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Housing-strapped California debates density near job hubs

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco speaks at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif. Wiener's controversial proposal to increase housing near transportation and job hubs faces a key test Wednesday, April 24, 2019, as California lawmakers search for solutions to the state's housing affordability crisis. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A controversial proposal to increase housing near transportation and job hubs faces a key test Wednesday as California lawmakers search for solutions to the state’s housing affordability crisis.

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill is one of dozens on housing before lawmakers this year that attempt to the slow rising rents, spur more building, reduce commutes and ensure low-income people can stay in their neighbourhoods. California has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs and prices are increasingly becoming out of reach for renters and potential homeowners.

“We need more housing in the state of California,” Wiener said Monday in a press conference defending his bill. “We are seeing the carnage this is causing in our state every day with people being displaced and evicted.”

Lawmakers from both parties, developers and tenants alike are calling for change but there’s little agreement on what changes work best. The debate can be personal and emotional.

In San Francisco, a wealthy businessman has accused Wiener’s bill of promoting gentrification. Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which bankrolled last year’s failed rent control ballot measure, sent mailers and bought TV ads linking the policy to urban renewal projects that pushed African Americans out of their neighbourhoods in the 1960s.

“Urban renewal means negro removal,” reads one piece of mail, under a photo of black activist and author James Baldwin.

Wiener, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco NAACP President Amos Brown denounced the ad, saying it amounted to racial fearmongering and distorted the bill’s purpose.

“For someone to take advantage of a very real lingering anger and fear about what happened is just unconscionable,” Wiener said.

Broadly, Wiener’s bill would allow for denser building in areas around transportation and jobs that are now dominated by single-family homes. He said his bill makes a concerted effort to guard against gentrification by requiring a portion of any new development to be set aside for people who make less than the area median income. It also delays the bill’s requirements for five years in certain “sensitive communities.”

Supporters of the bill argue that California needs denser building in those areas to give people more options for living near where they work. It aims to stop suburban sprawl that’s prompting residents to commute farther from home to work, clogging California’s roads and spewing more pollutants into the air.

“We can’t expect the state to just continue allowing all this job growth, all this economic growth, all this prosperity while shutting out the workers from being able to participate in a way that doesn’t require them to drive two hours each way,” said Matthew Lewis, spokesman of California YIMBY, a group co-sponsoring the bill.

The League of California Cities and many local governments oppose the bill because it would take away some of their power to plan their cities. On the opposite side, some social justice groups worry the new development would displace neighbourhoods’ low-income and existing residents.

Laura Raymond, director of the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, said the bill doesn’t require enough of the units to be designated for affordable housing and that it lacks specifics on how “sensitive communities” would be chosen and given resources to develop their own housing plans.

“We’re working really hard to make sure that this bill is changed to do more to protect communities and provide value for low income renters,” she said.

Wiener’s bill isn’t the only controversial housing bill up for debate this week. On Thursday, an Assembly committee will take up two bills aimed at tamping down on rising rents. One by Assemblyman Richard Bloom aims to expand rent control in California, while another by Assemblyman David Chiu would put a cap on rent increases. California prohibits rent control on buildings constructed after 1995.

Bloom has tried unsuccessfully to expand rent control in the past, and a ballot measure to repeal the 1995 law failed at the ballot last year. Weinstein, of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has filed paperwork to mount another ballot measure in 2020 if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Kathleen Ronayne, The Associated Press