Three takeaways from the 2019 legislative session

Joshua Stark Headshot

Empty capitol - by Amy the Nurse on FlickrOur housing crisis has been a crisis for years now, but 2019 was the first year we saw anything approaching the level of activity in the capitol needed to address it. This is a big shift in the right direction, and it’s just the beginning.

Unfortunately the most important transportation bills in the legislature were not so successful. On the bright side though, Governor Newsom made some important appointments and an executive order that gives us hope, and big openings to keep pushing.

Now, everybody in the Capitol is back in their respective corners to regroup, strategize, and prepare for the holidays, the second year of this session, and of course, 2020 election drama.

Here are three big takeaways from this year’s session, focusing on the bills TransForm followed most closely.

#1. A big victory for tenants: rent-gouging and unjust evictions are outlawed

AB 1482, the “Tenant Protection Act of 2019” made this session a winner for all who advocate for renters’ rights — both in what the bill does, and how it came to become a law.

San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu’s bill sets a cap on rent increases in apartment complexes and single-family homes owned by large corporations to five percent plus inflation, with a ten percent total cap. In addition, it outlaws most evictions without just cause. This is a game-changer for millions of renters who have been incredibly vulnerable without such protections. See this great description of the bill from Public Advocates, who worked tirelessly on AB 1482.

But how this bill passed should get you even more hopeful. This summer, AB 1482 had passed the Assembly with a higher rent cap,, and was then amended by the Senate to include just cause eviction protections. A previous ‘just cause’ bill had been killed in the Assembly, so it was looking like a steep hill to get AB 1482 back through its house of origin..

Then Governor Newsom made a strong statement of support, pushed to strengthen the bill even further, and struck a deal that split AB 1482’s biggest opponents: the CA Association of Realtors opposed the amended bill, but the California Apartment Association supported it. This is the kind of leadership on just housing that we have been fighting (and waiting) for. Thanks to Newsom, Chiu, and other legislators, and to the tireless advocates like those in the Housing Now! coalition.

#2. The Bay Area's housing efforts paid off

Last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission convened the CASA Committee to House the Bay Area, a wide-ranging coalition of organizations and agencies trying to help solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis. This year, 8 out of 14 resulting bills were signed into law. Not a bad showing right out of the gate!

The bills were designed to address the three “Ps” of affordable housing: production of new units; preservation of existing affordable housing; and protection of vulnerable populations from housing instability and displacement.

Successful production bills made it easier to build ADUs (accessory dwelling units), increased transparency of local housing fees and permitting requirements, and streamlined or sped up local housing approvals. Assemblyman Chiu’s AB 1487 created the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, which can now raise revenue for affordable housing development throughout the region and provide technical assistance for the three Ps, including preservation.

Another successful protection bill that wasn’t in the CASA Compact was SB 329, which outlaws discrimination against tenants seeking to use a Section 8 housing assistance voucher. This is a big win for renters who qualify for housing benefits but face discrimination for their economic status and have a hard time finding decent places to live.

Two big land use bills did not make it out of the Legislature, but we expect to see them again in 2020. The best known is SB 50, Senator Wiener’s bill to allow for more dense zoning, particularly in areas with high quality transit service. TransForm hasn’t taken a position on SB 50, but we do currently support AB 1279, Assemblymember Bloom’s bill that would allow for greater density in “high opportunity” areas of the state — places with great schools, great quality of life, and housing that is too expensive for many people who work there, resulting in terrible commute times and traffic congestion. We look forward to working on zoning reform in 2020 that dramatically improves our ability to build more affordable housing where they will do the most good.

Unfortunately, not all of our housing-related bills made it past the Governor. In particular, SB 5 by Senator Beall would have created a statewide Affordable Housing and Community Development Investment Program, investing existing local tax dollars in affordable housing and transit-oriented developments (TOD). The bill was good, responsible policy and well worth the Governor’s signature, but he vetoed it with the message that a bill with this much of a “fiscal impact needs to be part of budget deliberations.” We look forward to helping out in the upcoming budget talks.

#3. Transportation spending is still working against climate and safety, but hope springs eternal

The Legislature made some bold attempts this year, in support of safe biking and walking and addressing climate pollution from our car-centric culture. Unfortunately one of those moves (SB 127, the Complete Streets for Active Living bill) was vetoed by the governor, and the other one (SB 526) was held in Senate Appropriations to become a two-year bill. Before we dig deeper into those disappointments and some smaller transportation wins, there’s some hopeful news from the executive branch.

Governor Newsom recently announced the appointment of Toks Omishakin as Director of Caltrans, and Tamika Butler and Hilary Norton to the California Transportation Commission. We’re also optimistic about the appointment of David Kim to lead the CA State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) after meeting with him, despite Streetsblog’s early skepticism. These appointments have sent a ripple of hope through the bicycle, pedestrian, and transit advocacy communities.

And, there’s more: In September the Governor issued a major executive order on climate change, which includes some specific actions for transportation. Notably, Governor Newsom directs CalSTA to “leverage the more than $5 billion in state transportation spending for construction, operations, and maintenance” in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and vehicle miles traveled, while contributing to public health, supporting active transportation, and mitigating transportation cost increases for Californians with lower incomes.

This is a huge deal, because state transportation spending has never been well aligned with state climate goals and policies. And until we put our money where our mouth is, we won’t meet those climate goals. The governor has since come under attack by politicians who claim that his executive order was an attempt to raid gas tax money from SB 1. Even if he wanted to take from SB 1 (which wouldn’t make much sense given his strong support for it) rest assured that money is locked up tight for its intended purposes.

So it was all the more disappointing when Governor Newsom turned around and vetoed SB 127, the Complete Streets for Active Living bill. This strong bill by Senator Wiener would have held Caltrans to the task of ensuring the roads they manage that run through communities are safe for everyone who uses them — including cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.

In his veto statement, Governor Newsom said he wants to increase biking and walking, and that under his Executive Order for climate change “Caltrans is increasing and accelerating investments in active transportation where appropriate and feasible.”

This doesn’t address the real issue, however. SB 127 wasn’t about “increasing” biking and walking (although when streets are safe, more people bike and walk). It’s not even about climate change, though it would help with that too. SB 127 was about life and death for Californians. It was about the fact that people are maimed and killed every day because state roads in their communities are built to help cars drive fast, not to keep all people safe. This bill had an incredible amount of support and passed the legislature because most Californians understand what it was about. Caltrans shouldn’t just prioritize safety “where feasible,” they should do it where possible. What’s more important than that?

There were some transportation victories this year. AB 285 adds the state’s climate goals into the next Caltrans California Transportation Plan. And SB 400 adds electric bikes and bikeshare to the rebate program for people who scrap their over-polluting cars and opt for other ways to get around.

While SB 526 was held til 2020, we’re as committed as ever to its goals. This bill, authored by Senator Ben Allen and cosponsored by TransForm, the American Lung Association of California, and NRDC, would have begun to address that disconnect between our transportation spending and our commitment to the climate. We’re grateful for Senator Allen’s leadership on the topic, and will keep working with him and our allies to really put our money where our mouth is when it comes to transportation and the climate.

It’s going to take a lot more than one executive order to get us where we need to be on that score. Powerful interests in California want to continue spending billions of dollars to subsidize car-centered infrastructure (and the gas tanks that go with that) at the expense of public transit, active transportation, safety, and our climate. These interests are playing right into the hands of Big Oil, jeopardizing the future for the people of California. We’ll need more executive orders, more legislation, more principled expert appointments to the CTC and other agencies, and lots more advocacy and public pressure to make the changes we need.



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