California Senate Bill 50: What’s Next?

ImageMarket Street in San Francisco.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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My colleague Conor Dougherty followed the protracted debate over one of the most closely watched and polarizing fixes for California’s housing crisis, which played out in Sacramento this week. Here’s his dispatch:

Senate Bill 50 is dead. Or is it?

That question hovered over the California State Legislature the past two days while Senator Scott Wiener’s bill to allow mid-rise apartments and condominiums near transit stops made its way to a final floor vote.

The bill was voted down Wednesday — only to be brought back for another unsuccessful vote on Thursday.

In the end, after failing to muster a majority, Toni Atkins, the Senate president pro tem, gave a speech in which she declared that even though the bill is now gone, something like it will pass this year and called on senators to “step up” and hash out a compromise.

The final vote capped one of the most dramatic Senate sessions in recent years. During a two-hour debate on Wednesday, lawmakers alternated between statements about the gravity of California’s housing crisis and a reluctance to upend the state’s governance and low-density roots.

[Read the full story.]

One senator would talk about homelessness and three-hour super-commutes. The next would talk about the right of localities to set zoning policy.

Virtually everyone in attendance agreed that something significant had to be done to ease California’s housing troubles, but, in an indication of just how conflicted the Legislature was about how to get there, one of the bill’s co-sponsors said the bill made him uncomfortable; another senator said she was voting for it despite opposition from cities in her district. Yet another, voting no, said that if the bill failed he wanted Mr. Wiener to simply reintroduce it so the debate would continue.

“The only thing that folks agree on is that we need housing,” said Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno Republican, who voted against it. “How we get there, everyone has a different theory.”

Throughout the session, opponents thanked Mr. Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, for forcing a tough debate. Where that debate goes is unclear. That it will continue is guaranteed.

“This is not the end of the story,” Ms. Atkins said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said he supported the bill’s intent but never endorsed it, followed up with his own statement in favor of new legislation to replace it: “California’s housing affordability crisis demands our state pass a historic housing production bill.”

And Mr. Wiener himself tweeted that he had introduced two place-holder housing bills — the details of which are to be determined.

[Want more analysis? An editorial writer at The Los Angeles Times blamed L.A. lawmakers for killing the bill without a better plan. And in an opinion piece for The Mercury News, a councilman in Burlingame wrote that cities like his are building lots of housing — without Sacramento’s intervention.]

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My colleague Nellie Bowles was smitten with the newly (mostly) car-free Market Street, the thoroughfare that cuts through San Francisco, so she wrote about it. Here’s her dispatch:

The densest blocks of Market Street are now almost car-free. Buses, taxis and delivery trucks only. This is the culmination of a very long dream for the city’s urban planners and cyclists and walkers. That last group is the one I belong to.

And so on the warm January launch day earlier this week, I went for a long walk down the city’s main thoroughfare.

The main thing I noticed was the sound. It’s not that the new car-free Market Street is quiet, it’s that without the honking and revving, other sounds lift up.

Standing on one corner, I could hear someone playing the horn a few blocks away, the Ferry Building clock tower chiming 2 o’clock, birds, a boom box on a bike, a street kid chatting with his dog, an escalator squeaking down into BART, people’s conversations.

Early reviews are positive. A bus driver gave it two thumbs up. A couple of taxi drivers expressed delight. (Uber and Lyft are not allowed down Market.)

Two men eating lunch on a concrete step said they liked the quiet but worried what might happen during sports games when traffic gets thick. A few people complained about the Uber and Lyft discrimination. An older woman said it was nice because the new Market lets people really see the old time-y cable cars that still run down the middle of the street.

And while there were predictions of pandemonium, all seemed smooth as cars cut across from the city’s north to its south side. A lot of people didn’t even notice the change until I asked about it.

Part of the hope for the car-free street was that it would be safer.

“Nobody knew how to drive on Market. Everybody was running red lights and was about to run us over,” said Ron Webb, 58, who is homeless and spends much of his day on various Market Street sidewalks. He said he feels much safer.

The rollout itself was quiet. There is no corporate branding plastered along the new Market Street. I saw no plaque reminding me to thank a generous donor for it.

Instead I noticed the buses were a bit faster, the bikers bolder. The city’s balance feels — just a little — tilted back toward the community.

I don’t care if they ever finish the next phases, like the beautification. I just want to walk it and listen.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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