriations Committee, with chairman Anthony Portantino opposed. Portantino, also a Democrat, said Tuesday that “we would be in a better place today” had Wiener shared his changes during the legislative break.

“Given that the criteria in the latest amendments create a nearly impossible threshold for cities to meet, the amendments seem like more theater than an implementable plan to truly engender broad support,” Portantino said.

But the measure has strong support among others in the majority Democratic caucus, including Nancy Skinner, a state senator from Berkeley. She said much of her district in Oakland is zoned for single-family homes, which are more expensive and excludes people who can’t afford them.

“(This bill) opens up those best neighborhoods, those neighborhoods with the best schools, those neighborhoods with the best parks, those neighborhoods with the best infrastructure and the best services,” she said.

The measure’s key provisions remain in place. It would relax height requirements for housing within a half-mile (1 kilometer) of public transportation and areas where state officials have determined lots of jobs are available.

That means developers could build a five-story housing complex in an area historically restricted to single-family homes. It also would allow homeowners to renovate existing buildings to add up to three additional units. Wiener’s office said those projects won’t substantially increase the building’s size and must conform to local design standards.

The two largest local government groups — the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties — say they are still reviewing the changes to the measure.

“But based on the briefing we heard yesterday, I think we’ll have a little more work that we want to do to be able to remove opposition,” said Chris Lee, legislative representative for housing issues with the county group.

The bill has attracted bipartisan support, with Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley appearing at a news conference Tuesday in Oakland to back it.

“In a perfect world we wouldn’t need (this bill),” Kiley said. “But California’s housing predicament is far from perfect. It’s desperate.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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